Why this kind of stories upsets me

Lillian Zhang


– In response to the recent Boston Globe article on Chinese adoption


Around late July this year a friend of mine sent me a Chinese article by the most independent liberal newspaper based in Guangzhou about a town called Jiao Xi in Zhen Yuan County, Guizhou Province, where around 2004 a family planning official talked to some families about sending their third or fourth daughter to the county’s social welfare institute if they could not pay a fine. This article described this town as being surrounded with huge mountains and the cultural bias against girls ran very deep. In this town and all other 11 towns of Zhen Yuan County, people saw abandoned girls everywhere for many years. One person actually picked up four babies himself. The two families this reporter mentioned in this article each have four and five children. One of them actually called the official to come to take one of their girls. Two other families mentioned in this article were families who pickup up abandoned children from street but the government officials told them they could not keep the children un-registered because they had several birth children already. Soon the social welfare institute got filled with children and the orphanage had to put the children in foster families. This social welfare institute started to place children for adoption in 2001. So far, about 78 children were adopted domestically or abroad. A relative of these families lived in Guangzhou and told the story to a reporter. It seemed that this Chinese reporter talked to above mentioned families but all of these families did not want to look for the children or wanted them back.  There was an online discussion about this story in China and most Chinese people felt this family planning official did a right thing by giving villagers an option (sending their children to the government agency, instead of abandoning or killing them). Some people felt the government should have let the villagers know about the adoption option. Most people are very happy for the kids who have placed into adoptive homes, in China or abroad.

I was amazed by the article and by the openness of this subject in the Chinese society. This article certainly revealed some problems for children’s background checks but the social welfare institute would not know much more if the family planning official did not tell them the whole story.

Two months later an adoptive parent passed me an article on LA Times on September 20. Now it is a totally different story. Yes, the article mentioned most names in the original Chinese report but changed all the facts to make it look like a conspiracy that involved all government agencies in China for the purpose of $3,000 donations for placement by foreign families.  The fabrication is so blunt that one has to wonder how anybody can trust the American media anymore! For example, in the original Chinese report, the family planning official met Yang Shuiying in field when she was caring for cows while carrying he baby on back. Shi told the mother: “Now that I am having your child, you do not need to pay extra-birth penalty.” However, this LA Times article wrote this way: “The man from family planning liked to prowl around the mountaintop village, looking for diapers on clotheslines and listening for the cry of a hungry newborn. One day in the spring of 2004, he presented himself at Yang Shuiying’s doorstep and commanded: ‘Bring out the baby.’ ‘I’m going to sell the baby for foreign adoption. I can get a lot of money for her,’ Then he warned her: ‘Don’t tell anyone about it.’”  The Chinese report mentioned the father’s reaction after hearing about this: “He said calmly:’ what can we do? It is government policy’”. In the LA Times article, it wrote that “he erupted in fury when he discovered what had happened.” The LA Times mentioned another family with the father named Li Zeji. According to the Chinese story, they left their third daughter to a remote cousin and went ahead to give birth to one more girl and one boy. After they learned that the child with their cousin was sent away to the orphanage, they did not regret for leaving the child to their cousin. The wife said “otherwise how can we get our son!” In the LA Times article, same Li Zeji said “People around here do not dump their kids. They don’t sell their kids. Boy or girl. ” The Chinese report mentioned repeatedly that in many years around all 12 towns in the county, there were many babies abandoned in fields and on street. Villagers left their children in towns because they hoped their children could have better homes and lives.  I want to ask LA Times why you did not mention one sentence about this fact!

Seeing with my own eyes how the story changed along their way from China to the states, I feel disgusted. Where is the sense of accountability in these famous newspapers such as LA Times and Boston Globe?

I feel the urge to write. I ask myself why I am so upset with this kind of stories. Is it because I do adoption work and I have a business interest defending the Chinese adoptions? Is it because I believe in adoption and put my body and soul in this work day and night for 16 years and I could not accept the possibility that I was fool and stupid and got into this evil conspiracy, consciously or unconsciously?

No, it is not! This work is not a business to me. I believe in adoption religiously and I visited many orphanages since 1992. I saw thousands of baby girls in there with my own eyes. Where were these American reporters then? If I do not write because I worry what other people would question my incentives, I do not respect myself.

I am upset because it is not fair. For many years in the states, I only read bad stories about China’s whatever policies. Yes, for some individuals at personal level, one child policy is very cruel. I googled thousands of articles by Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times, and Boston Globe since 1995 and I agree with them that at individual level this policy can be very cruel. I downloaded some articles double sided and read through the almost one-inch thick of the papers at night. I had to stop several times feeling emotionally exhausted. All these terms cut my heart through like knives: forced abortion; selected abortion; infantile; abandonment; gender imbalance; kidnapping; missing girls; etc. I knew of these concerns in the past years but it is acutely painful to read them all together now in this context. Is it the Chinese culture? Is it my culture? How can American families respect this culture? Which stories I would rather believe for my own emotional health: the old ones of abandonment or the ones I just read two days ago by Boston Globe saying that the children were forced into adoption for $3,000? As a sending country, China is in an inherited humiliating position already and could not win no matter how hard they try to improve and to please everybody.  How much salt these newspapers want to add to the wounds?  As much as I hate the word Abandonment, I am upset that some people want to change the fact that most children who entered into adoption tract were truly abandoned!

The LA Times article kept mentioning $3,000. Actually around 2003 and 2004, the family planning official such as Mr. Shi, who was mentioned as a much feared person in the village, did not even know about this donation. This group of officials had only one simple thought in their mind: keep their job by meeting the performance goal, which was to control birth rate under certain level in their small jurisdiction. Yes, they could be upset when the villagers have seven or eight children with no intention to stop until getting a son. Those family planning officials could not get a single penny for directing a child to the social welfare system. The LA Times over-simplify the relationship between different Chinese government agencies and make it like “Selling” the children.

$3,000. For many years, I wished they cared about this donation! The China Center of Adoption Affairs enforced a ration system on numbers of children each province could place so that they could control the placement number under that of South Korea’s and later under Russia’s. For some large orphanages, only 10% of the children could have the chance to be placed each year. I had many meetings and discussions with the CCAA directors. Yes, China’s reputation was important as a smaller sending country. Yes, no matter how many good things you tried to do, one small case could destroy it and make you look bad. Still, all these concerns are secondary comparing to our children’s best interest! Every single minute in their early years were crucial and they deserve the love and care from their parents! Up to this moment, I still stick to my argument.

$3,000. This donation was never changed in last 20 years since until very recently. It was the very lowest orphanage contribution on this planet for any country programs. How much does a prospective adoptive family in this country spend on domestic adoption? Hague Convention on International Adoptions allows adoptee’s guardians to be reimbursed with child care expenses and the $3,000 was barely enough to cover the cost occurred to the Chinese orphanages! Is it that we Americans can burn a house but others can’t lit a candle?

My co-workers in the office told me I could not take the media too seriously. Their job is to report bad stories and it could be that all the bad stories, old or new, are only small inevitable problems in the huge social progress. Look how China has changed in last twenty years. Now the country allows more than two children for a family under some circumstances even in cities; the abandonment is less and less since 2004 after the government extended retirement and medical insurance to all farming families; the Chinese domestic adoption is tenfold than seven years ago. On January 1 of 2008, China became a Hague Convention country and has taken painstaking effort to crack down on children related crimes. Who knows, the bad exposures by the American media might have helped all the good changes in China.

Yes, there is room to improve the adoption work. From the original Chinese story, it indeed happened that some family planning officials in small towns in Guizhou Province might have used pressure to have local villagers to send their children to the social welfare institute. But, what is the true number? According to this article, people in this county saw abandoned babies everywhere all the time in years when the one child policy was enforced tightly. One person picked up 4 kids in fields and on street during that time around 2003. The county social welfare institute only received 80 children 2001 through 2009. It is a small number comparing to the abandoned children in this county. My hair stood up when I think about this!

What can we learn from the Guizhou story? First of all, it identified places the Chinese government should improve its work as a Hague Convention country to make sure the children’s background is fully searched and presented to prospective adoptive families.

While I believe the abandonment is the main channel the children became available for adoption, the Guizhou story has posted many interesting questions about the Chinese adoption. Here are the questions for us all to think:

  1. China is the only country that places only abandoned children. Abandoning children is not in the Chinese culture and was a temporary phenomenon in response to a very tight population control policy for certain period of time in history. After painstaking efforts for two decades, the population growth is under control in China and the family planning policy has been loosened. More, the Chinese cultural of favoring boys has also changed tremendously. But, is the Chinese government ready to help other groups of children who are in dire need of families, such as orphans who lost their parents and in the care of social welfare institutes or under government subsidies? Further, is the Chinese government ready to loosen its laws to allow school age or out-of marriage birth parents to openly place their children for adoption? In 2007 a 22-years-old pregnant Chinese single woman contacted our agency from China looking for help. She agreed to place her child into an orphanage and went to Shanghai in person about this possibility. I talked to four orphanages including one in Hunan begging them to accept her child when the child was born. All orphanages declined because they could only accept abandoned children, not “give-up” children! This young girl told me she could not put the child on street or at the entrance of an orphanage that because she would worry about wild dogs, bad weather, or people stepping on the baby if there was no street light.
  2. There is a special group of children I call everybody’s attention to: the children who end up in orphanages because of the police investigation on criminal charges or simply lost or for some other unknown reasons. Yes, they may have birth parents somewhere who may or may not want to find them. Do these children deserve a family or they should sit in the orphanage for 15 years for their birth parents to show up or to change mind? Adoption is about children. Or should it be all about adults as we read about in this LA Times article? I mention this because not a single birth family in 2005 Hunan scandal stood up and claimed their child even though government promised to place no charges.  I could not wait for our children to grow up and take the stage to tell us how they feel when they read all these articles!
  3. Our agency should improve our work on parenting training and preparation. For years we concentrate on abandonment and seldom touched the birth parents aspect, except encouraging adoptive parents to beautify the abandonment circumstances to better understand birth parents. No matter how a child entered into adoption track, abandoned voluntarily or given up under pressure, it is the same sad beginning in life that turn out to be a good fortune for another family. Birth parents in some way at some level will remain in the adoption picture forever. Our adoptive parents feel bad for them. You worry what your children would think about them and the adoption. You feel you are part of a bad thing. At individual level, I believe nothing can be as pure and simple as one term Abandonment can indicate.  The bottom line is that no party did anything wrong here. It is just a very unfortunate situation that a child becomes available for adoption. It is also just a very fortunate situation that we got them!

When I started working in the adoption field, I read extensively looking for a meaning for my career decision. I felt that adoption has been a human phenomenon for thousands of years in all societies. Children lose their families to war, to famines, to earthquakes, and to natural disasters. They also lose their families because of social changes and policies. On the other hand, families look for children to love. Adoption has developed with the level of civilization: in family, in community, in country. International and inter-racial adoption becomes possible because people from all countries become more understanding and more accepting to each other. It is a beautiful work. Good number of years in the work, I also learned that as happy as it is, adoption is also about grieving and re-grieving losses and finding and re-finding meanings in a relationship and in our life and in the world. Through many challenges we had and have and will encounter in future, we know that our love and trust in each other is unconditional and will last forever.