Lost and Found

An abandoned baby on the streets of Shanghai.

Are Chinese orphans better off than they used to be?

One might easily see such a thing in a Shanghai alleyway and think nothing of it: a bundle of fabric tied up with a rope. Except that this particular bundle was screaming.

I could not tell at first if the squalling child was male or female, but I knew exactly what it was doing there: a desperate mother had swaddled her newborn infant in several layers of clothing and left it alone in the winter darkness—so that it could have a chance to live.

For me, it was an all-too-familiar story: my own two daughters were abandoned at birth, left alone in a Chinese street to the mercy of strangers. But that was more than a decade ago—a decade in which China has become a powerful force in markets from natural resources to sports cars, from luxury goods to aircraft carriers. In a China of diamond iPads and gold-plated limousines were babies still ending up in anonymous alleyways?

This child’s mother had chosen the spot carefully: only steps from one of the best hotels in Shanghai, beside a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise patronised mostly by foreigners. I had been meeting my friend John there for a quick doughnut fix, and it was he who heard the baby’s cries as he chained his bicycle to the alleyway gate.

“There’s a baby outside!” John exclaimed as he slid into the seat beside me, still blustery from the cold. “What do you mean, there’s a baby outside?” I asked in alarm, bolting out of the door to see what he was talking about.

What I found was a scene whose every detail spoke of maternal care, and anguish: the multicoloured quilt was bright, thick and tied just so—the corner lay over the child’s face, to protect it from the pre-Christmas chill. Beneath the angry bundle lay two plastic carrier bags bulging with brand new baby clothes, tins of infant formula, packs of nappies and scrubbed-clean bottles, the only love note a mother could dare to leave for a child she would never know. China’s version of the stork myth is to tell children they were found in a trash can; in the case of the baby in the alleyway, that story was too close to the truth for comfort.

“There, there, little guy,” I crooned as I awkwardly picked up the quilt bundle, which immediately stopped crying. The doughnut shop staff had already called the police to report the abandonment, so I knew I would not have long with Baby Doe (or Baby Donuts, the nickname suggested irresistibly by the location). I knew that the police would call for an ambulance, too, that would whisk the child away. So for half an hour I cradled the infant (which I only later discovered was a six-week-old girl) and bawled.

I cried for the baby, for the mother, but most of all I cried for my own children: abandoned at the far more dangerous ages of one and six days old—and in weather possibly far colder. I cried for women I do not know, who were forced to discard the children who became my daughters. I cried for the fact that they may never know their child is safe, and cherished.

I had mourned for those women before: on my children’s birthdays I always remember the women who gave them life. But I have never wept as I did holding Donuts. The weight of her body, the soupçon of coldness around the nether regions that suggested a possibly wet nappy and the way she protested when I sat in one position for too long, were altogether too real for comfort. I knew all about abandonment in theory; now I knew about abandonment in nappies.

I suspected right away that Donuts had a medical problem: something about the way her mouth puckered when she breathed, and the fact that she was sweating, gave me a hint; but more than anything, it was the fact that abandonments of healthy infants are increasingly uncommon. Most children in Chinese orphanages now are disabled. To adopt healthy children, foreign parents must wait for up to five years.

Healthy babies do still find themselves on the street sometimes: China’s one-child policy continues to produce surplus children, especially in areas where rural people believe boys are needed to carry on the family name and support parents in retirement. The result is that girls are abandoned or aborted. Indeed, only days before my friend stumbled upon Donuts, dead twin girls had been discovered near my own local subway station in a prosperous Shanghai suburb. And in May, a Chinese microblog site carried a particularly striking photo of a newborn girl, dressed in pink and found in a box containing the equivalent of $200.

I knew that I could not simply walk off with Donuts (though I was sorely tempted). I was all too aware that for any eventual adoption she would need the all-important “certificate of abandonment”—and for that she needed to have a police report of the circumstances in which she was found. If I just took off with her, neither I nor anyone else could ever adopt her: I wanted her paperwork to be impeccable.

But paperwork is one thing, and finding a squirming, squalling baby in one of the richest streets in Shanghai is quite another: it unnerved me. I wish I could say I had the presence of mind to look out for the mother (such mothers often lurk nearby to make sure that their baby is safely discovered); I should have taken pictures of the carrier bags, with their eloquent testimony to a mother’s devotion; most of all, I should never have let her out of my arms.

Maybe I should have insisted on riding with her in the ambulance to hospital, or on going with my friend to the police station where she was processed for admission to an orphanage. I should not have let him do all of that alone.

But because I have adopted children in China, I knew that the system had to be allowed to work and that, realistically, I had to step aside. It was my friend who had found Donuts, so only he was expected at the police station that night to give his account. It was there that he learned from a police officer that the hospital had made a preliminary diagnosis of a heart defect in Donuts. So instead, I went home and hugged my own kids and fretted over how to help this newest orphan. I started e-mailing and texting friends around the world, and within hours many of them responded with offers of money to repair Donuts’ heart. Several of them volunteered to adopt her. Under Chinese law I am too old, and too single, to do so myself; but I vowed that if I could not be her mother I would be her guardian angel.

And so began a frantic race to find and help Donuts. I had no name and no identity number; all I had was a copy of the police report handed to John, as the official “finder”, and a mobile phone snapshot of the infant that he’d taken. I contacted a number of foreign charities to see if they could assist. Several of them (notably the Baobei Foundation and Heart to Heart Shanghai) asked Chinese members of staff to try to locate her by offering potential medical help—fearing that if the offer came directly from foreigners it would be immediately rebuffed. They were rebuffed anyway.

About 10 days later, just before New Year, we got word that Donuts, still with no name, was at a hospital in central Shanghai. But when I took my children, then aged nine and 11, to try to visit her—bearing chocolates to soften up the nurses—I was told (doubtless dishonestly) that the hospital had no paediatrics unit. We even looked for her in paediatric emergency—a gruesome experience not for the faint-stomached. When my Chinese colleague inquired after her, by phone, she also turned up nothing. I began to despair that I would ever know if Donuts lived or died—and all because China has suddenly learned to resent the hand that donates to it.

China is still smarting from the national humiliation of having had to export as many as 100,000 babies in the past 20 years. Foreign charities are still allowed to help some of the sickest babies from the poorest provinces; but Shanghai prides itself on being able to pay its own way. Foreign volunteers used to be allowed into the Shanghai orphanage weekly just to cuddle the kids; now they are not. Shanghai wants to make one thing perfectly clear: if its abandoned children need a heart operation, they no longer have to go begging.

I immediately recognised the attitude: a new Chinese self-confidence—some call it arrogance—that has emerged. From babies to banking, China is flexing its muscles. But one of the upsides of that new confidence is that the government has begun to care about what the rest of the world thinks of it. Knowing that, and having failed through other channels, I turned eventually to the information section of the Shanghai department of foreign affairs, and explained my intention to write an article about Donuts—in which I might find it necessary to mention that the system meant I was not allowed to help her.

Their staff quickly located the baby and reported on her condition—she had atrial septal defect (a common heart condition), a large angioma on her right eye and one webbed foot. When she was about four months old, they arranged for me to visit her at the Shanghai City Children’s Welfare Institute, where she was taken after her hospital stay.

It was there that I discovered that being a ward of the state in China these days is not nearly so appalling as it used to be. For as China has grown wealthier, so have its orphanages. There are homes in some smaller, poorer or more remote cities that remain grim, but at Donuts’ orphanage, visions of Oliver Twist are a distant memory.

Its grounds are beautifully landscaped, the compound is painted in cheerful primary colours and staffing is ample. Today, Donuts is nine months old and is cared for in a large, bright room reserved for babies whose health needs monitoring. Four trained nurses are on duty at all times, for about 20 infants with special health needs.

The orphanage where my elder daughter, Grace, spent the first eight months of her life was rebuilt recently, with underfloor heating, flat screen televisions, a Little Tots climbing frame and a bouncy castle. And the US charity Half the Sky Foundation—which has trained staff in scores of Chinese orphanages to nurture children rather than just keep them alive—recently announced that Beijing will start to shoulder the financial burden of building special nurture centres in additional Chinese orphanages.

. . .

Soon after Donuts arrived at her temporary home, orphanage staff gave her a name and a birthdate. Her name was chosen according to a formula that applies to all new arrivals: 2010 arrivals all receive the same surname, Jiang; the orphanage wishes to keep the rest of her name private. Her official birthday is October 28 2010, arrived at from an educated guesstimate. Like both my children, for the rest of her life Donuts will celebrate a birthday without ever knowing how accurate it is. Where other children have a birth certificate, a genealogy and a family tree, they have a “certificate of abandonment”.

The first couple of times I visited her, Baby Jiang seemed to be doing well: she was responsive, alert, relaxed, and she cooed a lot. Charm, in an orphanage baby, works wonders: babies who smile, coo and engage their carers get far more attention, and for her, that might make all the difference.

Aware that babies are not all created equal in the eyes of many orphanage nannies, the first time I visited, I came bearing expensive presents: Lindt Lindor truffles and a posh European tea sampler, gifts chosen to convey a sense that this was a baby of substance. I need not have bothered: Donuts already had her own PR strategy.

The head matron told me right away that she “sleeps well and eats well”—what more could one ask for, in an orphan? But the look in the eyes of the bucktoothed, sweet-faced nurse who held Donuts—making the same silly faces a mother would make—told me that she is also a favourite. The nurse may not be Mum—but she will do nicely for the moment.

The tale of an abandoned Chinese infant is not always so warm and fuzzy. For centuries, rural Chinese women were forced—by circumstance, and often by their mothers-in-law—to strangle or drown or simply throw away girl babies at the moment of their birth. Xinran, the Chinese radio show host turned author, recounts in her new book, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother, an incident from Shandong province in 1989, when she was present at the birth of a granddaughter to the village headman.

“Suddenly, I thought I heard a slight movement in the slops pail behind me,” she writes. “To my absolute horror, I saw a tiny foot poking out of the pail… Then the tiny foot twitched! It wasn’t possible. The midwife must have dropped that tiny baby alive into the slop pail!” Xinran accosts the grandmother, who explains calmly that “a girl baby isn’t a child”.

It is that kind of story—which, however, gruesome, is far from apocryphal—that makes it, paradoxically, relatively easy to explain to our Chinese daughters why their parents abandoned them. When traditional preference for sons meets the one-child policy, the inevitable outcome is abandonment (or sex-selective abortion).

Families that need a son may keep the first daughter and try again (most rural families are allowed to have a second child if their first child is a girl). But if they are unlucky enough to bear another girl, abandonment may be their only option. Single mothers may abandon a baby of any sex. And mothers of children with costly medical problems like Baby Jiang’s may be unable (or think they are unable) to get help for their children any other way.

But as my daughters grow up I become more aware that vague generalisations about the one-child policy are not the same as concrete facts about where they were born, and when, and to whom—and the real reasons why their parents could not keep them. I was living in the US when I adopted, and that is where my daughters spent the first few years of their lives. Soon after we moved to China three years ago, we returned to the hometown orphanage of my oldest girl for the first time. She was eight then, and not long after our visit she challenged my version of her abandonment myth: “She could have paid the fine,” she said to me one night. “Who could have paid what fine?” I replied, dissembling: I knew she meant that her mother could have chosen to pay the stiff penalty (sometimes as much as a year’s income) imposed on those who break family-planning rules.

She wanted me to stop making her abandonment story into a fairy tale about the good parent and the evil one-child policy: maybe her mother was a businesswoman who was just too busy to have a baby. Maybe she could have paid the fine.

I have started to hear more and more stories of foreign adoptive families that have, against the odds, located birth parents. Dr Chang Changfu, a Chinese academic, has recently made two of these stories into a heart-wrenching documentary film, Daughters’ Return, about two Chinese adoptees, one Dutch and one American. They discover birth parents who went to great lengths to keep them, but in the end were defeated by the one-child policy and the traditional quest for a male heir. Both girls, now teenagers, are left torn between the family that bore them and the family that raised them.

Indeed, “root-seeking tours”—which sometimes include birth family searches—have become something of a cottage industry in China as more and more foreign families bring their children to learn about the land of their birth. Some unscrupulous orphanage directors exploit those visits for their own personal gain, soliciting or even requiring cash “donations” for those wanting to visit their child’s orphanage—cash that sometimes never makes it to those children who remain there.

Beijing actively encourages orphanage reunions, even offering an all-expenses-paid culture camp this summer in Shanghai for adoptees willing to come to China. Several orphanages have held lavish reunions where overseas adoptees are feted and showered with presents. Some government officials and orphanage directors say privately that one goal of the tours is to counter the psychology of abandonment: they do not want Chinese adoptees abroad to think their homeland discarded them lightly.

So increasing numbers of families are taking the risk of looking for birth parents. Some are afraid of what they might find: what if the parents want the child back? What if, horror of horrors, they discover that their child was one of the small minority who were sold to an orphanage? Recently, adoption circles in the US were abuzz with reports that one adoptive family received a request from the US state department to provide a DNA sample to Chinese police, presumably to prove that their child was not abducted.

That story, coupled with recent increased Chinese media reports linking child trafficking with international adoption, has made some parents think twice about doing any “root seeking”. On August 10, A Bright Moon, a website that offered to help adoptive families locate birth parents, said it was closing down because its office in Beijing was “constantly questioned by the police relative to families desiring to search for their child’s birth families”.

. . .

Those who do look often find that things are not as random as they thought: sometimes the child’s finder (whose identity is usually disclosed in the police report) may well know the father or the aunt or the grandmother—or may even be the grandmother. Some families designate a relative to “discover” the child—to make sure that it gets safely to the orphanage. Often they know much more than they at first disclose.

Officially, the Chinese authorities discourage birth-parent searches. But once local media get wind of a human interest story of those proportions they are often willing to help publicise the search. In many cases that leads to a reunion—with the parents or siblings of the searching child (and sometimes with the parents of a different child, abandoned around the same time).

After I had read several of these birth-search stories in the local press—and especially after meeting Donuts—I decided to dip my toe in, by trying to find the person who discovered my daughter Grace, the former Yang Shumin. To my secret relief, I failed: after nearly 12 years, her police report could not be located. I visited the police station, where the officers on duty showed not the slightest interest in my quest; and I visited the place where she was abandoned, where I found no one who remembered anything.

The next step would be publicity—but Grace Shumin does not want that. She says she only wants to know whether her birth father is tall—because she likes being the tallest girl in her class, and hopes she comes from tall stock. But she is not willing to take the risk of finding out any more than that. As a pre-teen now, the last thing she wants is more mothers and siblings to deal with: she is finding the ones she has quite annoying enough.

As China grows in confidence, in wealth, in world stature, the first generation of international adoptees will grow to maturity—and ask more questions. They will come to China, to study, to work, to seek an ethnic identity they lost at the moment of adoption. Some may find the ugly truth that they were abducted; others will find (as in one recent case from Jiangsu province) that they were a child who had simply been lost, but ended up in an orphanage believing themself to be an abandoned child. They will hear heartbreaking stories of why they were abandoned; they will meet mothers who feel no guilt—and others who have never recovered. And some of them will find nothing: lost police reports; obstructive authorities; false documents.

Perhaps my own children will want to know more about their birth parents, when they are 20 or 30 or 60 years old—or maybe they will never have the slightest inclination. Maybe they will never know what the weather was like when they were abandoned, whether it was snowing or balmy, dusky or crepuscular, whether their quilt was tied just so—or whether they had a quilt at all. Maybe they will never care.

Soon, with any luck, Donuts will embark on a new life as the cherished daughter of a loving family, in China or maybe overseas. Just before this article went to press, I heard that Baby Jiang had had her heart defect corrected in a Shanghai hospital. Orphanage staff say they will monitor her progress and make her available for adoption as soon as she is strong enough.

But wherever she ends up, and whenever she gets adopted, I will make sure that Donuts knows just how well she was swaddled; and that her mother chose a mild night, after a run of freezing evenings; and that she picked a busy time at the doughnut shop; and that she put her baby against a wall, behind a gate, sheltered but easily discovered—by people who went there craving a doughnut fix and came away touched by an event they will always remember.

And most of all, I will tell her the one thing that I can never tell my own children with certainty: that her mother loved her. Because if it was not love lurking among all those nappies and bottles and formula tins, I have never seen love before. I hope one day she will think on those things, and forgive the mother who left her there.

Additional reporting by Shirley Chen in Shanghai.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.