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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
I am very pleased to present an interview with my friend and colleague, Professor Leslie K. Wang, faculty in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, regarding her new book Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China. Her book explores the political, economic, and cultural dynamics of western humanitarian organizations caring for orphan children, many with special needs, in modern China. The book’s description:
It’s no secret that tens of thousands of Chinese children have been adopted by American parents and that Western aid organizations have invested in helping orphans in China — but why have Chinese authorities allowed this exchange, and what does it reveal about processes of globalization?
Countries that allow their vulnerable children to be cared for by outsiders are typically viewed as weaker global players. However, Leslie K. Wang argues that China has turned this notion on its head by outsourcing the care of its unwanted children to attract foreign resources and secure closer ties with Western nations. She demonstrates the two main ways that this “outsourced intimacy” operates as an ongoing transnational exchange: first, through the exportation of mostly healthy girls into Western homes via adoption, and second, through the subsequent importation of first-world actors, resources, and practices into orphanages to care for the mostly special needs youth left behind.
Outsourced Children reveals the different care standards offered in Chinese state-run orphanages that were aided by Western humanitarian organizations. Wang explains how such transnational partnerships place marginalized children squarely at the intersection of public and private spheres, state and civil society, and local and global agendas. While Western societies view childhood as an innocent time, unaffected by politics, this book explores how children both symbolize and influence national futures.
What initially motivated you to research this dynamic of international adoption from China?
My interest in the topic of adoption dates back to when I studied abroad as a college student at Peking University during the late 1990s. At the time few Westerners lived there and Chinese society and economy was beginning to change very quickly. One day I visited the Forbidden City and was surprised to see two white American couples with strollers each carrying a Chinese baby girl. For the first time I became aware that children were being both abandoned and internationally adopted, and I wanted to find out how their movement across borders related to China–U.S. relations. Once I returned to the U.S. these issues became the focus of my senior honor’s thesis, then my master’s thesis, and eventually expanded into my dissertation and ultimately this book.
What’s your most notable or poignant memory in the time that you spent in China researching this topic?
During my fieldwork in orphanages, I was most touched by the moments when young children expressed deep care and compassion for each other. For example, oftentimes when another child was crying or in distress, kids as young as toddlers would run over to alert me to come help. One of the most poignant memories I have is from the four months I spent volunteering with a Western humanitarian group I call Tomorrow’s Children, which ran an infant palliative care unit on one floor of a Chinese state-run orphanage. I spent weeks getting to know a hilarious, spunky, and intelligent three-year-old girl with heart failure named Rose. Despite her poor physical condition, this tiny child would ask to “hold” other babies in the unit, clapping her hands before reaching out to hug them. I still have photos from these times, which I hold dear because Rose passed away shortly after.
Your book highlights the challenges faced by special needs youth in China. As China continues to modernize, how has its treatment of people (and particularly children) with special needs evolved through the years?
China does not have a great track record in terms of its treatment of individuals with disabilities, including children. Part of this is due to the state’s single-minded emphasis on furthering economic modernization and raising China’s global status since the late 1970s. To attain these goals, authorities have sought to create a productive, “high quality” workforce that only includes those who are able-bodied. Consequently, those who are seen as unable to contribute to this national agenda have been cast to the societal margins. Furthermore, there are lasting and pervasive cultural stigmas against disability in China that state officials have only exacerbated by maligning special needs children as undue burdens on their families and the country. That said, since the early 1980s, a set of policies has been enacted to protect the rights of disabled people. There is general consensus, however, that these laws have not been enforced uniformly, especially within rural areas with little access to financial, medical, and educational resources.
China recently rolled back its “One Child” policy and now allows two children per family. How do you think this change will affect international adoption in China?
For the past decade the trend of Chinese international adoptions has completely transformed. Most notably, whereas the majority of available children were once healthy female infants, now most international adoptees are children with minor to major special needs (many of them boys). Secondly, the overall rates of Western adoption have dramatically decreased as more domestic adoptions have taken place and more families have founds ways to keep additional children. The ending of the One Child Policy will likely intensify all of these shifts as citizens can have two children without penalty.
Beyond helping the Chinese children in their care, what are some other motivations on the part of the western humanitarian NGOs in this dynamic?
From my experience, the majority of Western humanitarian aid groups in China that are involved with orphan care are faith-based — typically Christian and Catholic. Although many volunteers would have liked to proselytize, they were limited in doing so by China’s atheistic stance toward religion. Therefore, I found that many of these groups engaged in “lifestyle evangelism,” in which they tried to use their work to set an example for local people to follow; they accomplished this by encouraging locals to care more about marginalized youth and by importing first-world care practices and philosophies about children into local orphanages. So beyond merely helping institutionalized youth, I would say that numerous Western NGOs were also motivated to expose Chinese people to more global notions of human rights.
The luster surrounding China’s meteoric economic rise during the last 30 years seems to be waning, as citizens from both developed and less-developed nations are increasingly weary about the negative impacts of globalization. How do you think this recent trend will affect international adoption from China going forward?
While it is true that China’s development has slowed down in recent years, I don’t believe that this has impacted Western parents’ desire to adopt. If anything, the demand for Chinese children (especially healthy female infants) has increased over time and stayed high in countries across the global north. The major difference is that domestic changes in China have shifted the supply of adoptable youth to include more disabled, ill, and older kids. So I would say that the lower numbers of adopted Chinese children have more to do with the implementation of domestic Chinese state policies that don’t specifically have to do with international adoption.
One country that has transitioned from being less-developed to highly-developed is South Korea. They were also a source of large numbers of international adoptions but have dramatically reduced the number of its children adopted internationally in recent years. Do you think China is headed in that direction?
Definitely. As I noted earlier, China is already headed in that direction. For the case of South Korea, during the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics government authorities were heavily critiqued for “exporting” babies to other countries. As a result, the South Korean government began to slow adoptions and ultimately decreased them by more than two-thirds. In China’s case, the numbers have dropped dramatically from a high of roughly 14,000 foreign placements in 2005 to fewer than 3,000 in 2014. Since the emphasis now is on special needs children, who have low chances of domestic adoption due to cultural stigmas against disabilities, this trend may continue for some time. It’s conceivable that China will eventually stop adoptions altogether, though it is unclear when that time might be.
Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "New Book: Orphaned Children in Modern China" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2016/09/new-book-orphaned-children-modern-china/> ().
Short URL: http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/?p=1973