rumor has it

Shenzhen inhabitants basically tell two kinds of stories about where they came from – 老家 (laojia / hometown) stories, which wax nostalgic for the warm human relations of their villages and 内地 (neidi / hinterland) stories how bad the situation is back in the interior of China. Yes, hometown and neidi stories can be about the same place, but usually a hometown story is about a specific place and a neidi story is about a general condition.

In all origin stories, whether nostalgic or resentful, Shenzhen is the foil. On the one hand, unlike a hometown, Shenzhen is said to lack 人情 (human sentiments). It is difficult to make a living here because people will exploit and take advantage of you. Hometown stories explain why someone is unhappy – usually lonely and alone – in Shenzhen. On the other hand, although realizing one’s dreams in Shenzhen is said to difficult, nevertheless it is possible; in neidi stories, what comes across is the impossibility of realizing one’s goals back home. Neidi stories explain why the unhappy are still in Shenzhen.

Yesterday, I heard an extreme and disturbing neidi story.

The man was from Guangxi. He had been in Shenzhen for seven years and recently managed to bring his wife and son here.This fact is important because it suggests that he lives a somewhat middle class life. Whether or not a family can be together in Shenzhen is a central theme in both hometown and neidi stories. Those who are alone (their families are still in neidi) tend to be more nostalgic than those who aren’t. In fact, the basic Shenzhen dream (深圳梦) is having a good job, buying a home for one’s family, and sending one’s child to a top school. Generally speaking, those who have achieved the dream think Shenzhen is a good place to live. Those who have not (yet) achieved the dream think Shenzhen has failed to fulfill its promise.

At first, the conversation developed along rather conventional lines. He asked why I don’t have children and I gave my stock answer: because it’s a choice. He nodded and said that Chinese people and foreigners are really different; Chinese people all want to have a child, but foreigners can live independently. I mentioned that I had friends who didn’t want children, but in the end had had one in order that their parents could hold a grandchild (抱孙子). He agreed that there was a lot of pressure to have children.

Then the conversation became increasingly disturbing. He  mentioned that back home he knew families with three or four children. He even knew one family that had had eight children. I asked if all eight had lived.  He said yes, but that the family had given two away to other families (送去出).

“Why would they have a child they didn’t want to keep?” I asked.

“Usually it’s because they have all girls or all boys. The families that take the children maybe can’t have a child, or also have all girls or all boys and want a little brother or sister for their family.”

He then explained that even if it wasn’t pervasive (普遍), back home having multiple children was now normal (正常). However, it was more common to keep having children if one had all girls, rather than if one had all boys. When I countered that if a family couldn’t afford another girl, then they couldn’t afford a boy, he said that a family would do anything to raise a son. He then shrugged and said, “Chinese people still prefer boys (重男轻女).”

“And the State (国家) doesn’t do anything about this?”

“They can’t oversee anything at that level [of society] (管不下去).”

He also said that “before (以前 – as vague in Chinese as English)” people would sometimes let daughters die; they just vanished. He assured me that no one ever saw anything happen, but nevertheless, everyone knew what had happened. He also said that sometimes, people would leave daughters in boxes outside on the street. It was their fate whether or not someone would take them home. Once, he and a friend had pulled over to the side of the road to urinate. After they had finished, they heard a crying sound. At first they thought it was a small animal, but then realized it must have been a baby.

I said that I didn’t believe a mother would do this to her child. He agreed that it wasn’t the mothers. Instead, someone in the family took care of it. But, he assured me, all this had happened “before”. Now it was more common to give the children away.

I asked what happened when the children learned they had been given away. He answered that some were filial to both sets of parents, but others were angry at their birth parents and refused to recognize them (不认父母). I replied that I thought it would be difficult to live knowing that my parents had given away or let die a sister so I could live. He agreed that it would be difficult, but most of the time no one said anything to the son.

“But the whole village knows,” I countered.

“Of course,” he agreed, “but no one says anything.”

I couldn’t let the topic go. I asked where the children were sent. He told me that some went to neighboring villages and others were sent out of the province. I asked how they were sent. He explained it was all very hush hush. Someone would tell someone who would tell someone else. Eventually a family would be found.

When I asked (again) why have the child, he understood me to mean, why not have an abortion (打掉)? He agreed that it was just as easy to find out whether or not the child was a girl or a boy and get rid of it before it was born. However, an abortion was 300-500 yuan. So I asked if money was ever exchanged when children were sent away. He said no, because that would be selling a human being, which was illegal.

Me: And the sale of human beings is something the State can oversee?

Him: Of course!

I don’t know how to think about this conversation. I don’t know how to evaluate and confirm its truth content. I don’t know if my interlocutor became more emphatic in order to make me believe what he was saying; possibly he was trying to shock me. I don’t want to believe, for example, that he drove away and left a child in a box by the side of the road. Indeed, I suspect that if he had truly left an abandoned child on the side of the road, he would not have admitted so easily to having heard her cries.

I do, however, know of three other cases of children being sent away. Each story has different kinds of proof, but all point to how desired children are, despite poverty and despite the one-child policy.

The first time I heard of “sending out children”, I was shown a picture of a pre-school boy and told that the family needed to find a home for him. Everyone agreed that the situation must be truly horrible to give away such a beautiful boy. Someone speculated that perhaps the child had been kidnapped and now being sold. Others in the group agreed that foul play was more likely than giving away a son.

The second time I heard about this, I met the child. He had been sent away because his parents were never married, didn’t want to take care of him, and had never bothered to arrange for his hukou. The boy’s grandparents were too old to take care of him, so he had been sent to a distant relative in Shenzhen. This was a relatively comfortable family who had abided by the one child policy, loved their daughter to distraction, but had always wanted a son.

The third time I heard of this practice was just after the Wenzhou earthquake, when a childless friend said she should go to Sichuan and find a child to adopt. However, she thought it would be difficult because she suspected that all the available children had probably been taken away as soon as they were available. “Everyone wants a child,” my friend asserted.

What’s important is that none of these stories involved the legal adoption of the children, which seems difficult in China because of the one-child policy; families who have a legal child can not adopt another. Instead, the parents reach an agreement with someone and the child is sent/taken away. In the case of the second boy, his parents could not legally adopt a child because they already had a legal daughter. The family takes the child home to visit grandparents. He is well-loved, cute, and lively.

In Shenzhen, the stories that I hear about sending children away are about poverty and the overwhelming desire to have more than one child. Shenzhen specifically, but all of Guangdong (along with Fujian) is infamous for the pervasiveness of multiple child families. What varies from family to family is the legal status of the children. The richer a family is, the more likely they are to finagle a hukou for their second, third, fourth, and even fifth and sixth children. I know of one rich family that went through incredible legal hoops to obtain a passport for their seventh daughter. The poorer a family is, the more likely they are to save their legal hukou for their son. Children without hukou are known as “black hu (黑户) or unregistered people”. In a 2008 post, Hefuya estimated that their were 40 million unregistereds in China.

In contrast, in stories about American families adopting Chinese children, there is an emphasis on cultural difference, where Americans love girls, and presumably Chinese people don’t. There is a growing and influential sub-culture of Chinese adoptive families in the US, where the shortage of adoptable babies is sometimes spoken about in terms of how the one child policy results in the abortion of baby girls. In these stories, the Chinese state is held responsible for the murder of children.

Again, I don’t know how to think about this conversation. I don’t know how to evaluate and confirm its truth content. I don’t know if Beth Nonte Russell uses the rhetoric of she does in order to make me believe what she was saying; possibly she is trying to shock me. A rebuttal would have me believe that China is more girl-friendly than it used to be and that the numbers of healthly, adoptable babies are decreasing. My childless friend who half-joked about going to Sichuan would agree that it is difficult to adopt because there is a greater desire for children than there are children available for adoption.

I have derived eight conclusions from and about these remors:

  1. Children and their families in neidi are suffering;
  2. There is no reliable source of information as to how many unregistered, adoptable, and unwanted children there are in China;
  3. There are discrepancies between the numbers of unregistered children, legally adoptable children, and unwanted children;
  4. There are Chinese people who want to adopt some of these children;
  5. There are Americans who want to adopt some of these children;
  6. In Shenzhen, stories about these children prove that Shenzhen is better than neidi;
  7. In the United States, stories about these children prove that America is better than China;
  8. Few of those who want to adopt in either Shenzhen or the US talk about keeping neidi families together through more equitable economic policies.

3 thoughts on “rumor has it

  1. Pingback: ROK Drop Weekly Linklets - May 24, 2009 | ROK Drop

  2. We adopted our daughter from Bao’an SWC in 2008. I found your blog while trying to find information about the hospital where we were told she was abandoned — enjoyed reading your post.

  3. As an adoptive parent of a Shenzhen child I can say what my family’s motive was. We are Americans with three boys who do not approve of abortion. We wanted to raise a girl because parenting is part of our joy and mission in life. So we could not afford to take a chance that our next child would not be a girl.

    We had friends who adopted from China, so we knew the program was free from corruption and the bias of choosing our child (treating children as commodities).

    Moreover it led to predictable, irreversible, healthy adoption, that greatly improved the life of at least one female child. She would otherwise not have the right to attend school, or grow up in a loving family with siblings and the expectation of equal treatment in society. The prospect of lots of girl children being forgotten, and possibly abandoned was a factor in the decision. There is something compelling about the logic of wanting a child that someone else does not want or cannot care for. Having the State act as an intermediary for the benefit of the child is an acceptable alternative to the informal passing of children between families because it provides some guarantee that the children aren’t bought and sold.

    Finally, I think something is wrong with your conclusion #7. It would have been equally good for our daughter to have grown up in China if she had been legally adopted into a loving family. Unfortunately she was orphaned and needed someone to take care of her. She had been in the orphanage a long time. She was walking already and had no parents. Every day she was falling behind because she didn’t have anyone to look into her eyes and spend hours talking to her and teaching her. Now she does.

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