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Outsourced Children

A Book Review

Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China by Leslie K. Wang. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.

This book is a must-read for anyone involved with orphaned or abandoned children and the programs that care for them in China.  Indeed, those of us engaged in this type of work almost entirely make up the case studies in the book, forming part of the care equation she calls “outsourced intimacy” (the other part of the equation being the adoptive families largely from the US of tens of thousands of China’s daughters). 

Reading along it was easy to see myself, recognize comparable experiences, and remember saying similar things in moments of frustration. I found myself nodding along to her explanations of the maddeningly common cultural clashes that occur in all care programs.  Though the author chooses just three examples from three different cities of actual care practitioners to serve as subjects for her ethnographies (all were groups she personally spent time with as a short-term worker), they well represent the situation as a whole across the country.  

In seven chapters, she takes us through the “Children and Politics of Outsourced Intimacy” using stories of many of the children she encountered to directly connect the policies to the people they affect.

Wang’s well-written findings from her research about the role of Western NGOs in caring for “China’s marginalized youth” are clearly and engagingly presented and validate many facts that individuals or geographically remote organizations might only have guessed at, or shared anecdotally among colleagues who have run similar programs for any length of time.  

This is helpful information to have chronicled and I found myself tagging several pages of adoption facts and figures, especially pleased to have found data to support the rising number of domestic adoptions (30,000 to 40,000 children per year p. 68) that we were seeing on the ground.  However, one should be sure to refer to the endnotes before repeating the data cited, as much information is now more than 10 years old, and some laws she cites are already superseded by newer regulations.

The most compelling (and challenging) parts of the book are Chapters 2 and 5.  Chapter 2 “Survival of the Fittest: Relinquished Children in an Era of ‘High Quality’” offers an in-depth discussion of the concept of “quality” [素质 suzhi] as the measure of a person’s worth. She writes,

Although there is no precise definition of suzhi, the concept broadly refers to a set of quantifiable categories relating to the physical health, mental ability, and the productive power of individuals, group and nations. (p. 30)

Anyone who has spent time working in the Chinese social welfare system is already too familiar with this term, so often used to create distinctions between people as a matter-of-fact measure of what they are like. Just as one might hear, “You know my friend Old Wu, the fat one . . .” people are often described as a high or low quality person. The author’s commentary helps clarify the frustrations and concerns that many foreign workers have regarding the use of suzhi within Chinese society, particularly when applied to children with disabiltiies. 

Chapter 5 “The Limits of Outsourced Intimacy: Contested Logics of Care at the Yongping Orphanage” attempts to objectively present two conflicting “logics of care” within orphan care projects in China.  An emotional logic of care and a custodial logic of care are the terms she creates to describe the reasoning behind the different types of care she observed being provided by Western expatriate volunteers and local ayis, the former valuing maternal nurturance and the latter prioritizing meeting basic physical needs.  

Both chapters make for difficult reading for those who live this work as we are daily confronted with the harsh cultural and practical realities that contribute to the issue of child abandonment in China and the complexities involved in addressing it. 

Chapter 6 looks at the current adoption realities from China, which are almost entirely of children with medical issues or special needs. After a useful summary of the current adoption landscape, Wang takes a needless side turn into American politics, arguing over policies that were never enacted and especially no longer relevant under the current anti-immigration administration. 

Wang’s oversimplification of the motivations behind adoptive families is not to the author’s credit: it appears from the endnotes that she has relied heavily on a book by journalist Kathryn Joyce who wrote a scathing indictment of the motivations of evangelical Christian families who adopt, dredging up horror stories of abusive situations. 

The most galling line of Wang’s entire book comes from Joyce’s conclusions: that “adoption provides a ‘perfect storm of a cause’ that allows Christian conservatives to express a pro-life agenda under the guise of compassion and social justice.” [emphasis mine]  (p.141) Loving adoptive families should rightly rail against such unjust characterizations: they do not endure and persevere through the grueling ordeal that is international adoption—the agonizing wait, the bureaucracy and expense, the sleepless nights of anxiety over the welfare of their beloved sons and daughters before and after their adoption—all while feigning compassion, patting themselves on the back for the spiritual merit they have earned, or ticking off a political agenda item successfully accomplished.

Christian readers should press on through these surprisingly vitriolic jabs and contend with the serious questions raised in this book, especially those that raise our hackles.  It is worth having a thoughtful discussion about how we are often at odds with the local caregivers we employ and train, and whether or not our models of care are truly transformative and sustainable.  We should confront the deeply unchristian view of personhood that a metric of “quality” implies.  Made in the image of God, beloved as the creation of a perfect heavenly Father, saved despite our flaws, infirmities and sins, “quality” does not enter into our equation of human worth.

And our views are not merely Western, but biblical and shared by our local brothers and sisters, whose voices are almost entirely absent from this book (with the exception of a brief reference to a visit at a Chinese Catholic orphanage). It is perhaps the largest hole in Wang’s work, that she does not seem to have met, and thus did not fit into her equation, the competent and dedicated Chinese Christians who also selflessly and tirelessly work on behalf of vulnerable children. 

What aspects of our models of care are largely cultural preferences (for example, prioritizing play and silliness as indicative of a healthy childhood)? What can be redeemed from the local culture and adapted to improving the care for children with disabilities (for example, strong intergenerational family units)?  What are we ultimately fighting for and are we working in a united way, alongside our local brothers and sisters?

What should we repent of (perhaps our pride in having all the answers and assuming we know best in complex situations)? These are all important questions that we need not fear, for the paradox of faith, as God choses redeemed but imperfect people as His servants, will always upend and ultimately carry us past the “contested logics of care” to true Christian compassion in His restorative work.

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Heather Kaiser

Heather Kaiser has been living and working in China for over 25 years, and has volunteered at the local orphanage since 2006.  View Full Bio

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