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The Truth About China’s Missing Daughters

A new book debunks the myth that Chinese parents favored sons.

Fred Dufour / Getty Images

In 2011, when I was researching a book on international adoption, I met a man who made the incredible claim that he had founded a benevolent child-trafficking ring in China, whisking baby girls away from near-certain infanticide to the safety of North American adoptive homes. Because of what he described as widespread Chinese disregard for daughters—so undervalued, he contended, that he’d seen infant girls’ bodies stacked in a government warehouse—he said he’d developed a network of baby smugglers around China. They transported infants in duffle bags from rural provinces to cities; then onto airplanes with women pretending to be their mothers; and, ultimately, into the loving arms of adoptive families in the West.

University Of Chicago Press, 224 pp., $22.50

I didn’t pursue the story. Too little of what he said checked out; too much seemed like exaggeration or outright fabrication. But something about his claims stuck with me: In what other context, I wondered, would a person boast that he was trafficking children, except perhaps when the country he was talking about had been cast as a place where girls were universally considered “maggots in the rice” and were said to be “dumped on the streets like kittens in a sack”? Was this man’s tall tale based on a long-established, starkly black-and-white narrative about China, its daughters, and international adoption?

In the 1990s, author and Asian Studies professor Kay Ann Johnson set out to investigate this narrative. After years of field research that involved interviews and questionnaires with more than two thousand families in an unnamed rural region in central China, she’s unpacked a number of misconceptions and misrepresentations in her new book, China’s Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy. (Johnson teaches at the college I attended and I’ve interviewed her in the past about her research on international adoption.)

Johnson began studying Chinese adoption after she adopted a Chinese daughter 25 years ago. This was a period when much of the U.S. was scandalized by media representations of China like those in the 1995 documentary The Dying Rooms: Asia’s Darkest Secret. The film was created during the harsh middle years of China’s “one-child” population control policy, the 1979 legislation that strictly limited family size. The goal of modernizing the country by sharply reducing births soon led to abuses. Parents found to have “out-of-plan” children were penalized, and government orphanages began to swell with “over-quota” children. The Dying Rooms brought attention to the warehouse-like conditions in some of these orphanages. But it did something else too: It popularized the image of deeply patriarchal Chinese families who blithely discarded their daughters in pursuit of a son, and of a Chinese culture so hostile to taking in other parents’ children that Chinese girls faced no other option than being adopted abroad.

What Johnson and her research associates found, however, as they interviewed thousands of Chinese families, was that this picture was far from complete. Talking to rural Chinese parents who relinquished daughters, other rural families who took those daughters in, and a third, almost entirely unrecognized category of parents—those who hid over-quota, unregistered children from population control officials—Johnson learned that few families in the region used the expression “more sons, more happiness” that was supposedly typical of Chinese son preference.

By contrast, many of those two thousand families spoke extensively of their desire for both a daughter and a son, since having both, they said, would “make a family complete.” This idealized family was so important that, for years before and even during the one-child policy, many parents who only had sons adopted daughters in order to thus “complete” their families. And where daughters were given up, among the families Johnson met, it was never casual, but almost always an agonized decision that, in the context of government repression, could hardly be called a choice. It wasn’t the people, in other words, so much as the policy.

Parents in the 1980s and ‘90s represented the first generation of Chinese families that faced cyclical and forceful birth planning campaigns. Having an unauthorized, “illegal” child was punished with crippling fines sometimes larger than a family’s annual income. If families couldn’t pay, they might have to forfeit all their furniture or even their front door instead. Family homes were demolished and family heads sometimes imprisoned for having a child out-of-plan, and women faced forced sterilizations or abortions that could leave them maimed.

Local government officials tasked with enforcing the policies of the central government, and fined if their region surpassed its quota, vacillated between turning a blind eye to rural families’ unauthorized children and overly strict enforcement. It was a context in which local corruption could be a gesture of compassion, as sympathetic officials might warn pregnant women to hide from central government investigators or help arrange for an unauthorized child to be secretly registered to another family.

Today, the secondary results of the one-child policy, and China’s alleged son preference, are notorious. China has one of the world’s most unbalanced sex ratios, and it faces the specter of a generation of bachelors who will likely be unable to find wives—something Chinese officials worry will lead to future social instability. The rural region where Johnson performed her fieldwork, moreover, has some of the most skewed sex ratios in China. Following the accepted narrative about China, its citizens might be expected to worship sons and disdain daughters. But even there Johnson found numerous stories of families going to great lengths to have, and keep, their girls.

In one crushing account, a couple named Jiang and Xu had an over-quota second child in 2003: the daughter they’d been wanting for years. It was a time of harsh family planning enforcement in their area, when married women were required to have four annual pregnancy tests to ensure they didn’t become pregnant outside of family planning guidelines. If they did, local policy mandated abortion and sterilization. Local family planning officials operated under the threat of docked salaries for over-quota births and offered rewards to anonymous tipsters who informed on their neighbors.

When Jiang became pregnant, she hid it by eating little to avoid showing, using a non-pregnant friend’s urine at her mandatory pregnancy tests, and spending the last months of her pregnancy hidden at her mother’s home in another town. Jiang succeeded in giving birth, but when her daughter was nine months old, a group of seven men surrounded the house, forced their way inside and seized the child. The couple ended up in a standoff with the officials, pleading to pay any level of fine imposed and refusing to let the men take the baby from their arms. Ultimately, the officials prevailed. Years later, the couple would learn their daughter had been adopted internationally—a discovery that gave them some comfort, since they hadn’t been told anything about where she’d been taken, but which reopened old wounds and still left them with no contact beyond a few early letters from the adoptive parents.

As for the daughter, Johnson writes:

She will grow up outside China perhaps believing, according to the dominant discourse on Chinese adoption, that she was abandoned by Chinese parents who did not want her because she was a girl, even though, on the contrary, they struggled to keep her and gave her a name that means “victory” and “surpassing a gentleman,” the daughter of a strong woman who risked everything to give her life, and then lost everything in the gambit.

Birth families weren’t the only ones who suffered. Local adoptive families also lived under constant threat. In the 1980s, when the one-child policy was new, Johnson writes, rural families subverted family planning enforcement by turning to traditional practices of domestic adoption. Sometimes families agreed to take the unauthorized child of a relative or neighbor; other times, babies were left at the front door of unrelated families who were known not to have daughters, and who were thereby assumed to need one—itself a contradiction of the Western narrative. Far from dumping the infants on the streets, Johnson heard repeatedly from birth families that they had left children outside carefully selected homes, then set off firecrackers to make sure someone would come outside and find the baby—this subterfuge necessary so that the adopting family would not know who the birth family was, and therefore be unable to identify them to government investigators.

Many such families kept the relinquished daughters, but found they were not able to get the child a hukou—the official government registration record that enables children to be immunized, attend school, get a job as an adult, or inherit family land. Adoptive families who were discovered by officials could be fined or punished, as birth families were, and could even have their “illegal child” removed by the government to a state orphanage, from which, paradoxically, the child would be made available for adoption, whether domestic or international. Johnson and her colleagues traced more than a dozen children adopted to the U.S. who had first been taken from their Chinese adoptive parents.

Johnson writes of some bold parents who fought back in the face of government efforts to seize their adopted children. One family who’d invested in multiple surgeries to correct their adopted son’s cleft palate carried around a marked-up copy of the national adoption law—which made an exception for over-quota children with medical needs—and their son’s medical records to challenge any government officials who argued their adoption was illegal. Another single man, who’d adopted a daughter with his mother only to have the government take her away, later adopted again, and threatened local family planning officials that if they took another child from him, he’d kill them. (“I am a bachelor; without my daughter, I will have no family and nothing to lose,” he recounted to Johnson. “They know what I say is true and won’t dare come again.”)

What this indicated to Johnson is that, were it not for official government suppression of Chinese adoption traditions, “nearly all relinquished healthy daughters in the 1990s could have found families who wanted them in China, leaving few healthy children available for international adoption.”

That’s a significant finding. International adoption in the U.S. began to boom in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s in large part because of the adoptions from China, which at their heyday in 2005 included 8,000 Chinese children coming to the U.S. in one year (part of the 120,000 Chinese children adopted abroad in total, including more than 85,000 to the U.S., since 1991). The availability of thousands of healthy Chinese infants for international adoption had a transformative effect on the entire international adoption field, and compared to large-scale “sending countries” like Guatemala, China stood out as a source of reliably “good adoptions”: unmarred by the stories of bribery or coercion that were beginning to emerge from other countries. But just because China’s adoption scenario didn’t resemble the more obvious market forces at play in other nations, Johnson demonstrates, doesn’t mean that its adoptions were clean.

Compared to much writing about adoption, which plumbs the motivations of parents who relinquish or adopt, or the local-level corruption of individual agencies or middlemen, Johnson’s focus is larger: on the government of a huge country and how its social engineering efforts created a widespread crisis for hundreds of thousands of children and their families. As Johnson writes, that’s a crime for which the central government of China has never been held fully accountable. The Western media’s exaggerated claims about China’s preference for sons gave cover to the more systemic violation of human rights embedded in government policy.

As the number of Chinese infants available for either international or domestic adoption began to decline in the later 2000s, a new media narrative took over: that of local Chinese officials stealing children to sell into international adoption. But this new “child stealing” narrative seemed to excuse the central government again, focusing on paltry sums of money that might change hands between parents and government officials, but ignoring the much more substantial financial incentives that motivated local family planning staff. Their government jobs and salaries depended upon how closely they enforced the birth quotas. It’s a splinter versus a log.

This October, China’s government announced the end of the one-child policy. Going forward, all married couples will be permitted to have two children. International adoption from China has already shifted significantly in recent years, as a growing middle class increased domestic demand for adoption in the country and most international adoptions are now for children with special needs. But there’s still a reckoning to come regarding what happened in the three-and-a-half decades of the one-child policy: We need to think more about how the West bought into a narrative that denigrated so many Chinese families and to ask why the government escaped the full measure of blame.