There’s a troubling story on the front page of today’s New York Times. In China boys are sometimes stolen from their families and sold to other families that need sons. I’ve written only very little about selling children in the past, and mostly in the context of comparing it to the sale of sperm and eggs, and there were a couple of things in this article that caught my attention.
I note at the outset that it’s probably more accurate to say “stolen” rather than “kidnapped” as in kidnapping a child is held for ransom, and is presumably/hopefully returned once the ransom is paid. By contrast, there is no intention to return these boys to their families. They are taken so they can be delivered to someone else in exchange for money.
The article suggests that the practice of stealing and then selling boys is driven by the felt need, particularly in rural families, for sons. I suppose the implication is that the felt need is sufficiently great that the amount someone will pay is large enough to make the practice of stealing and selling children worthwhile. In other words, the desire for sons creates market demand. (Girls may also be snatched from their parents as well, but for different purposes. Rural Chinese families are not interested in buying daughters.)
Apart from the obvious gender dynamic here, what interests me is that the buyers seem to be buying sons. That is to say, when the rural Chinese family buys a boy they are creating a parent/child relationship. They are not purchasing a servant or a house slave. They are not adopting a child they believe is parentless or abandoned. They are buying a son.
That’s notable, I think. There have been stories about cases instances where children are taken from their families and sold to orphanages who in turn provide them for overseas adoptions. But the critical difference there is that the overseas buyer doesn’t think they are buying a child. In their view, they are adopting a child without parents, or perhaps a child whose parents have abandoned her/him. Adoption is a well-recognized way of creating a parent/child relationship.
I’ve been blogging about the creation/recognition of the parent/child relationship for quite a while now and I’ve discussed many ways in which people gain recognition as parents, or in which the parent/child relationship comes into being. I’ve typically stated that it’s agreed you cannot buy and sell children. Here, then, is a counter-example in which a family buys a son.
Consider the reason why a son is so dearly desired: A son will care for his parents as they age. (A daughter, by contrast, will go to live with her husband and assist in the care of his parents.) A boy who is purchased presumably becomes a son who bears that obligation. He’s not a servant or a serf or a slave.
Obviously this practice is very problematic. The anguish caused the original parents is terrible. Some of the children, too, are old enough so that they must be aware of what has happened to them. And while authorities seem to be little concerned about the practice, the story recounts at least one case in which the child was returned to the original parents. All of this suggests that the purchase of children is not entirely unproblematic. Nevertheless, this is a striking discussion of a market for children and of the problems this may create.