China's Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy

China's Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy

by Kay Ann Johnson

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In the thirty-five years since China instituted its One-Child Policy, 120,000 children—mostly girls—have left China through international adoption, including 85,000 to the United States.  It’s generally assumed that this diaspora is the result of China’s approach to population control, but there is also the underlying belief that the majority of adoptees are daughters because the One-Child Policy often collides with the traditional preference for a son. While there is some truth to this, it does not tell the full story—a story with deep personal resonance to Kay Ann Johnson, a China scholar and mother to an adopted Chinese daughter.
Johnson spent years talking with the Chinese parents driven to relinquish their daughters during the brutal birth-planning campaigns of the 1990s and early 2000s, and, with China’s Hidden Children, she paints a startlingly different picture. The decision to give up a daughter, she shows, is not a facile one, but one almost always fraught with grief and dictated by fear. Were it not for the constant threat of punishment for breaching the country’s stringent birth-planning policies, most Chinese parents would have raised their daughters despite the cultural preference for sons. With clear understanding and compassion for the families, Johnson describes their desperate efforts to conceal the birth of second or third daughters from the authorities. As the Chinese government cracked down on those caught concealing an out-of-plan child, strategies for surrendering children changed—from arranging adoptions or sending them to live with rural family to secret placement at carefully chosen doorsteps and, finally, abandonment in public places. In the twenty-first century, China’s so-called abandoned children have increasingly become “stolen” children, as declining fertility rates have left the dwindling number of children available for adoption more vulnerable to child trafficking. In addition, government seizures of locally—but illegally—adopted children and children hidden within their birth families mean that even legal adopters have unknowingly adopted children taken from parents and sent to orphanages.
The image of the “unwanted daughter” remains commonplace in Western conceptions of China. With China’s Hidden Children, Johnson reveals the complex web of love, secrecy, and pain woven in the coerced decision to give one’s child up for adoption and the profound negative impact China’s birth-planning campaigns have on Chinese families.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226352657
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/21/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,182,460
File size: 12 MB
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About the Author

Kay Ann Johnson is professor of Asian studies and political science at Hampshire College, where she also directs the Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment. She is the author of several books, including Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son.

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China's Hidden Children

Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy

By Kay Ann Johnson

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-35265-7


Introduction: Somebody's Children

Laura Briggs notes at the beginning of her book Somebody's Children: The Politics of Transracial Adoption that her goal is to "narrate a history of adoption that pays as much attention to the position of those who lose children in adoption as to those who receive them," noting that the conditions under which mothers "lost their children into adoption are rather more troubling and, indeed, violent" than most accounts lead one to believe. My intention is similar. Like Briggs, I believe the historical record of adoption from China shows that the conditions that created a large pool of healthy adoptable children in the 1990s and early 2000s, both inside and outside the state orphanages, were more troubling and, indeed, more violent than most accounts of adoption from China indicate. I also, like Briggs, want to stress that these are indeed "somebody's children," children who were turned into "nobody's children" through an involuntary process that most often originated in political coercion and fear. Until recently, most accounts of international adoption from China have been written by or for international adoptive parents who, in turn, pass on the account as they know it to their adopted children. The voices and perspectives of Chinese birth parents, those who lost the children adopted by others, are largely absent. Also absent in these accounts, indeed wholly invisible, is another group in China that is crucial to this history, the Chinese adoptive parents of children in the same cohort as those who are sent into international adoption, the Chinese counterparts of international adoptive parents. Part of the unknown troubling history of Chinese adoption involves the losses and travails, as well as the unexpected gains, of this group, standing alongside the unmitigated losses of Chinese birth parents.

Drawing on the experiences of the parents we interviewed, this short book examines the various and changing ways used to conceal "illegal children" over three decades of China's one-child policy, a policy first implemented in the Chinese countryside at the beginning of the 1980s. Although known generically as the one-child policy throughout this period, in most rural areas, including our research area, the policy was modified by the late 1980s to allow a second birth several years after the birth of a girl, becoming a one-son-or-two-child policy, also known as a 1.5-child policy. As villagers sought to maintain some control over their reproduction and the formation of their families in the face of these policies, the main objects of the struggle between families and local representatives of state power were children, the products of reproduction that the state sought to limit. As Tyrene White conceptualized this era, it was characterized by a struggle between a powerful, determined state and a "strong society" that had some ability in the villages to resist, although at a high cost to those involved. Our study provides support for this understanding of a struggle between state and society but modifies White's notion that family patriarchy, manifested in families' determination to have a son, singularly spearheaded and shaped this struggle between state and society. In contrast to White and many others, we find strong desires among many families to also have or obtain daughters, often above and beyond what was allowed by the state. Families resisted not only for the sake of a son but also for a widespread two child–two gender ideal, a pattern that we saw most clearly in patterns of adoption. Studies indicate that in some rural areas up to the mid-1990s, over 30 percent resisted the dictates of policy by having unauthorized births and hiding them from the government in one way or another. These hidden births include many daughters who remain members of their birth families without government knowledge as well as many who were welcomed as daughters into local adoptive families.

Parent strategies that emerged in this struggle involved hiding pregnancies and children in various ways, many of which resulted in circulating children surreptitiously among rural Chinese families of friends and strangers, a pattern that eventually came to include the families of international adopters via state orphanages. In order to avoid birth planning punishments and constraints — implemented in the 1980s and 1990s in fierce, sometimes violent campaigns that waxed and waned, and in the 2000s through strictly enforced routinized top-down administrative controls — children were frequently hidden through local adoption, infant abandonment, and various forms of concealment and disguise. When discovered by or taken to local authorities, some of these children passed into government welfare institutions and state-run orphanages. In the 1990s when female infant abandonment and other efforts to hide children were widespread, Chinese state orphanages temporarily filled, leading to government policies that expanded the local circulation of rural Chinese children globally to international adopters through the state orphanage system. Simultaneously, as we shall see, the state sought to restrict the domestic circulation of children by suppressing local adoption, a long-standing customary practice in many rural areas, including the area where we conducted research. An unknown number of the healthy children that were put into the international adoption pool were taken directly from local adoptive families who hoped to raise them as their own daughters, while many other prospective adopters were prevented from adopting the children who ended up in orphanages. Eventually, more than 120,000 children would be sent by Chinese state orphanages into international adoption over two decades, an indirect product of the twin policies of restricting births and suppressing domestic adoption because of the latter's role in concealing births from birth planners. The suppression of local and customary adoption, launched in the service of shoring up birth planning regulations, has persisted through the last three decades, appearing with renewed vigor in recent years as a central policy in the control of "child trafficking," even though, as we will show, this policy has itself led to charges of child trafficking leveled at government officials.

Previous and Current Research

The circulation of rural children through various forms of relinquishment and adoption has been the focus of over fifteen years of study conducted in central China with the collaboration of Chinese colleagues. The material upon which this book is based incorporates information gathered through in-depth interviews and questionnaires administered to over 350 parents who permanently relinquished children through abandonment, around one thousand Chinese families who adopted children in this era, and over eight hundred families who hid children through nonregistration, avoiding a record of the child's birth and existence. Families in these categories were located by following networks of friends, relatives, and contacts in a snowball fashion. Most of the information therefore comes from one central province and adjacent areas, although a minority of the questionnaires and interviews tapped into more distant networks in other parts of the country. Most of the questionnaires were administered by a team of Chinese researchers, their students, and their contacts and were gathered between 1996 and 2002. Since that time I have continued visiting and interviewing in the same area, sometimes returning to the same families, with the help of one or more Chinese colleagues. I have also interviewed people in a few other areas. Throughout this time I participated in most of the in-depth interviews, usually alongside one of my Chinese colleagues, interviewing several hundred adoptive families and abandoning or relinquishing families, including families who had children forcibly seized from them by local government officials. In addition I have talked to hundreds of families, casually and in interviews, who have hidden children through various means involving nonregistration or false registration.

I have reported much of the information gathered between 1996 and 2002 in previously published articles and an expanded and revised edited collection of these articles in 2004. This book incorporates the follow-up research that we have done since the completion of the earlier research and focuses on previously unpublished in-depth interview material and fieldwork observations collected over the past fifteen years. Woven into my analysis of three decades of child circulation under the one-child policy are the narrative stories of Chinese parents and children who have shared their experiences with us during this time. The range of topics encompassed under the rubric of the concealment and circulation of children — abandonment/relinquishment, adoption, and nonregistration/irregular registration — provides a lens for viewing the impact on local society of the world's longest and most massive population control project, focusing on rural families and their children.

Out-of-Plan Children

Almost all of the children we learned about fell into a category defined by government policy as "out of plan," meaning children who were born in violation of the local birth planning rules at the time, rules that specify timing as well as number of permitted births. "Planned" children, those born according to the rules with official permission, or born "in plan," were generally not involved in any of these practices, indicating the great extent to which government population policy defines and shapes the fate of children born in this era. Most children born out of plan, without official permission, begin life as unregistered children, popularly known as heihaizi, or "black children," children who lack household registration, or hukou, and thereby lack an official existence. Some remain in this category throughout childhood, particularly adopted children, as many regulations make difficult or even prohibit the registration of out-of-plan children. However, most children that we learned about eventually obtained registration in the form of a hukou using various means, including the creation of false identities. The patterns of circulation and concealment that emerge are complex and changing, as both society and policies interact and change over the three-plus decades of the one-child policy. The stories presented in this book are chosen to suggest the evolving patterns of evasion and resistance in response to changing policy, forms of coercion and circumstances, illustrating the human consequences for those involved. Despite significant socioeconomic changes and modest policy modifications, the heavy costs of the policies and the impact they have had on people's lives persist and reverberate over this period and for many people will continue for the rest of their lives.

Unintended costs and negative consequences such as the world's most skewed sex ratios reported at birth, the creation of a future bachelor population, and a rapidly aging population structure, have been studied and analyzed by many researchers, mostly at a macro-level. This book focuses above all on individual human costs of the population project in rural areas, not just the most dramatic individual costs that receive periodic publicity, such as the forced late-term abortion of Feng Jianmei that "went viral" on the Internet in June 2012, but also costs that are less visible and poorly documented, costs borne by relatively powerless and voiceless rural parents and children. The consequences they have suffered have been largely ignored or misrepresented by the government that designed the project and have been unseen by many who have studied the policies. The international China adoption community, which has benefited from these policies, indeed exists only as a result of these policies, has also been relatively uninformed about the costs to rural families and children described here. Our gains have come directly as a result of the losses suffered by Chinese families.

Beyond the "Dying Rooms" and "the Deeply Unwanted, Unvalued Baby"

As our research proceeded in the 1990s, I realized that our findings challenged the beliefs and understandings of the growing US adoption community in many ways. China and Chinese culture is often cast in US popular images and writing as vastly different and alien to "our way of thinking," a kind of dichotomous "other" to European and US society and culture. Nowhere has the American proclivity to cast Chinese as our "others" and see China and the United States in dichotomous terms been clearer than in the public discourse on China adoption. In this context, the British documentary The Dying Rooms: Asia's Darkest Secret, first aired on Britain's Channel 4 in 1995 just as my colleagues and I were beginning this research, presented a sensationalized expose of Chinese orphanages where, they claimed, children were left to die. The film not only criticized the government for failing to provide minimal care for infants in their institutions, a not unreasonable charge, but even more so it excoriated Chinese culture, as the filmmakers and much of their audience imagined it. Filmed vérité style with hidden cameras, codirector Kate Blewett is filmed in an iconic moment unwrapping a swaddled infant lying in an orphanage crib to expose her genitals to the camera to prove "it really is only girls who are rejected," having previously commented that here in the orphanages was proof that Chinese do indeed "dump [baby girls] on the streets like kittens in a bag." This film was criticized at the time by some of the first US adoptive parents of Chinese children, including myself, as sensationalistic and one-sided, being replete with dark Oriental-sounding music evoking evil and filled with gratuitous images sure to appall a US and European audience, such as a puppy being skinned at a food market in Guangzhou. But the film's images resonated with a US popular imagination about China and influenced many potential adopters to choose China as a place to adopt, a place where they imagined untold numbers of abject discarded girls were waiting to be rescued from a country that did not want them and brought into a loving American family.

As American adoption of Chinese children grew in the 1990s, adoption agencies and editorial writers alike marveled at how readily unwanted Chinese girls found loving homes in America, juxtaposing this to the alternative of languishing in the "dying rooms" of Chinese orphanages, unwanted and unloved in their country of birth. In April 1993, the New York Times Magazine featured on its cover a China adoption story with the byline "How Li Sha, Abandoned in Wuhan, Became Hannah Porter, Embraced in Greenwich Village," placed under a full-page photo of a healthy, beautifully dressed baby Hannah. Over a decade later, in 2004, a Fourth of July editorial by Ellen Goodman about her granddaughter Cloe, recently adopted from China, celebrated an American culture that welcomed these Chinese girls as newcomers to the American family while echoing the common view that "in China an ancient culture that still sets a higher value on the head of a boy has collided with a government policy that pressures families to have only one child. As a result, hundreds of thousands of girls ... faced the options of either an orphanage or America." Goodman stressed that through adoption to the United States, the "entire arc of [Cloe's] short life had gone from being abandoned to being treasured," "embraced with a loyalty that is all the more tenacious for having not been preordained by biology." In Goodman's Fourth of July vignette, as in Bruce Porter's story of rescue, the progressive American example shone as bright as the proverbial beacon on the hill.

The construction of the "unwanted abandoned girl child" has continued to be steady fare after more than two decades of international adoption from China. In January 2014, an adoptive US mother, a medical doctor, writing about her recent adoption stated that she knew her daughter's likely history before she went to pick her up, that she was adopting a child who, due to the "conjunction of law and culture is a deeply unwanted, unvalued baby," indeed a tragedy.


Excerpted from China's Hidden Children by Kay Ann Johnson. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Introduction: Somebody’s Children
Chapter 2 Relinquishing Daughters—from Customary Adoption to Abandonment
Chapter 3 Adopting Daughters and Hiding Out-of-Plan Children
Chapter 4 From “Unwanted Abandoned Girls” to “Stolen Children”: The Circulation of Out-of-Plan Children in the 2000s
Chapter 5 An Emerging “Traffic in Children”
Chapter 6 Conclusion: The Hidden Human Costs of the One-Child Policy



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