Corruption in international adoptions

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Adoption: China

 Click to follow link Capsule overview of adoption issues in China
 Click to follow link News Reports of Adoption Irregularities, China

NOTE: This page from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism website offers documentation of and background about serious irregularities in international adoption. For the systemic analysis of corruption in international adoption, please read “The Lie We Love,” Foreign Policy magazine, Nov./Dec. 2008, and visit our webpages dedicated to international adoption. For ideas about fairer policy solutions, please read “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010.

Capsule overview of adoption issues in China

History, statistics, and regulations. China is widely considered to have one of the best international adoption programs in the world. However, there have been some scandals, and questions have been raised about whether its program will be able—or willing—to continue to supply large numbers of adoptable infants and toddlers to the developed world.

China’s international adoption program grew from what many social scientists have called a social experiment unique in world history: a nationwide policy to limit births, enforced by an authoritarian state through mandatory contraception, forced abortion, fines, and a Communist party structure that closely monitors daily family life. The one-child policy, introduced in 1979, instituted a set of regulations that limited the number of children per family, as an attempt to reduce poverty and hunger in what was then the world’s most populous nation. Because boys were expected to grow up to care for parents while girls were expected to marry into another family, infant and baby girls were sometimes abandoned, presumably so that the parents could try again to have a boy.

In April 1992, China implemented a law enabling foreigners to adopt its orphans. In that year, 206 children were adopted to the United States, according to the U.S. State Department. Some others went to the Netherlands. China’s central adoption authority laid out the rules and conditions, including a $3,000 set fee for adoption, and oversaw its orphanages’ adoption programs. Within just a few years, China’s healthy infant and toddler girls were in demand in developed countries worldwide; adoptions grew rapidly. In 1995, China sent more than 2,500 children into foreign adoption; in 1998, that number had almost doubled to 4,855; by 2005, that number had tripled again, to more than 14,500.1 U.S. citizens have adopted more than 70 percent of these children.2

Number of US Orphan Immigrant Visas Issued to China, FY 1990-2008

As its popularity grew, China changed the rules for its adoption program. The most dramatic of those changes, for prospective adoptive parents, were new rules that went into effect on May 1, 2007, according to the U.S. State Department. China began restricting applicants for its children by marital status, age, mental and physical health, weight, income, education, family size, and more. Many people who had previously been hoping to adopt from China became ineligible because they were single, gay, married too often, too fat, too young or old, took antidepressants or were in AA, and other characteristics that might not have been considered problems in their native countries. Experts posit many different theories about why China has imposed these restrictions (see end).

At the same time, the China Center of Adoption Affairs, China’s central adoption authority, has been assigning fewer children for adoption to foreigners. At one time, adoption agencies advised their clients that once their application and dossier were logged by China’s central authority, the prospective parents might wait between a few months to a year to travel to bring home a child. But in the fall of 2008, adoption listservs, blogs, and adoption agency websites were suggesting that the wait could be three to five years.

Baby-Buying and Baby-Stealing in Hunan and Guangdong Provinces.Between 2002 and 2005, officials in Hunan and Guangdong provinces were profiting from buying and trafficking approximately 1,000 abducted babies for sale into international adoption, according to major news organizations such as the Washington Post, ABC News, and the Xinhua news agency. According to Xinhua, in 2005, 23 civil officials were fired; three baby traffickers were sentenced to 15 years in prison, and six others were given terms of three to 13 years.3 Six orphanages had been caught purchasing young infants from baby traffickers who had transported them from the neighboring Guangdong province. ABC News reported that it had reviewed court documents that said that, in three years, nearly 1,000 children were purchased by these six orphanages, which then adopted the children out to domestic and foreign families for a profit.

 In May 2008, an ABC News investigation found that Chinese orphanages were paying $300 for baby girls.

An ABC News investigation in 2008 found that orphanages were still offering $300 for baby girls that families were willing to part with; the reporter interviewed one official who said baby boys were turned away because they were likely to have been abducted. And in May 2008, Vietnamese authorities arrested traffickers who were buying or stealing babies and selling them to people in China.4 The English-language Vietnamese press did not make clear why these children were allegedly being sold to Chinese citizens—whether for domestic adoptions, international adoptions, labor, or some other purpose--although it did report that boys were being sold at a slightly higher price than girls. 

In May 2008, an ABC News investigation found that some Chinese orphanages were paying $300 for baby girls. “Many poor families can't afford to raise a child, pay the fees and feed themselves, so they feel selling their child is the only way to survive,” according to the news organization. ABC News reported that orphanage directors said they would accept only girls, since boys were probably trafficked.

Why, if girls are often abandoned, would there be baby buying and stealing in China? It's difficult to know for sure, but some observers offer several possible explanations:

  • More effective enforcement of the one-child policy, including more widely used contraception and closer observation by village family planning personnel, has driven down the number of abandoned children. But the international demand for Chinese babies has not dropped. Under this theory, orphanages have an incentive to find more babies to exchange for those $3,000 cash fees—fees worth more than twice the average annual income, according to the Washington Post.5
  • As China has become more prosperous, more Chinese couples want to adopt children themselves—either because they are infertile or because they have a girl and are willing to pay the fines to also have a boy. However, because domestic adoption does not bring in the $3,000 fees, orphanages make it difficult for Chinese citizens to adopt. Some are therefore buying babies from traffickers.
  • When international adoption began in 1992, China’s central authority limited the number of children each orphanage could offer for international adoption, leaving a large number of children behind in the orphanages—and limiting any incentive to find more orphans. However, that policy was changed so that orphanages could allow all their children to be adopted internationally. Since the orphanage would not be left with additional mouths to feed, each child acquired at $300 could be placed into international adoption for $3,000, and would thus be a source of greater income. In some cases, funding would be made available for desperately needed orphanage improvements; in other cases, according to an ABC News investigation, the money was being siphoned off for personal profit.6
China is said to have placed more than 80,000 children into international adoption. Proportionally, the numbers linked to the trafficking scandals are thus quite small. But at least some local officials in China appear to be beginning to succumb to the potential financial benefits of international adoptions. 

[1] Peter Selman, “Intercountry Adoption in the New Millennium,”; and “The Movement of Children for Transnational Adoption: Tables for Paper Presented at The Globalization of Motherhood Symposium,” Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, 14-16 October 2008.

[3] “23 Officials Punished for Child Trafficking,” February 26, 2006, Xinhua; “China’s Lost Children,”Beth Loyd, May 12, 2008, ABC News.

[4] “Burden of Birth: A middle-aged woman runs an underground trafficking network that pays pregnant women for newborns and resells them at high prices,” February 20, 2008, by Manh Duong and Tho Phuoc, Thanh Nien Daily; “Hanoi police arrests another infant trafficker,” February 20, 2008, reported by Thanh Nien Daily staff.

[5] “Stealing Babies for Adoption,” Peter S. Goodman, March 12, 2006, Washington Post.

[6] “China’s Lost Children,” Beth Loyd, May 12, 2008, ABC News.

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Last page update: February 22, 2011