Deviant Behavior as Result of China's One Child Policy

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About this sample


Words: 3138 |

Pages: 7|

16 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Words: 3138|Pages: 7|16 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Defining Deviance
  3. Abstract Harm and Tangible Gain
  4. Sunk Costs
  5. Diffusion of Responsibility and Information
  6. Legal versus Ethical
  7. Conclusion


It was the end of the 1970s, and the Chinese government was realizing that they had a problem. Their population was growing at an enormous rate, and they knew that if it kept growing as it was the government would have a difficult time taking care of its people. “By the time of the 1982 census there were already more than 1 billion people in China, and if current trends persisted, there could be 1.4 billion by the end of the century” (Kane & Choi, 1999, p. 992). In order to slow down this massive population growth, the one child policy was formed. This policy was first announced in 1979 and was created in order to curb the rapidly increasing population.

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Unfortunately, this policy had unintended consequences, many of which were a result of the cultural emphasis that boys were more desirable than girls. Thirty years later, in 2010, the SRB, or the number of males born for every 100 females, was 118. When compared to the global average of 105, this number is significantly higher (Shi & Kennedy, 2016, p. 1019). This disparity is due to a number of different factors, including an increase in abortions, an underreporting of live births, and infants being put up for adoption or abandoned at orphanages.

According to John M. Darley, organizations “can lurch towards evil in ways not intended by any of the participants in the organization” (Darley, 1996, p. 14). In this case, the government decided to enforce a policy that limited the number of children its citizens could have in order to ensure the growing population did not negatively impact the country, but did not consider how this may affect the lives of its citizens and how they would respond.

This resulted in orphanages taking advantage of the increase of unwanted babies and making large amounts of money from international adoptions. When the amount of abandoned babies started to decrease, the orphanages began partaking in deviant behavior. Human trafficking is deviant behavior that can be caused by abstract harm versus tangible gain, sunk costs, and diffusion of responsibility and information. Examination of the implementation of the one child policy in China shows how individuals can be encouraged to commit deviant acts, specifically in relation to human trafficking in orphanages and international adoptions.

Defining Deviance

Before it is possible to discuss deviant behavior and how it is caused, it must first be defined. Deviance can be defined as intentionally or unintentionally creating a system that leads to unethical behavior. Ermann and Lundman explain in their book Corporate and Governmental Deviance that “organizational elites can indirectly cause deviant actions by establishing norms, rewards, and punishments that encourage deviance” (Ermann & Lundman, 2002, p. 9).

In this case, the punishments came in the form of fines and penalties to prevent families from having more than one child, which resulted in an increase in abandoned children. Later, when they began to allow international adoptions, they included a mandatory donation of $3000 to the orphanage from foreign parents. This rewarded the orphanages for international adoptions, and was most likely one of the stimuli for the trafficking that later took place.

To better understand the situation in China, it is important to know the history behind their orphanages and adoption policies. By the early 1990s, orphanages in China were full of girls who had been abandoned as a result of the one child policy. “Yet legal requirements that adopters be over 35 and childless severely limited the number of families who could legally adopt children in the 1990s. While this did not prevent unofficial adoption in violation of the restrictions, it did keep adopters away from government orphanages, thus increasing the burden on those institutions”.

Many of these institutions could barely take care of the children they had due to poor funding, lack of resources, and understaffing (Chinese Orphanages: A Follow Up, 1996, p. 5). Conditions in many locations were terrible and, according to a report by Human Rights Watch/Asia, resulted in astronomically high death rates recorded during the period from 1988-1992 (Chinese Orphanages: A Follow Up, 1996, p. 2).

In 1992, “the Chinese government enacted the 1992 Adoption Law of China” to allow international adoptions. Since this decision was made, many of the children who were adopted by foreigners ended up going to the United States. The amount of adoptions of Chinese children by US citizens increased from just over 206 in 1992 to almost 8,000 in 2005 (U.S. Department of State). Adopting from China was desirable for multiple reasons.

This is because “Chinese babies are generally healthier than infants from other developing countries, since fewer Chinese mothers are alcoholics, drug addicts, or infected with HIV”, there were less “administrative difficulties often experienced in other foreign countries', and “China's intercountry adoption procedures allow single individuals and persons in their forties or older – who may face eligibility hurdles elsewhere – to adopt Chinese children” (Gates, 1999, p. 384). In addition to this, many of the families adopting knew about the one child policy and thought they were helping by saving these girls from growing up in a Chinese orphanage.

As China eased restrictions on domestic adoptions and the standard of living rose, less babies were abandoned which led to less healthy children in the orphanages available for international adoption. There was still a demand for international adoptions, however, and the “orphanages had gotten used to getting money for international adoption” (Leland, 2011). Because of this increased demand and lack of supply, some orphanages started to turn to other means of getting children, such as trafficking.

Abstract Harm and Tangible Gain

According to Darley (1996), abstract harm and tangible gain can be a reason why people fall into deviant behavior. Abstract harm is defined by Darley as an action that “is taken that will ultimately result in harm to others” but “there is initially no overt target of the actions committed, no salient other human who is seen to be a victim of the action” (Darley, 1996, p. 22).

Tangible gain, on the other hand, is easy to see and usually comes in the form of things like money, goals, or efficiency. When looking at the situation in the Chinese orphanages and the adoption program, we can see a few instances where this applies. For example, in order to make it easier to put children up for adoption, many orphanages would falsify the documents of the children that they bought from traffickers. By doing this, they were causing potential harm to the birth parents, the parents adopting, and the children themselves, in favor of the tangible gain of the mandatory donation the adoptive parents had to pay to the orphanages.

As previously mentioned, abstract harm occurs when an action results in unintentional harm to a victim. In the case of the birth parents, there is always a chance that the traffickers did not simply find the children on the side of the road. Sometimes children were kidnapped by traffickers or taken by government workers for violating the one child policy. “It used to be that family planning would come in if you had an over-quota child, and they’d bash down your house, or take a pig, or do something.

Once the orphanage joined the international adoption program, that changed, and so now they saw kind of a win-win situation going where the family planning would go in and take the child that wasn’t registered, turn it in to the orphanage, the orphanage would reward the family planning officials, and then adopt that child internationally” (Amazon Studios, 2019).

By falsifying details about the children and where they found them, they increased the chance that birth parents that had their child taken from them would not be able to find them. In the case of the adopting parents, who spent a lot of time and money to add a child to their family, the chance that their new child was actually stolen from its birth parents is devastating.

In addition to the guilt they may feel about potentially being the reason their new child was separated from parents who actually wanted them, if the child truly was stolen there is the fear that the birth parents may try to take their child back. Finally, there is much harm caused to the children caught in the center of all of this. Instead of growing up with their biological parents, they would most likely grow up in a different country thinking that their birth parents did not want them. If by some chance they did find out that they were taken as a child, it may be too much for them to take in.

According to Research-China, an organization who helps parents research China’s orphanages and adopted children, it is not uncommon for adopted children to not want to meet or even learn about their birth parents. They already have their own life, and learning about their birth parents would complicate that, especially after years of believing they did not want them in the first place.

Most likely the orphanages did not purposely try to cause harm to the birth parents, adopting parents, and adopted children, but it is obvious that they did. In the face of a tangible gain like the money they would receive from the mandatory donation, the potential harm was far from their minds. They did not have a connection to the children and parents they were harming. Abandoned babies were very common at the time, and it was much easier to falsify records than to search for birth parents who may or may not want their child.

Sunk Costs

Another source of deviant behavior are sunk costs. Darley (1996) defines a sunk cost as “commitments to a course of action that are generated by some initial decision, often a decision to invest financial or other resources in a course of action” (Darley, 1996, p. 21). This definition of a sunk cost can be seen in both the orphanages and the foreign parents adopting the children.

Orphanages spent money to take care of the children in their care, in addition to buying children from traffickers. They invested this money in hopes that a foreign family would come to adopt the children and pay the mandatory donation to the orphanage. Because of their investment in the children, they were committed to putting them up for international adoption instead of searching for their birth parents or allowing a domestic couple who did not have to make the donation to adopt.

The parents adopting the Chinese children also had sunk costs that influenced their behavior. The adoption process takes a lot of time and money, so by the time they bring their new child home they have already invested a lot into them. Maybe of even more consequence is the amount of love and attention they give the child once they bring them home.

For all intents and purposes, they believe this is now their child. When it was discovered that there was a possibility that some of the children being adopted had been stolen from their birth parents, many parents did not know how to react. They were angry that the orphanages had possibly lied about how they found the children, but also fearful that they may have to give up their adopted child. As a result, many parents went on the defensive and would not speak out about their suspicions about what had happened or allow organizations who had collected the DNA of parents who had their children stolen to contact them.

This is what Brian Stuy, the founder of Research-China, has experienced. “When he has managed to contact birth parents, he said, most were content to learn that their children were alive, that they were healthy and in good homes. ‘Unfortunately, the reaction of most adoptive parents is to go into hiding,’ Mr. Stuy said. ‘When they have suspicions, they don’t want to come forward.’” (Leland, 2011).

His wife, Long Lan, expands on what the parents are feeling. “When I shared the situation with some adoptive U.S. parents, they were completely shocked. They just couldn’t take it all in at once and were in total denial. They felt as though the adoption of their daughter might have caused her to be abducted from her birth family. They were also worried that their daughter might be forcibly returned to China. They were afraid they’d lose her and immediately cut off contact with us” (Amazon Studios, 2019).

This behavior from both the orphanages and parents can be traced back to sunk costs. In both cases, time and money were invested into the children that could not be given back. The orphanages reacted unethically by paying for the babies in order to get money from international parents, and the parents reacted unethically by not speaking out about the corruption they witnessed in the orphanages.

Diffusion of Responsibility and Information

“Diffusion of responsibility is another source of organizational harmdoing” (Darley, 1996, p. 18). The adoption process in China 'was touted as the most stable program, the most above-board program' by adoption agencies. The possibility of trafficking was rarely mentioned even in the late 2000s, despite previous articles written about traffickers arrested in China for selling babies to orphanages.

The information was there, but no one seemed to want to put the pieces together showing that it was a bigger problem than was originally thought. Darley (1996) has this to say about the mindset that leads to diffusion of responsibility: “Responsibility requires knowledge. If I do not know that harm is risked, then I am not responsible for preventing that harm” (Darley, 1996, p. 17). This concept applies to both the parents adopting and the actual adoption agencies the parents go through to connect them to the orphanages.

Many parents that wanted to adopt assumed that the adoption agencies they were going through had done their research, and that the orphanages they received their children from could be trusted. In reality, many of the orphanages forged the documents of the children, like in the case of one woman who said “My Guangxi daughter was adopted with a group of 11 other infants, all roughly the same age, and came home with an extremely detailed description of her first 11 months of life in her orphanage. Yet ‘her’ information was word-for-word the same as the info given the families of the other 11 children adopted at the same time — making it all too specific to be believable” (Leland, 2011).

This was a common practice of the orphanages that bought trafficked children, but even if parents thought it seemed suspicious, few actively questioned it. Out of 342 adoptive parents of Chinese children that were surveyed, “Two-thirds said they “never” suspected that their children might have been abducted, and one in nine said they thought about it “sometimes.” Several said the paperwork from the orphanages was inconsistent or suspicious” (Leland, 2011).

“To halt ongoing processes because of potential future harms requires an action, a decision, while allowing the continuation of normal processes requires no action. Thus, the decision to intervene is often framed as requiring clear and overwhelming evidence before it is taken…” (Darley, 1996, p. 21). It is easier to allow things to continue as they are rather than doing something to stop it, so unless there is conclusive evidence that there is widespread corruption in the orphanages, it is easier for parents and adoption agencies to not upset the status quo.

Even though there has been multiple reports of orphanages participating in buying children, many in the adoption community consider them to be isolated cases. Instead of taking action and asking questions which could result in frayed relations and a loss of business, many agencies and adopting parents stand by and continue to allow this to occur without consequence. They have decided that it is not their responsibility, and therefore not their problem.

Legal versus Ethical

According to both the United Nations and China, the selling of babies to orphanages by traffickers is human trafficking. “The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2019). China’s law also criminalizes the “abducting and trafficking of women or children” which it defines as “a series of acts (e.g., abduction, kidnapping, purchasing, selling, sending, receiving) for the purpose of selling women and children” (U.S. Department of State).

However, the US Government defines human trafficking as “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age” and “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2019).

Based on this definition, it could be argued that what is taking place in China is not human trafficking, at least from the view of the United States government, since the children are not being sold for labor or sexual exploitation. This is the argument that adoption agencies and government officials have made when they were confronted by parents with adopted Chinese children and other individuals about children being sold to orphanages in China.

Based on this definition, no laws are being broken and no deviant behavior is taking place. After all, the babies are finding homes in the United States instead of growing up in an orphanage. But just because the law says that it is legal does not mean that it is ethical. As previously discussed in the sections above, harm is being caused by orphanages buying children from traffickers. Based on Paul and Elder’s definition of ethics, doing good while doing no harm, the orphanages are behaving unethically. As a result, the United States law regarding the legality of selling babies to orphanages is also unethical.


The implementation of China’s one child policy resulted in widespread deviant behavior caused by abstract harm and tangible gain, sunk costs, and diffusion of responsibility and information. A large factor in the deviant behavior that occurred was the policy of punishing parents who had more than two children, resulting in the abandonment of babies, and rewarding orphanages for international adoptions through the mandatory donation by the foreign adopting parents.

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This resulted in harm to the birth parents who had their children stolen from them, adoptive parents who feared their adopted child may be taken away, and the adopted children themselves who had to come to terms with the fact that they were trafficked. Even though the United States does not consider the selling of babies to orphanages to be human trafficking, it is still unethical behavior as shown by the harm it caused to the people involved.

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Deviant Behavior as Result of China’s One Child Policy. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
“Deviant Behavior as Result of China’s One Child Policy.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022,
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