China shedding adoption stigma, may tighten rules

By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY

BEIJING — The infant handed to Wang Ling and her husband last month was born in the luckiest of lunar years — the Year of the Golden Pig — and seemed unusually sleepy even for a newborn. They nicknamed him Lazy Pig until they could settle on a proper name.

The boy's arrival ended Wang's year-long search of state-run orphanages and private websites where tens of thousands of Chinese couples advertise their desire to find adoptable children. 

Wang, who is a 32-year-old teacher, and her husband, a technician, began looking into adoption when they learned she could not get pregnant. The journey was frustrating, she says, because "each time I found a suitable child at an orphanage, there were always many people in the line ahead of me."

In May, the couple from western Sichuan province put notices on websites that connect couples with families and brokers who claim to have children ready for adoption. Wang also asked friends to put out word that she and her husband sought a baby.

In September, a friend introduced her to a peasant family expecting the birth of a boy in a few weeks. The family already had managed to evade punishment after violating China's one-child restriction by moving from one village to another after the birth of a second son. Punishments can range from fines, to demolition of homes or forced abortion. The family wanted to give its third son up for adoption.

Americans who adopt in China face mountains of paperwork and waits of two to three years. They can expect costs of roughly $20,000 after travel expenses and various fees to the orphanage, the Chinese government, an adoption agency and U.S. immigration authorities are factored in.

For Wang, there was no mandatory "home study" to determine whether she and her husband were fit to be parents. And there will be no follow-up visits by social workers. The paperwork will take the couple about two months. She and her husband paid Lazy Pig's family a $250 "nutrition fee."

Chinese officials and U.S.-based adoption agencies say they are concerned about lax implementation of guidelines for Chinese couples who adopt. The government has acknowledged cases of Chinese returning children to orphanages after a few weeks.

Spotty standards mean some prospective parents "pick out children like they're at a vegetable market — 'he's healthy, she's pretty, she doesn't cry much,' " says Joshua Zhong, co-founder of Colorado-based agency Chinese Children Adoption International.

China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, which oversees adoptions, is trying to correct the problem, says Wang Suying, one of the ministry's top adoption officials.

"This kind of bad behavior exists, but it is not allowed and is not very widespread," she says, adding that China has started pilot programs for home studies and home visits by social workers.

If regulations and costs haven't been an obstacle for Chinese couples, old taboos have been.

"Just 10 years ago, families who adopted children hid (the fact)," says Wang, the Civil Affairs official. "Now it's not a total change, but society is more open. Fewer people feel that they must have a (natural) son to carry on the family name." Lazy Pig's adoptive mom, the teacher Wang, says her father-in-law opposed the idea but other relatives were supportive.

Hung Huang, a Beijing publisher who adopted a daughter named Pingping last year, says that she finally got over the stigma that Chinese have traditionally attached to adoption by deciding it was no more than that, "just stigma," she says.

On trips, Hung recalls, she came across groups of foreigners who had journeyed to China to adopt. She says she was inspired by "the loving hearts of those adoption delegations we see traipsing through airports carrying Chinese babies."

Those days could be coming to an end.

The Chinese government opened up to foreign adoptions in 1992 when it was overwhelmed with abandoned babies. Today, fewer children are abandoned, and the government is thinking differently. Its considerations are "what will most benefit the child, and how can we reduce further misfortune," says Li Luxin, deputy secretary general of the China Juvenile Research Center in Beijing.

"It is better for a child to be raised in its mother tongue and motherland," Li says. "(Otherwise) as an Asian abroad, in a place where people look different, the child will wonder, 'Where am I from?' "

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