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Tense Times for Adoptive Parents

U.S. families with China-born children grapple with political issues, racial identity.


Over dinner one night, Kay Johnson told her family she was worried about Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born nuclear scientist accused of spying for China. He had lived in the U.S. for 36 years and was a naturalized citizen.

Johnson felt the Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist had been unfairly targeted for prosecution because he was born in an ethnic Chinese country, had traveled frequently to China and had many Chinese friends. What she didn't say: Those same things are true of her 9-year-old daughter Lili, who was adopted from China.

"It was touchy," recalls the professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. "I wanted to talk about the case, but I didn't want to turn around and say [to Lili], 'You'd better watch out when you grow up.' I didn't want her to feel insecure."

For Johnson, who was among the first Americans to adopt after the Communist government relaxed its restrictions on foreign adoptions in the late 1980s, that discussion was just another sobering reminder of the emotional battlefield her family entered by tying its future to a country whose government is viewed with mixed emotions by many Americans.

Alleged espionage, religious repression, worker exploitation. At a time when the United States is lurching from one tense moment to the next in its complex and often contentious relationship with China, that country has also become one of this country's leading sources of foreign adoptions.

Caught in the middle are 20,000 Chinese adoptees and their families who are just beginning to discover what it means to have the most personal and joyous of experiences--the creation of a family--ensnared in one of America's most challenging post-Cold War relationships.

Even for Johnson, a China scholar with a deep understanding of this complex geopolitical dance, watching these tensions reverberate through her daughter's life has been an eye-opening, occasionally painful, experience. Most of these adoptees are girls, a legacy of China's one-child population control policy.

"Right now, she's proud of being Chinese," Johnson says of her strong-willed daughter, who prefers using Lili to Helen, her American name. "But that's going to have a double-edged meaning. She will always carry a foreign face, and as long as U.S.-China issues are tense, there's always the slight possibility that will become a problem."

Spurred by this concern, Johnson and other adoptive parents--the majority of whom are white, middle to upper-middle class and well-educated--are quietly forging their own unique role in U.S.-China relations.

While China's critics have dominated headlines with images of the Asian giant as a military foe and economic competitor, adoptive parents have begun building humanitarian bridges back to their children's homeland.

In times of tension, they have offered Chinese officials a more conciliatory view of American public opinion. And in their search for greater understanding of the challenges facing their children, they are reaching across America's own racial divide to the Chinese American community.

"To an extraordinary degree, these parents have really wanted their children to be fully aware and to have positive feelings about where they came from," says David Youtz, head of the Asia desk in the New York office of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and the father of an adopted Chinese daughter, Sophie Ming, 5.

Uncomfortable With Politics

Politics is uncomfortable terrain for these adoptive parents, whose members include Tibetan activists and strident anti-Communists as well as China scholars and longtime Sinophiles.

U.S. members of Families With Children From China, an adoptive-parents coalition based in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., have rallied their members on issues directly related to adoption, such as a U.S. law signed this year that gives instant citizenship to children adopted abroad.

But they have steered clear of emotionally charged trade or human-rights issues, fearful of anything that might torpedo the Chinese adoption process.

One extremely sensitive topic is homosexuality, which is officially prohibited by the Chinese government. During the Sydney Olympics, adoptive American parents persuaded John Hancock Financial Services Inc. to change a television ad depicting a lesbian couple holding an Asian baby at the airport. The parents feared the Chinese government, which has banned adoptions to gay parents, might take umbrage at the ad.

There is reason to worry. On several occasions, the Chinese government has expressed its anger by temporarily suspending or slowing adoption procedures. That happened in 1996, after Human Rights Watch Asia triggered global condemnation of China and anguish in the adoption community when it published a report that accused China's government-run orphanages of committing widespread infanticide.

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