David Houle investigates the origins of Chinese adoption.
Photo: Pixland/Thinkstock
As a futurist, I typically do not delve into human interest stories; instead, I look to see the larger forces and dynamics that course through the rapid-fire media environment in which we live. This column will take a nonjudgmental look at the forces—some intended, some unintended—that are behind the huge volume of Chinese children being adopted by American families.

With a population of 1.3 billion, China is the most populous country in the world. This is more than four times the population of the U.S. The Chinese government, in its various iterations over the past four decades, realized that slowing the population growth of the country was absolutely essential in avoiding mass starvation and cataclysmic poverty. In a policy announced in 1979, the Chinese government made public its new population policy of allowing each couple to have only one child.

The statistical replacement rate for any country is 2.1 children per couple. This means that a population will remain level if each couple averages 2.1 children. The Chinese policy meant that the long-term goal of the government was to slow population growth and actually shrink the total population.

Now, in a world where there are 6.8 billion humans on the planet, this is an intelligent policy in terms of human well-being. To put this number in perspective, on the day I was born, there were 2.45 billion people alive on the planet. In my lifetime, the population of the planet has increased by 4.35 billion! Thousands of people die every day from starvation-related health ailments.

"One child per couple" has produced the Chinese government's desired results. In 1971, a Chinese woman had an average of 5.4 children. By 2004, that number had dropped to an estimated 1.7 (meaning, among other things, there obviously was not universal enforcement of the law). Between 1980 and 2010, China's population increased by 340 million. Between 2010 and 2040, it is expected that China's population will increase by about 120 million—a drop in population growth of almost 66 percent.

This policy's statistical aims run into China's deeply embedded and centuries-old social morality and cultural belief system. Simply put, having a son was better than have a daughter. Before 1979, if a couple had a daughter, they immediately set out to—they hoped—conceive a son. The 2000 Chinese census showed there were close to 120 boys born for every 100 girls. This contrasts sharply with the global average of about 105 boys born for every 100 girls. Something was going on to create this skewed number—and the answers are not all pleasant.