China tightens control of orphanages

China is tightening up on unofficial orphanages in the aftermath of a fatal orphanage fire in 2013. China is one of seven countries that New Zealand has adoption agreements with through the Hague Convention. 

Mark Russell spoke to Otago University law lecturer Dr Anna High, who has volunteered in orphanages herself; and has visited dozens of orphanages and homes for her research. High is the author of the newly published book Non-Governmental Orphan Relief in China: Law, Policy, and Practice.

What motivated you to research this topic?

My primary research interests are Chinese law and criminal law, and I’m particularly interested in how the law protects vulnerable populations. I’d spent a lot of time volunteering in orphanages in China and I was interested in the issue of these quasi-legal, underground, semi-regulated orphanages.

Across China, tens of thousands of children are living in the care of orphanages set up by the government. Since the 1990s, when reports of systemic abuse and shockingly high mortality rates emerged from a number of state- run orphanages, these institutions have received increased attention and funding to improve caregiving standards and outcomes for their resident children. Although a great deal of progress has been made, there have been ongoing gaps and deficiencies in state-provided orphan welfare in China.

In response to these problems, hundreds of humanitarian workers, both Chinese and foreign, have organised a range of voluntary groups, charities, and caregiving facilities to provide supplementary welfare for China’s children.

I wanted to understand what life was like for the children involved, and how these unofficial orphanages and foster homes interacted with local officials, because it’s common in China for there to be significant gaps between the law ‘on the books’ and the law in action. I visited dozens of orphanages and foster homes as part of my research.

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What’s the situation on the ground?

Until recently, the State officially had a monopoly on running orphanages for orphaned and abandoned children but the reality was many, many grassroots organisations had sprung up, particularly in rural China, to take in vulnerable children. The majority were run by religious organisations, for example underground Catholic congregations, or by foreigners living in China whose own personal mission is to care for vulnerable children.

Of course, outcomes for the children is key. In writing my book, I was aware of the risk of idealising the privately-run, often religiously motivated, orphanages, and conversely of unfairly demonising the state-run orphanages. The problems facing state-run orphanages in China have been well documented by international media, but there has been a great deal of progress in recent decades, and both types of organisations have strengths and weaknesses.

So are China’s state-run orphanages improving?

Yes, I found the care for children in official orphanages is improving. There is more money going into the system but there is still a huge disparity between provinces, depending on local wealth.

How have unofficial orphanages been able to operate for so long?

Non-government orphanages often have a solid track record of working with local officials in rural areas. They have built up a fair amount of social capital and that’s enabled them to operate at a grassroots level.

Having reviewed the applicable laws, I concluded that while it wasn’t strictly permissible for them to do what they were doing, in practice they were being given a great deal of leeway because of the important social function they served.

But they have always faced many challenges because of their lack of legal status. For example, finding a “forever family” via adoption was often more challenging for private orphanages, because their children did not have access to official adoption waiting lists.

But this all changed following a 2013 fire at a private orphanage, which led to a great deal more regulation of the sector. One outcome of the tragedy was that the state responded, not by cracking down on this illegal sector, but by trying to supervise it more meaningfully – as one official put it, there was a need to “encourage love and strengthen supervision”.

What’s behind China’s new focus on foreigners working in this area?

This was another major change that happened in recent years, and which I address in the later chapters of the book. The terrain for foreign NGOs in China has shifted rapidly with new laws and regulations requiring, at least in theory, foreign-funded organisations to be registered and above-board; previously there was a supervision gap here, particularly with smaller, grassroot organisations such as the foster homes I survey for the book.

As I was writing up my book, a number of long-running, well-established foreign orphanages in China were shut down. It’s difficult to be sure what was behind this, but I think it probably related to at least two things – a general political shift, with greater scepticism about foreign NGO involvement in China’s domestic welfare matters; and concerns about the large numbers of children moving across provincial borders to be cared for by unregistered, foreign-run organisations.

Looking at these developments, I can understand China’s prerogative in wanting to oversee the sector more closely. The days of anyone being able to do whatever they want are over, I think. And that’s probably a good thing, although I do hope that the foster home model (orphanages fostering children from orphanages to provide specialist care) can be revived at some point, perhaps with greater state involvement than in the past.

In the meantime, I’m fairly optimistic that the foreign NGOs who are no longer able to be directly involved in foster care will still find ways to contribute to improving Chinese society, and protecting vulnerable children.

What significant issues does the sector still face?

One of the most pressing issues is what to do with children who are not adopted and are now too old to be placed, particularly those with disabilities. This is closely related to another pressing social concern in China, the question of elder case. For example, one of my case study orphanages was set up when a local villager found an abandoned boy living on the streets, and brought him to a group of nuns to be cared for. Some thirty years later, those nuns have cared for hundreds of children, and their first charge is now living in an elder care facility that they set up to serve their community.

Non-Governmental Orphan Relief in China: Law, Policy, and Practice is published by Routledge. Details here.

- Asia Media Centre