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Although virtually no adoptions of children from mainland China occurred before 1994, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service reported 787 children were adopted from mainland China in 1994, and the number surged to an astonishing 4,263 in fiscal year 1998.

There are many reasons why many Chinese children are in orphanages and need families, but the most important relates to officials' concern about China's burgeoning population, which led to the "one child per family" policy. As a result of this policy (which had and has exceptions), many families who had girl babies "abandoned" them to orphanages so the parents could "try again" for a male child. Or they already had one child and experienced a second, unplanned pregnancy. Since many adoptive parents are eager to adopt baby girls, the easy availability of female infants was greatly appealing to American adopters.

Westerners also generally perceive Chinese and other Asian children in positively stereotypical terms; for example, assuming that they are clean, bright, obedient and so forth, as the biological children of many Chinese and other Asian Americans are assumed to be or as people have experienced children adopted from Korea to be. (Of course, the Chinese and other Asian Americans may well be providing an environment that encourages academic success, obedience and so forth, a point that eludes many adopters.)

Chinese infants are also perceived as healthier than children from orphanages in Eastern Europe or Latin America and, because of social controls, less likely to experience FETAL ALCOHOL SYNDROME or suffer from the DRUG ABUSE of the biological mother. (In the majority of cases, that perception is correct.)

An intriguing article in a 1998 issue of Population and Development Review offered a detailed description of the attitude of the Chinese people toward adoption and the rigid problems with government regulations restricting the Chinese from adopting. The article also offered study research on children adopted by Chinese people, their adoptive parents and also the birthparents who abandoned them. Researchers were able to identify and interview numerous birthparents.

In 1995 and 1996, researchers used questionnaires with 629 families, including 392 adoptive parents and 237 parents who had abandoned their children. The overwhelming majority (90%) of the adoptions occurred from the 1980s and 1990s. The information on the birthparents may be of particular interest to Americans, Canadians and others who have adopted Chinese children.

Chinese Birthparents Who Abandoned Children

The study alluded to above determined who abandoned children and why. Nearly all were married; only three of the 237 birthparents were unmarried. Their age at the point of abandonment is also of interest: most were in their mid- to late 20s to their late 30s. Most (88%) came from rural villages and worked in agricultural career fields. Most birthparents had an education equivalent to others who lived in their area.

The birthfather made the abandonment decision in about half the cases and in about 40 percent of the cases, the birthparents together made the decision. In other cases, the birthmother made the decision alone or the birthfather abandoned the child without the birthmother's knowledge. In a small percentage of cases, in-laws were said to be the primary impetus to the abandonment.

Child abandonment is a crime in China but individuals are apparently rarely punished and, in general, officials look the other way.

The Abandoned Children

As expected, nearly all the abandoned children were female and the few males were nearly always sick or disabled. Researchers pointed out that in some rural areas, the policy is one son or two children; that is, if the first child was a girl, the parents would be allowed to "try again" and have a male child. Sometimes families defied the government rules and were heavily fined for exceeding the quota of allowable children.

Most children were abandoned in the first two to six months of life and were healthy, normal infant girls. They were abandoned on doorsteps of people known to be infertile or by a public road where they were likely to be seen. If the child was sick, she was more likely to be abandoned in a hospital.

Chinese Adoptive Parents

The Chinese people also adopt some children. The researchers in the above study found that nearly all Chinese adoptive parents from China were married and about half were childless when they adopted. Adoption is considered a good way to resolve childlessness. Although the age to adopt is 35 years and over, about half the adoptive parents were under age 35.


Kay Johnson, et al., "Infant Adoption and Abandonment in China," Population and Development Review 24, no. 3. (September 1998).

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