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China’s Hidden Children

Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy

In the thirty-five years since China instituted its One-Child Policy, 120,000 children—mostly girls—have left China through international adoption, including 85,000 to the United States.  It’s generally assumed that this diaspora is the result of China’s approach to population control, but there is also the underlying belief that the majority of adoptees are daughters because the One-Child Policy often collides with the traditional preference for a son. While there is some truth to this, it does not tell the full story—a story with deep personal resonance to Kay Ann Johnson, a China scholar and mother to an adopted Chinese daughter.
Johnson spent years talking with the Chinese parents driven to relinquish their daughters during the brutal birth-planning campaigns of the 1990s and early 2000s, and, with China’s Hidden Children, she paints a startlingly different picture. The decision to give up a daughter, she shows, is not a facile one, but one almost always fraught with grief and dictated by fear. Were it not for the constant threat of punishment for breaching the country’s stringent birth-planning policies, most Chinese parents would have raised their daughters despite the cultural preference for sons. With clear understanding and compassion for the families, Johnson describes their desperate efforts to conceal the birth of second or third daughters from the authorities. As the Chinese government cracked down on those caught concealing an out-of-plan child, strategies for surrendering children changed—from arranging adoptions or sending them to live with rural family to secret placement at carefully chosen doorsteps and, finally, abandonment in public places. In the twenty-first century, China’s so-called abandoned children have increasingly become “stolen” children, as declining fertility rates have left the dwindling number of children available for adoption more vulnerable to child trafficking. In addition, government seizures of locally—but illegally—adopted children and children hidden within their birth families mean that even legal adopters have unknowingly adopted children taken from parents and sent to orphanages.
The image of the “unwanted daughter” remains commonplace in Western conceptions of China. With China’s Hidden Children, Johnson reveals the complex web of love, secrecy, and pain woven in the coerced decision to give one’s child up for adoption and the profound negative impact China’s birth-planning campaigns have on Chinese families.

224 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2016

Asian Studies: East Asia

History: Asian History

Political Science: Comparative Politics


“One cannot come away from this book without a much deeper understanding of the terrible human toll caused by the One-Child Policy. Johnson, the foremost authority on adoption and child abandonment in rural China, debunks the popular notion that birth parents viewed abandoned daughters as ‘throwaways’ at worst, second-class citizens at best. Contrary to the constructed narrative, efforts to keep a daughter collided with a nearly insurmountable wall of laws designed to support the One-Child Policy—with no regard for the best interests of the child. Johnson honors the stories of the birth parents, adoptive parents, and the relinquished daughters caught in the vortex with her sympathetic and sophisticated analysis.”

Tyrene White, author of China’s Longest Campaign: Birth Planning in the People’s Republic

“This is an important book. Johnson provides extraordinarily rich, compelling evidence of what many Chinese families have done to hang on to their daughters, or to adopt daughters from others—all in the face of strong state restrictions and harsh punishments. China’s Hidden Children undermines simple descriptions of what has been going on in China and corrects many misimpressions.”

Nancy E. Riley, coauthor of Making Families Through Adoption

“How did more than 120,000 Chinese children, the great majority baby girls, become available for international adoption in recent decades? In answering that question, this important work, the product of more than two decades of painstaking research in China, dispels multiple myths. Not patriarchal devaluation of girls nor venal and brutal local officials, but unyielding national government pressure for enforcement of the one-child policy’s limits on both births and domestic adoptions, is the primary explanation. The detailed and heartbreaking case studies that Johnson uses to build her critique, of rural parents trying to hide ‘out-of-plan’ children and of baby girls seized from anguished adoptive parents, will leave readers enlightened but also profoundly shaken.”

Martin K. Whyte, Harvard University

“Based on a quarter century of intensive research, Johnson provides a rare account of the domestic circulation and hiding of children from authorities within China. The vivid stories of Chinese parents finding ways to hide and hold on to their ‘unplanned’ births, while others relinquished their daughters and occasionally sons, and still others welcomed those children as their family members, reflect a complex coexistence of helplessness, remorsefulness, and also hopefulness and humanity, in a society where common people face multiple pressures imposed by the state. This is a book that details a relatively unknown aspects of Chinese family lives for China experts, international as well as domestic adoptive families, and anyone interested in the contemporary Chinese families and society.”

Weiguo Zhang, University of Toronto Mississauga

"Johnson continues her quest to uncover the hidden reality and long-term consequences of China’s family planning laws, which up until 2016 prohibited more than one child per family. She provides a thorough examination of the effects of the one-child policy on rural families. In telling the stories of parents forced to abandon daughters, Johnson debunks the myth that Chinese families unequivocally favor sons. . . . This book is important for challenging conventional assumptions that international adoption is the only option for 'unwanted children.' Johnson’s comprehensive survey humanizes a rural population often overlooked in debates over Chinese family planning policies."

Publishers Weekly

“Johnson’s extraordinary book conveys the intense suffering of ordinary people struggling to build families against the will of an implacable bureaucracy.”

Foreign Affairs

“A searing, important, and eminently readable exploration of China’s one-child policy. China’s Hidden Children lays bare how the one-child policy actually unfolded and how so many adopted children were not ‘abandoned’ in any normal sense of the word.”

Nicholas D. Kristof | New York Review of Books

“Johnson demonstrates— more explicitly than I have seen anywhere else—that the 1990s, the period when international adoption of Chinese children first began, saw ‘one of the largest, most brutal birth-planning campaigns that has ever swept the rural areas of central and southern China.’ Throughout her book she shows that these policies deprived millions of Chinese of their fundamental civic and human rights, such as the freedom to grow up in their birth families and the right to health care, education and a secure place to live. Such a concisely and clearly written account is the result of fifteen years of investigation, mostly in rural areas, and of many hundreds of interviews.”

Jonathan Mirsky | Literary Review

“The [One-Child Policy] has had no shortage of coverage. But no one has told this story so well—the story of why Chinese people abandon their girls. And, even more interestingly, of why they do not. . . . Johnson tells of parents hiding children in remote mountain villages, mothers staying indoors for months to conceal their pregnancies, childless bachelors pretending to be fathers, and children swapped with those of relatives. Her book is a portrait of pain. . . . Like much of the conventional wisdom about China and its one-child policy, . . . the western misconception that Chinese people hate girls is just plain wrong.”

Financial Times

"After years of research, Johnson has unpacked a number of misconceptions and misrepresentations. . . . Compared to much writing about adoption, which plumbs the motivations of parents who relinquish or adopt, or the local-level corruption of individual agencies or middlemen, Johnson’s focus is larger: on the government of a huge country and how its social engineering efforts created a widespread crisis for hundreds of thousands of children and their families."

New Republic

"The story of millions and more Chinese children “hidden” in China and the more than 100,000 adopted overseas offers perhaps a most moving, both chilling and loving, memory of a massive twentieth-century social engineering project. Combining her theoretical insights with rich and first-hand research materials, Johnson has written the best analysis so far on state-society dynamics using the one-child policy as an example. No one is more qualified and capable of telling this story than Kay Ann Johnson, who is not only a brilliant scholar devoting much of her academic career on this subject, but also herself a parent who adopted and raised a child with great pride from China. Of all the stories told about China’s one child policy in particular, and of the human costs of the state engineered social projects in general, Johnson’s book is destined to be a definitive classic."

Social Forces

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Introduction: Somebody’s Children
Chapter 2 Relinquishing Daughters—from Customary Adoption to Abandonment
Chapter 3 Adopting Daughters and Hiding Out-of-Plan Children
Chapter 4 From “Unwanted Abandoned Girls” to “Stolen Children”: The Circulation of Out-of-Plan Children in the 2000s
Chapter 5 An Emerging “Traffic in Children”
Chapter 6 Conclusion: The Hidden Human Costs of the One-Child Policy



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