China is one of the largest nations in the world and has the largest population of any country, with 1.3 billion citizens (CIA, 2012). It became a communist country in 1949 and has maintained strict controls over its people. In recent years, there has been loosening in the economic sector, with capitalist-like ventures such as a stock market being introduced. However, in terms of personal control, the government still regulates citizens’ lives. One way in which the government does this is by working to control the size of the population. In 1979, a policy was introduced that is commonly referred to in the West as the “one-child policy.” This name is misleading as the policy is not strictly “one child.” Urban families have been restricted to one child, but rural families may have two if the first child is a girl, and ethnic minorities are typically exempt altogether from the policy. Families may also pay large penalties for having additional children past their limit if they want additional children. Wealthy families are easily able to pay the fines and therefore the fine was raised for these elites. In 2012, a family paid a record fine of 1.3 million yen (over $200,000) (Moore, 2012).

In the Confucian culture that still predominates in China, sons are needed for the family. When a couple marries, they live with the husband’s parents and take care of them in their old age. Therefore, a daughter grows up to take care of someone else’s parents, not her own. If given a choice, Chinese families prefer children of both sexes, but due to the impact of the policy restricting the number of children, combined with the lack of an old age social security plan, families require sons to care for them (Johnson, 2012).

The consequence of this policy was a sharp rise in the number of abortions, infanticides, and infant abandonments. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the government began enforcing the policy more strictly, the number of abandonments increased sharply (Johnson, Banghan, & Liyao, 1998). Children who were abandoned were most often girls or disabled boys. The vast majority of these children were not abandoned to die but were typically placed where they would be found by someone else whom the parent believed would be able to care for the child, such as an orphanage or potential adoptive family (Johnson, 2004). At that time, the orphanages in China became overwhelmed and were unable to adequately care for all of the children. Human Rights Watch (1996) found that the mortality rate in the orphanages was frighteningly high, with over 50% of admissions dying in the first year from the lack of proper care; in some institutions, the mortality rate was closer to 90%. The orphanages were also unable to pay high-quality staff to care for the children, and thus high rates of abuse were documented as well. Since that time, conditions have improved, and children report that living conditions are better than with their previous foster families, and they receive better education and medical care. However, there are still problems associated with institutional living, such as stigma and insufficient emotional support (Zhao et al., 2009).

International adoption has both helped and hurt China. The large number of adoptions from China, particularly Chinese girls, has helped to raise money for the orphanages and therefore raise the quality of the care. Each adoption contributes a substantial sum of money for the orphanage (Johnson, 2002). However, these adoptions also removed a large number of its citizens from its borders. According to the Hague Convention, the first priority should be to help the children find a home within their own culture. Until recently, Chinese law has inhibited this. Prior to 1999, if a Chinese couple wished to adopt a child, they had to be at least 35 years old and childless. This was to reduce the number of “illegal” children who violated the one-child policy; the government did not want couples to “hide” the birth of a daughter as an adoption so that they could try again for a son. However, it is a great shame in Chinese society to remain childless so late in life, and this policy greatly reduced the number of potential adoptions. In 1999, the law was changed to allow couples 30 years and older to adopt, and if the child was abandoned and living in an orphanage, the couple is permitted to already have one other child as well. These changes have helped substantially increase the number of domestic adoptions; however, intercountry adoptions are still often favored (Johnson, 2002).

It appears that in recent years, the sex of the child is becoming less important to parents. While some believe that the Chinese are reluctant to adopt nonrelated children, many Chinese families have been found to be willing to adopt, including daughters, if they could. The “ideal” family in China is often seen to have one child of each sex (Johnson, 2002). While families believe they need a son in order to care for them, they believe that a daughter is more loving, loyal, and obedient (Johnson, 2002; Johnson et al., 1998). The tradition of honoring the elderly and one’s parents has been lessening in recent years, and as a result, the city government of Nanjing has even taken to publicly shaming people who do not visit their elderly parents often (“Penalties for neglecting,” 2006). Daughters are seen as more willing to care for their parents and have a closer emotional bond, thus reducing the concern that elderly parents will have no one to care for them (Johnson, 2002). With the improvement in living standards in China, fewer healthy infants are being abandoned, including infant girls (Crary, 2010).

This does not mean, however, that the desire for a son has faded. In some cases, traffickers kidnap male children and sell them to local families desperate for a son (Jacobs, 2009). Trafficking has also occurred by government officials who seize children from parents unable to pay the fine for a second child or produce needed paperwork. These children may be brought to an orphanage, where they are made available for international adoption (Custer, 2013; LaFraniere, 2011).

Another impact of the one-child policy and its resulting gender preferences has been to create a severe gender imbalance in China. While worldwide there are 105 boys to 100 girls, in China this has become 117 boys to 100 girls for those under 15 years old. This is improving, and at birth, it is 1.13 (CIA, 2012). However, this imbalance results in there not being enough women for the men to marry when they age and can result in the marriages to trafficked women described in Chapter 3. In an effort to stem this imbalance, China has outlawed sex-selective abortions and has piloted programs to pay the school tuition for poor families with a girl or from a family with two girls (Zijuan, Shuzhuo, & Feldman, 2012).

The number of children being adopted out of China has shrunk in recent years and the eligibility criteria have been tightened. Currently, married, heterosexual couples are highly preferred. They must be between 30 and 50, unless they are adopting a child with special needs. Single women can only adopt a child with special needs. Applicants must be in good physical and mental health, and they cannot be morbidly obese (BMI of more than 40). The current waiting time for a child without special needs from date of submission of their application to reception of the referral is almost 5 years (US State Department, 2012).

In sum, the fertility control policy, in combination with the traditional need for a son, resulted in substantial increases in the number of girls and children with disabilities being abandoned to orphanages due to their parents’ inability to raise them. China is now increasing its efforts to have these children adopted by families in their own country as opposed to parents from other countries, and the abandonment of healthy infants is decreasing, but the impact of the sex ratio imbalance will continue to have severe consequences for China. The control in population growth has resulted in a situation where there are now many more elderly persons who need to be supported than there are workers supporting them. There are concerns that this will inhibit China’s economic growth. Due to this, there are signs that China may be expanding the exceptions to its one-child limit. In 2013, China announced that it would further relax the policy, allowing a second child if a husband or wife is an only child (Buckley, 2013).

It appears that the economic costs of having a child are holding down birthrates to only one child, even in areas that are allowed two. Importantly, in these areas, the sex ratios are less skewed than in other regions (“China’s one child,” 2013). Therefore, it appears that even if the policy is reversed, it will not affect the birthrate and, therefore, this economic impact will be difficult for China to avoid (LaFraniere, 2011; Wong, 2012).

What You Can Do Now

  • • Work with an organization such as the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers that is trying to prevent the use of children in combat.
  • • Monitor where and how your clothes and other purchases are made to make sure you do not fund child labor.
  • • Raise money to help UNICEF or Save the Children in their work to help children.
  • • Volunteer to tutor children in your own area to help their education.
  • • Participate in a service trip to help children.

What You Can Do as a Professional Social Worker

  • • Work to promote ethical international adoption.
  • • Conduct psychosocial counseling for children caught up in combat, either as soldiers or as victims.
  • • Work for an international NGO such as UNICEF or Save the Children.
  • • Raise awareness of the problems surrounding birth registration within your agency, particularly if you are employed in a development agency.
  • • Create programs to help children stay in their homes or create welcoming ones for children who are living on the street.
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