This scholarly note, by a parent of two adopted Chinese children, considers the current situation of orphans and orphanages in the People's Republic of China, in the wake of rapid social and economic change.
Orphans in China under the One-Child Policy
Numerous studies have been conducted on adoption in the United States. These studies have touched on a number of issues, including interracial adoption, open and closed adoption, the role of the state, policies surrounding home studies, and laws surrounding domestic adoption. However, literature on adoption of children from the People's Republic of China (PRC) tends to present individual experiences of the adoptive parents. In this relatively unexplored field, few studies look at the whole process and, most importantly, the disparities facing China's orphan population. This essay begins to fill the gap by exploring the role of orphanages in contemporary Chinese society. How are Chinese orphanages regulated by policy and location, urban verses rural? How are the orphanages supported? What happens to those children who are not adopted? How are the rapidly changing economic and social situations affecting the orphan population? And how are these changes affecting international adoption?
In 1979, when population control had become a central concern in every aspect of Chinese state planning, (1) Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping (1904-97) instituted the one-child policy. Under this policy, which remains in force, all Chinese who live in cities or densely populated areas are limited--by law--to one child per family, with the exception of members of China's minority groups. By the 1990s, the one-child policy did not strictly apply in most rural areas, where 75 percent of Chinese people lived. In 2004 and 2005, while traveling throughout rural China, I noticed that many of the farm families had more than one child; some had as many as five. However, I was shown places where, in the early stages of the policy, children had been hidden when authorities came to visit the villages. In 1991, the first national adoption law was passed, making domestic adoption nearly impossible.
China opened its doors to international adoption in 1990. In 1991, fewer than one hundred international adoptions took place; by 2001, over six thousand were occurring per year. (2) In 2005, the U.S. State Department granted 7,900 visas to children adopted from China. In 2006, this number dropped to 6,500. The number of orphans in social welfare institutes in China remains high. Orphanages have been populated mostly with girls (75 to 80 percent), but recently boy orphans--almost all with medical disabilities --have been given adoption status.
Due to the cultural importance of sons, the high cost of health care, the lack of educational options for girls, and generalized poverty in rural China, many girls are abandoned with the hopes of a second chance of obtaining a son. This practice, in turn, has left a population known as "little emperors" on whom parents and grandparents place their undivided hopes for the future.
Orphanages in China
Currently, China has approximately 573,000 orphans, of which 66,000 live in government-sponsored Social Welfare Institutes. (3) In the past few years, orphanages have received a lot of publicity. A report by Human Rights Watch/Asia in 1996 showed that the orphanages had improper medical care; poor sanitation; abandonment problems; and "dying rooms," where sickly children were left unattended. (4) Since the 1996 report and subsequent attention from the international community, including the increase in international adoptions, the Chinese government has taken steps to improve many of the orphanages in the more urban localities. Still, however, a large number of rural orphanages have been kept from the public eye.
Orphanages continue to struggle to find funds and support. One orphanage in …