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Editorial

China, and children as a commodity

It seemed a perfect match, until adoption became big business in China.

January 31, 2010

Over decades now, infertility or the simple desire to offer a child the chance for a better life has sent would-be parents to China in search of a baby to adopt. For so many, it was the perfect match. On one side of the Pacific were well-to-do couples yearning to share their love and good fortune; on the other were a plethora of little girls abandoned by impoverished parents in need of a son to support them in old age, or in violation of the country's so-called one-child policy.

No one liked to think of adoptions in unseemly market terms, but in fact this was a case of supply and demand. Whether paying for egg donors and surrogate mothers in the United States, or for lawyers and adoption agencies abroad, those who sought children knew that lots of money changed hands -- $15,000 to $30,000 in paperwork, travel and fees for a Chinese baby. Still, why call it commerce when such aching needs were concerned, and what did it matter if everyone was better off?

That's how it seemed, anyway, as tens of thousands of babies arrived in the United States in the 1990s and 2000s from Hunan, Guangdong and other provinces with names previously unknown to many of the adoptive parents. The overwhelming majority of adoptees were girls, moving from an often-soulless orphanage into the tearful embrace of a new family and a newly decorated bedroom in the likes of Indiana, Minnesota or California.

Unfortunately, not everything was as it seemed. Although many of the babies indeed were abandoned, demand ultimately began to outpace supply, and as Barbara Demick of The Times' Beijing Bureau recently reported, some babies were taken from birth parents in remote villages by coercion, fraud or kidnapping. Official orphanages, which received $3,000 per child from the adoptive parents, began paying up to $600 per newborn in expenses and more to finders, some of whom were government officials. In recent years, some Chinese parents have begun to talk about how they were threatened or tricked into giving up their daughters, sometimes in lieu of fines they could not afford for having a second or third child.

Chinese law prohibits commerce in children, and in 2005 the government conducted a high-profile prosecution of a trafficking ring in Hunan province for receiving payments to procure 85 babies who were then placed abroad with unwitting adoptive parents. Demick spoke with one of the traffickers, recently released from jail, who said he had purchased newborns in Guangdong province and supplied them to orphanages in Hunan. He said his supplier sold more than 1,000 babies to orphanages in Hunan and Jianxi provinces, which frequently disguised the children's origins, saying they had been discovered at a market or near a bridge in Hunan. "The merchandise may have been human, but it was a trading business like any other. Cash on delivery; prices set by laws of supply and demand. . . . The orphanages would often phone in their orders and haggle over the price," Demick wrote.

Chinese officials have told foreign agencies and governments that the Hunan case was an aberration, but a report to the Dutch parliament last year by the Netherlands-based World Children claimed the agency had evidence that the backgrounds and identities of Chinese children put up for adoption more recently had been changed, and that children still were being traded for cash. Moreover, although the Chinese government acknowledged that the children in the Hunan case had been sent abroad, it did not clarify where all of them went, according to the report.

Chinese adoptions have dropped dramatically from their peak in 2005, when nearly 8,000 babies arrived in the United States. Last year the number was about 3,000, due to a scarcity that stems from many causes. Chinese society is wealthier, with more families able to support an illegal child or two. Domestic adoptions are on the rise, and the attitude toward girls has changed along with opportunities for them in China's urbanized economy; women too can support parents in their old age.

We would like to believe that another reason for the scarcity is that the Chinese government is vigorously enforcing existing anti-trafficking laws under the Hague convention on intercountry adoption. U.S. officials say they have no evidence of ongoing violations. They note that with a wait now of three to five years for newborns, nearly half of those coming to the United States are older or special-needs children who have been in care for a while. But many who follow the issue closely believe abuses persist, although no one seems to know how widespread they are.

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