Synopses & Reviews
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 their 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.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, China became the worlds largest supplier of healthy, predominantly female, children for international adoption--a veritable diaspora of 120,000 girls. We in the west have come to believe that this situation was the result of Chinas One-Child Policy, combined with a traditional Chinese cultural disdain for females and for adopting outside family bloodlines. While there is one truth in this account it does not nearly tell the whole story. Kay Ann Johnson should know. For the last twenty-five years she has been one of the few scholars who has done research on child abandonment and local adoption in China itself. She is also the mother of an adopted Chinese daughter. Her book paints a startlingly different picture. For Chinese parents, giving up their daughters is fraught with grief and remorse. Were it not for the punishments and threats of birth planning campaigns, they would have kept and raised the girls they gave birth to, regardless of how many daughters they had. Johnson presents parents stories about why and how they relinquished a second or third daughter in an often desperate effort to hide her birth from authorities to avoid punishment (including the threat of mandatory sterilization). As the Chinese government cracked down and increased its surveillance, the methods of relinquishing one child changed: from adopting-out” a child to a known daughterless family among friends or extended kin, to secret abandonments at carefully chosen doorsteps of likely potential adopters, then finally to outright abandonment in public places. In the 21st century, the so called abandoned” children of China have become stolen” children. Declining fertility rates and increased seizures of illegally, but locally adopted children have made the dwindling numbers of relinquished children more vulnerable to increasing interregional child trafficking for official and unofficial adoption. Ironically, childless Chinese couples no longer can readily fin healthy young children locally to adopt. Ultimately, Johnson argues that birth planning policies and restrictive adoption regulations, including the perverse incentives these policies create, help drive current patterns of child trafficking and make its eradication difficult if not impossible.
About the Author
Kay Ann Johnson is professor of Asian studies and political science at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, where she is also director of the Hampshire College China Exchange Program and the Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son.
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