China’s Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy
By Kay Ann Johnson

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 218 pp., $22.50, hardcover

Reviewed by Lihua Wang

The phenomenon of missing Chinese girls has alarmed scholars both inside and outside of China since the government’s one-child policy was first implemented in 1979. Over the past thirty years, about 120,000 children, mostly girls, have been adopted by international parents, especially by parents in the US. According to researchers from various fields, the negative impacts of the policy on Chinese society include gender inequality, a sex-ratio imbalance, diminished marriage prospects for men, and human rights violations.

Yet the same time, Chinese and international researchers have failed to criticize the Chinese government for promoting the traditional patriarchal devaluation of girls. Nor have the researchers paid much attention to the emotional and economic suffering the policy has caused parents, especially those who have been forced to give up their children for adoption. China’s Hidden Children directs our gaze to these two missing pieces within previous scholarly work, as it gives voice to rural, poor, marginalized, and often poorly educated parents.

China scholars often point to the Confucian idea of son preference and to a history of female infanticide to explain the missing girls. They claim that daughters are “unwanted,” and that the “backwardness” of rural parents is to blame for the missing girls.

Contesting this explanation, Kay Ann Johnson has spent more than a decade collecting data in an ethnographic project in Anhui Province, one of the poorer regions in central China, which has a relatively high abandonment rate. Based on the 350 parents in her study who “abandoned” their daughters, Johnson is convinced that there is no evidence to indicate that the abandonment was voluntary. Rather, she argues, parents were often caught between government threats and their desire to have a girl. Daughters are not “unwanted”; Chinese government coercion is the problem.

During the 1990s, after a decade of the one-child policy, the rural parents Johnson interviewed demonstrated a desire to have children of both genders. Especially in families who already had a son, daughters were valued for the closeness, love, and companionship they were thought to bring to the family. The wish to have a daughter was especially common among those who already have a son. Girls were associated with enhancing the quality of family life and happiness, while boys were associated with ensuring family economic well being and parents’ social security.

Pursuing this desire for girls, however, often involves risks. China’s Hidden Children uses a frame of “coerced choice” to explain parents’ decisions about risk taking and to illuminate the regulations that govern their personal lives. Their choices are “coerced” because “choice” takes place in a context of official birth permits, penalties for unauthorized births, and forced sterilization after the birth of a second child.

Five narratives in Chapter Two illustrate various ways that parents deal with coerced choice. The narratives detail their struggles to keep their baby girls and put us in touch with the emotional torment they suffer when the children are taken away. For example, Xiaolan gave birth to a second daughter in 1992, without a birth permit. Afraid that she would be forcibly sterilizated, she gave up her daughter. After her parents-in-law took the baby and left her in a city, Xiaolan’s life was never the same. The abandonment left a permanent hole in her heart and her family’s. Their feelings of loss and guilt lasted for years.

Before the implementation of a state adoption law in the 1990s, informal adoption was a common practice. Parents would arrange an adoption through their network of relatives and friends. The state adoption law, however made these adoptions illegal. The government cracked down on them. This change further limited villagers’ alternatives. In rural areas, abandonment increased. With no other option, Wang Nan, a mother, left her second daughter on a city street in 1992. She has never stopped thinking about the girl, and she still wonders about her welfare. Like most of the 350 informants in Johnson’s study, she does not know of her daughter’s whereabouts.

Because rural parents are stigmatized as “backward,” both media reports and scholarly studies fail to understand that the parents’ abandonment of their daughters is involuntary. Left to themselves, they would not abandon their children. Or, if they were allowed, they could utilize their own networks to find adoptive homes for their daughters. And in fact, many rural adoptive parents take great risks to keep their adopted daughters.

Although international adoptions have been well studied, Chinese domestic adoption has been largely invisible and neglected by researchers. Johnson argues that the invisibility of this experience derives from two interrelated sources: the adoption law restricting informal channels, and the difficulty of obtaining a legal birth registration (the hukou system). It is not ancient patriarchy but rather modern institutions that prevent domestic adoption, resulting in the practice of hiding girls who are born without birth permits.

Hukou is a system for recognizing the legal status of a child, similar to an American birth certificate. Registration in the hukou system confers citizenship and entitles the child to education, land use, and other benefits. Without a hukou, a child is labeled as illegal, undocumented—a “black person” in Chinese society. She has no rights. Thus, the registration system is a huge obstacle for parents who want more than one child.

Because parents who adopt informally have no access to the official registration system, hiding children remains the only choice for many. But hiding unauthorized children creates serious psychological and emotional problems for everyone in the family. “Black children” are often introverted; they lack self-confidence and feel inferior. One traumatized child said, “I should never have been born.” It is difficult for parents to see the pain, hardship, and suffering of their adoptive daughters.

Since 2000, an official desire to limit “black children” has resulted in new, severe measures. Birth planning officials monitor married women closely during their reproductive years in order to prevent unauthorized births. Married village women are required to take a pregnancy test four times a year. An unauthorized pregnancy can result in a mandated abortion or other punishment. For example, one couple, Jiang and Xu, were hoping to have a daughter nine years after the birth of their son. In 2003, Jiang became secretly pregnant and hid with her natal family. After she gave birth to a baby girl, she and Xu were thrilled. One month after the birth, Jiang returned to her village. Discovering the couple’s unauthorized baby girl, the local birth planning officials destroyed the family house and took the baby to a state-owned orphanage.

State-owned orphanages are the only legal spaces for keeping babies and arranging formal adoptions. It is legal, under the adoption law, for prospective adoptive parents to pay fees to adoption agencies. In addition, the state gives monetary awards to people who have “found” a baby on the street. These regulations, together with declining numbers of “abandoned” babies, have created a market for traffickers. In one hospital, staff members received between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan (about $1,500 to $3,000) for “transactions” of unauthorized babies. Trafficking is just one symptom of the national crisis caused by the one-child policy.

Clearly, none of the current birth planning and adoption laws and practices address children’s needs. The government’s goal of limiting population is being achieved only by causing suffering and misery among rural Chinese. Kay Ann Johnson has produced a worthy and important study.

Lihua Wang, PhD, is a visiting assistant professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her teaching and research areas include gender, work, family, globalization, poverty reduction, and family planning policy in China.

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