Each year, tens of thousands of children are abandoned in China, most of them baby girls born to families wanting boys, or babies who are disabled. Over the past 20 years, more than 100,000 of them have been adopted by couples in 17 developed countries. This is good for the adopted child, who will enjoy more resources growing up, and the adopting couple, most of whom are infertile.
However, in today's more affluent China, a backlash over such adoptions is growing. In May, family planning officials in one county in Hunan removed by force nearly 20 children born in defiance of the one-child policy and sold them for adoption in the United States and the Netherlands, according to an influential Beijing-based journal.
The report, by Caixin Century, provoked more than 33,000 angry comments on 163.com, a leading web portal. It said that the children were taken because their parents were too poor to pay the fines for breaching the policy. Like many issues in China today, the outrage is tainted with nationalist overtures, ignoring the benefits it brings to all parties concerned. The domestic debate also exaggerates the prevalence of foreign adoptions, as they involve only a small fraction of the orphans nationwide.
Critics ignore the humanitarian aspect of such adoption, placing national pride above all considerations. If the adopted children had stayed in China, they would have faced an uncertain future - a domestic adoption or growing up in an overcrowded orphanage and finding a place in a fiercely competitive society with limited financial and personal resources.
Instead, they are growing up in comfortable families in developed countries. The criteria laid down by the China Centre for Children's Welfare and Adoption (CCCWA) are designed to ensure that these families are able to give the children a strong financial, physical and psychological foundation.
Large-scale adoption from China is a recent phenomenon. It was only in December 1991 that China passed its first Adoption Law, allowing foreign adoptions. In 1992, only about 250 babies went abroad. The number rose rapidly to 2,500 in 1995, 4,850 in 1998 and, in 2005, a record 14,000, of whom about 7,900 went to the United States. Last year, American families adopted 3,401 Chinese children, paying an average of US$16,803 in fees and waiting 177 days, according to the US State Department. That made China the No 1 provider, ahead of Ethiopia with 2,513 and Russia with 1,082. According to the CCCWA's website, citizens from 17 economies can adopt Chinese children - US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the remaining 12 from Europe.
The reason China has been so popular is that it has an efficient and well-organised system to help foreign families find children: it has an enormous supply of healthy orphan girls, and the birth parents have no wish or intention to take them back. Usually, they abandon them and take care to leave no record of their identity, enabling them to have another child legally. The nightmare for an adopting family is that the birth parents will later make a claim, which is recognised in many countries. The Chinese parents have no right to a claim.
Foreign adoptions are also an excellent way to bring millions of dollars into China's orphanages and child care agencies from people willing and able to pay, to complete their family and obtain a child they were often unable to have.
The CCCWA criteria include: the couple must have no children, can raise and educate the child, have no mental or infectious diseases and are both at least 30.
Since the 2005 peak, the number of foreign adoptions has fallen, because of domestic scandals like the one in Hunan, more adoptions by Chinese families, the birth of fewer unwanted children and stricter adoption criteria. The successful adoption of a baby brings great joy to the parents and their family. Many had spent thousands of dollars on infertility treatments that were not successful.
According to different estimates, 10 to 12 per cent of couples have problems conceiving. America's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 10 per cent of women in the US between the ages of 15 and 44 - 6.1 million women - have difficulty getting or staying pregnant. It is a misfortune that affects all classes and ethnic groups. In China, the opposite phenomenon is occurring - tens of thousands of unwanted girls in a society with a preference for boys. Their families do not want them and the orphanages and child care facilities are stretched to look after them.
So these foreign adoptions are a happy result of supply and demand, giving the baby girls a future they could not have dreamed of at home and the parents a new member of the family they always wanted but could not create themselves. This is the good face of globalisation, not a story of losing face to the West by selling Chinese babies.
Mark O'Neill worked as a Post correspondent in Beijing and Shanghai from 1997 to 2006 and is now an author, lecturer and journalist based in Hong Kong