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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Importing Western Childhoods into a Chinese State-Run Orphanage


Since the early 1990s the Chinese government has allowed foreign humanitarian non-governmental organizations to aid children residing in official state-run orphanages. As one aspect of a larger research project on child abandonment and forms of orphanage care in contemporary China, this article examines an innovative state-civil society partnership of a Western infant special care unit housed within a large official state-run institution. The “Tomorrow’s Children” special care unit, funded and managed by middle-class Western volunteers, uses First World medical practices and universalistic ideologies of children and childhood to care for the institution’s most severely ill and disabled children. This article utilizes ethnographic methods to discuss conflicts over children’s best interests that arise between Western volunteer employers and the local working-class and poor Chinese caregivers who are expected to implement the imported practices. I contend that disagreements over appropriate childcare hinge on cultural and class-based understandings of childhood and differential access to social and financial resources. This research grounds discussions of globalization in a detailed case study by exposing the tensions and negotiations that occur at the local level in processes of transnational exchange.

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