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Give China's 'Xiao Mei Meis' a Future

ATWO-YEAR sabbatical in China can change one's life. Finding an infant girl on the side of the road changes one's whole perception of the world.

Having seen the working of an orphanage and a child-welfare institute, having made friends with ordinary people while experiencing the conditions of life in the heart of rural China, I have a slightly different perspective on current anxiety about the treatment of unwanted children there.

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As China elbows forward to become an economic superpower of the 21st century, 80 percent of its 1.2 billion people are still living in an agrarian, feudal society away from the prospering coastal cities. To understand how social and economic changes are affecting rural Chinese, we need only look at our own history. What were the conditions for orphans in the United States and Europe in the 19th century, during the height of the Industrial Revolution? Were there no workhouses? No prisons? No abuses? Were children not housed with the elderly and other "impotent poor"? Were they not abandoned in the streets and countryside?

This is no defense of the horrors of the "death camp" child-welfare institutes that the media have exposed in the last couple of months. They are as repulsive as that label indicates. The neglect may very well be endemic. It does no good, however, to shake a finger. It ignores so much that is China and its history, traditions, and values, which themselves may offer some solutions.

In fact, the people of China are at odds with their own needs. The problem of unwanted children, which has come to light with such magnitude and severity, is an indirect result of the policies of a government trying to limit population growth, not the barbaric action of a society that does not care for its young. More than 1 billion Chinese are living shoulder to shoulder in a land unsuitable for their numbers. They are 20 percent of the world's hungry mouths, eager minds, and willing muscle, with only 7 percent of the world's arable land, and disproportionately small shares of other resources.

After Mao Zedong, who espoused large families, died in the mid 1970s, China's government came to grips with its population problem in the dramatic way a totalitarian system can. The government dictated a policy and set in motion the means to carry it out. Neighborhood volunteer committees of altruists, do-gooders, and busybodies police all fertile women in their domain. "Family planning" clinics "encourage" abortions for mothers who already have a child. There are fines and penalties for having more than one child, as well as fewer rations of rice, oil, and other supplies.

With traditions of care for the elderly, and posthumous care for one's ancestors, what is a family of six adults (four grandparents, two parents) to do? If they can have only one child should it be a boy or a girl? Rural Chinese families, like pre-mechanized farmers everywhere, need children as income-producers. Since Chinese tradition dictates that men care for their parents and women join their husbands' families, the need for boys is acute. For the 80 percent of Chinese who are farmers there is no better social security for old age than a son.

What of the girls, or the children who are not able bodied or intellectually able? The Chinese have done what they have done for years, when famine or some other disaster loomed. They have abandoned or sold children for whom they could see no future.

Today, as China pushes toward superpower status, it finds itself caught in a dilemma. Its feet are stuck in the clay of its peasants' farms while its cities and their leaders are reaching for world leadership. China can't tolerate a world label of barbarism for the "feudal" practice of abandoning its most vulnerable children. Yet the government sympathizes with its rural citizens. Beyond sympathy, China's leaders fear disgruntled peasants, who have overthrown many past dynasties, including the last one.

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With countryside cities and towns closed to outside visitors, the government has been able to strike a humane pose for the world. In the '80s many city orphanages were converted to "child- welfare institutes" and World Bank loans provided some care for the children who made it into open cities and public view. But no one picked up the babies left at rural roadsides.

That fact hit me squarely in the face when we found one such little girl. The spring night in Sichuan was warm and moist, typical of China's breadbasket. David, a fellow teacher, had dropped his bike and burst into our house at an odd hour of the evening. There was a baby by the park, in a bamboo baby backpack!

We had heard from one of our friends in our work unit that a baby had died at our very gate the spring before. We believed the story, but not her assertion of its frequency. This was a city, open to the world, not the feudal countryside. Hers was a stomach-turning story of a little girl who cried herself to death next to an old wooden gate where hundreds of men and women came and went every day. It was uncomfortable to hear because she told us with an uncried tear in her throat. She was there, and so were our other neighbors.

David and I hurried out, followed by two of my sons. We sincerely hoped she wouldn't still be there. But when we got to the park, there was the basket. Despite the smell of soil and neglect, a grasping finger in the basket let us know she was alive.

It was after 10 in the evening, but in broken Chinese I drew a crowd by asking passersby, "Does anyone know whose child this is? How can we find the parents? We need to do something right away, who will help?" Even with people four deep around us, no volunteer came forward. We didn't know what these normally helpful people were afraid of. What might happen to them?

In desperation I pointed at one young man and asked directly "Will you take me to the police station?" His girlfriend preferred to continue on home, but he agreed, to my relief. Three stations later we found someone who would listen.

By the time we got back to where we had left David and Xiao Mei Mei (small little sister, as every little Chinese girl is called), my two sons, Rob and Matt, were helping keep the curious at bay. The police arrived almost simultaneously, thanked us on behalf of the Chinese people for our valuable service, and assured us that they would take care of Xiao Mei Mei from here.

Our relief was short-lived. As soon as we got home we immediately began to worry whether they had taken her away to a more remote spot where no one would notice. The next day we traced Xiao Mei Mei to the local orphanage/social-welfare institution. It turned out to be a place of compassion and care, at or above the local standard of living. Our Xiao Mei Mei even received the special hospital care that her days and weeks of neglect required. Fortunately her story ended happily when a Canadian fellow teacher returned in the fall to claim her for adoption.

Both in this orphanage and in the one in the provincial capital, we were struck not by who was there, but by who was not. There were no children with severe developmental disabilities. There were no children who had multiple special needs. They had not found their way to the orphanage in time, or they had not survived.

With the world watching, China is unlikely to do more than show the round-faced, smiling xiao mei meis who are surviving. When the harsh light of Western scrutiny is turned off, however, its leaders might consider other options. If Chinese leaders fear that opening domestic adoptions would stimulate a flood of staged abandonments by couples wishing to have a son, they might consider opening domestic adoption to the parents of daughters only, who would then be able to have a second child without penalty. This would allow thousands of girls to escape the perils of the roadside.

DOMESTIC and foreign adoptions fit this Chinese conundrum. Adoption is not a foreign idea, but an ancient tradition. Western adoptions bring in needed currency - donations of $3,500 or more per child that can be used to care for those children who need welfare institutes. In addition, these nongovernmental funds could be used to support a domestic adoption program. China would thus have that many fewer unwanted mouths to feed.

Furthermore, no Chinese person is ever lost to China. From ancient times, the middle kingdom has believed that all Chinese sent out into the wider world will one day come back with wealth and benefits for their homeland. This traditional belief is completely congruent with modern ideas about the importance of racial and cultural roots for children.

As in all things human there are very few easy answers, but in this case facilitating adoptions, domestic and foreign, will make life possible for thousands of children and richer for many more adults.

Without name-calling and posturing on both sides, some real progress in human rights might thus be achieved.

Facilitating adoptions of Chinese babies by domestic and foreign parents will make life possible for thousands of children and richer for many more adults.

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