David Houle investigates the origins of Chinese adoption.
Photo: Pixland/Thinkstock
You may have seen recent commentary, reporting and personal stories about adopting infants from China. Most of these stories seem to be cast in negative terms: false documents, babies for sale and shady origins of these adopted or soon-to-be-adopted babies.

But what's the reason there are so many Chinese adoptions taking place? Futurist David Houle investigates how government policies can change the course of history.

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.
Chinese couples often had gender-based abortions when they found out the fetus was a female. The Chinese government outlawed gender-based abortions in 2004. This leads back to the subject of this column. When Chinese couples had a baby girl, they very frequently put it up for adoption immediately, gave it to an adoption agency or, more darkly, sold the baby girl on the black market so they could go back to the business of trying to make their single child a son.

This decision, made millions of times, is why there is an overwhelming number of adoptions of baby girls in China. It is these dynamics that have led to all the dark and questioning stories around the adoption of Chinese infants. Currently, China is the only country in the world that has a ratio greater than 1.06 of boys to girls under the age of 15. The only country!

This creates a national dynamic that is potentially very disruptive. There is now a full generation of men in China who have little or no chance of finding a spouse. If the ratio of young men to young women is 120 to 100, those 20 more men might never find wives. Imagine if there were 20 percent more men than women in the 15-35 age group in the U.S. What social disruptions might occur? It is chilling to think about this. Of course, some of you women are thinking that the dating and mating scene would be wonderful.

When several horrific knife attacks on school children in spring 2010 occurred, I was struck by one fact: All the attackers were single men. Did they do this out of total depressed anguish that they would never become fathers? Did they lash out due to anger and self-pity? There is not enough data to conclude it, but it certainly should be considered.

I know this is a slightly darker and less personal column than usual. However, sometimes it's worth looking at the big picture, the macro trends that create the personal stories we read about or experience.

Are there other issues you consider about foreign adoption? Share you thoughts in the comments area.

David Houle is an award-winning futurist and strategist who has launched successful brands and is an in-demand speaker about the future. He writes the popular futurist blog Evolution Shift and lives his life slightly ahead of the curve.

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