Children on the Margins: The Global Politics of Orphanage Care in Contemporary China
Since beginning its rapid transition to a market economy in 1978, the People's Republic of China has sought to become internationally dominant. In order to develop human capital and labor power, it has implemented a range of ideologically-driven policies that have been geared towards improving the overall mental, moral and physical "quality" (suzhi) of the population. The current criteria for assessing the individual value of citizens have resulted in new lines of stratification being drawn among children. As a result, healthy rural daughters and special needs children in particular are now considered unworthy of intensive investment and face a higher likelihood of being abandoned to state care. However, in an ironic twist of globalization, stigmatized children who were once shut away in state-run orphanages have become major recipients of western aid and child-saving interventions as China continues to "open up" to the outside world.
Based on 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in two Chinese state orphanages that received financial and medical assistance from western non-governmental organizations, I consider the role that globalization is playing in the lives of abandoned youth. This is occurring in two main ways: by the exportation of healthy female children out of the country through transnational adoption and the importation of first-world ideologies and practices by foreigners who seek to improve care for the mostly male special needs youth who are left behind. Through interviews and participant observation with western volunteers and Chinese state caregivers, I demonstrate the ways in which defining the "best interests" of institutionalized children is a highly contested process that implicates international power dynamics and differential access to resources.
I argue that foreign-Chinese collaborations in orphanages are complex processes of negotiation, conflict and compromise that highlight the socially-constructed and contextual nature of children's social value. Moreover, these types of partnerships take place on constantly shifting political terrain, rendering them highly unstable and at times even counter-productive for those they seek to help. Ultimately, by bringing children who exist on the margins of society to the center of scholarly analysis, this research provides a new perspective on the human consequences of Chinese modernization in a globalized era.