Like a little fashion model, 18-month-old You Xiaoqin appears in a frilly white frock, an orange top, pants with polka dots, and a red dress. Her new mother, Zheng Guofang, was showing how much she and her husband could provide for the baby girl they plucked from an orphanage in Hefei, Anhui province. On April 1, the day the central Government implemented an amendment to the adoption law that now allows couples with children to adopt - and lowers the age requirement from 35 to 30 - Ms Zheng and her husband You Changsheng rushed to the Hefei Social Welfare Institute. 'At the orphanage, they brought out three babies and we chose her,' Ms Zheng said, cuddling Xiaoqin, 'because she looks the brightest.' Xiaoqin's parents, in their early 50s, have three grown children. Ever since their oldest daughter married in 1996 and moved out, Ms Zheng has longed to adopt a baby. 'At our age, my husband and I have nothing much to talk to each other about,' Ms Zheng said. 'The baby brings joy to our life.' The couple lavish clothes and toys on Xiaoqin. They plan to let her take piano lessons when she gets older. 'She is so smart. I am going to support her till she gets a master's degree,' said Mr You, a wealthy businessman in Hefei. 'Our son told us we should enjoy retirement now. It's not easy raising a child, but ever since we got Xiaoqin, we're so happy,' Ms Zheng said. The amendment comes as a welcome relief to the restrictive adoption law implemented in April 1992 stating that only childless couples over 35 could adopt from social welfare institutes. Now couples with a child of their own can adopt more than one child from orphanages. 'I think the amendment is wonderful. It serves the interests of the children rather than the demands of birth planning. It should open up domestic adoption to mainlanders and lessen the burden on orphanages,' said Professor Kay Johnson, an American social scientist who has studied child adoption and abandonment in China for the past decade. The mainland's one-child policy was implemented in 1981 to reduce population growth. The policy applies to those who live in the cities, towns, or counties. Campaigns to promote it in rural areas have met resistance. 'As a small concession, provincial governments let a couple have two children if the first is a girl, but not if the first is a boy,' Professor Johnson said. 'Enforcement involves persuasion spilling over into direct coercion, escalating fines and sterilisation for over-quota births.' Over-quota children are deprived of full legal status, a proper household registration, or hukou, which comes with benefits such as subsidised education, food stamps and health care. They are hidden, illegal or marked 'black' children. Many parents buy a black-market hukou, paying between 1,000 yuan and 5,000 yuan (HK$938-$4,690). The one-child policy has also resulted in hundreds of thousands of girls going missing every year. Only a small percentage end up in state care. What happens to the rest? 'Our research suggests that to a significant, though unknown extent, adoptive parents have emerged spontaneously to handle the crisis of abandonment, many of them defying government adoption law and policy,' Professor Johnson said. 'Abandoned children in the rural areas are adopted within days or sometimes hours, being simply reabsorbed within the local population.' The overwhelming majority of abandoned children are girls, who have one or more older sisters and no brothers. However, Professor Johnson found that it was quite rare for the only girl born into a family to be abandoned. Families who have a son would even pay fines to keep their only girl. In abandoning their unwanted child, according to Professor Johnson, parents sometimes travel long distances by train or bus to take the baby to a crowded public place. Many said they placed their child on someone's doorstep, chosen because they seemed likely candidates for adoptive parents. By the mid-1980s, the issue of adoption had become a matter of population control. The Government wanted to discourage parents from giving their children away in order to have a boy. In April 1992, the first adoption law only allowed children in orphanages to be adopted by childless couples over 35. 'When a couple reach 30, they are already mature enough to adopt,' said Professor Wang Liyao, of the Anhui Academy of Social Science. 'The 1992 law eliminated a large pool of potential adoptive parents.' But with the new revision, a couple no longer have to wait until they are 35 and they do not have to be childless. A child who was previously marked 'black' is now officially recognised as a legal child of the adoptive couple. Also, unlike unofficial adoptions in the past, a person who now picks up an abandoned child on the street must first take her to the public security bureau before an adoption can be approved by the civil affairs bureau. Back in 1954, Zhang Naiying became the daughter of Wu Guangyu. At 10 days old, she was abandoned by her parents in a village near Hefei. A passerby took her to the county officials, who asked Ms Wu to take care of the baby. Married but infertile, Ms Wu had not planned to adopt the infant. She was just providing a foster home for her. The county government paid for a nanny to feed the baby milk, but gradually the money dwindled. Charmed by the baby's looks, Ms Wu changed her mind. 'We went through a lot of trouble to bring her up,' Ms Wu said. 'Ever since she was little, her health had not been very good.' At 82, Ms Wu is a happy grandmother. Ms Zhang, 45, married her mother's nephew, Wu Dagwei, a school teacher, and gave birth to three children. 'My mother treated me like her own daughter. She gave me everything I needed,' Ms Zhang said. When Ms Zhang was 10, Ms Wu told her she was adopted. It did not come as a surprise. 'I knew I was adopted when I played with my neighbours' children who had mentioned it,' Ms Zhang said. 'I didn't feel too upset about it.' Ms Zhang's birth mother had kept track of her whereabouts through a relative who lived in the same village. When Ms Zhang was 20, her real mother wanted to visit her, but on the day they were to meet, she did not show up. 'I didn't really want to see my birth mother. She wasn't by my side when I grew up. She is a stranger to me. All I care about is what I have now,' Ms Zhang said. More recently, Ms Zhang's brother-in-law Wu Dazhu also adopted a girl, Wu Biyun, although he has two sons of his own. Biyun's real mother, Zhou Kaizhen, and adoptive mother, Hu Tingfeng, were both from Sichuan and the two friends married husbands in Anhui. 'Zhou has two daughters, and when Biyun was born, Zhou gave her to us,' Ms Hu said. Ms Zhou tried to have a boy after Biyun but again had a girl and she gave the baby away. She finally has a son after trying for the fifth time. Biyun knew she was adopted when she was seven. The adoption arrangement for both couples was casual. Biyun calls her real mother 'lao lao', meaning aunt, and her father 'gu ye', or uncle, and often goes to their house nearby. 'When families with children adopt it is often to attain a child of the missing gender,' Professor Johnson said. 'Even fines failed to deter them from adopting in violation of the one-child policy.' It is apparent Wu Dazhu values his daughter more than his two sons - and not just because he paid a 700 yuan fine for keeping her. 'When mum hit me, dad would try to stop her but when mum beat my two brothers he just turned a blind eye,' said Biyun, 14. According to Professor Johnson, couples who adopt girls feel they are more filial and closer to their parents. 'I have two sons and she's my only daughter,' the father said. 'A daughter is more obedient and endearing.' His wife, however, treats Biyun and her two sons more or less the same. 'I show no favouritism,' Ms Hu said. 'I just punish Biyun when she is not behaving, but she is a daughter I really want to have.' Adoptions like the Wus' are commonly practised in the mainland's rural areas. 'The adoption culture has a long history in China,' Professor Wang said. 'Many people had adopted out of the goodness of their heart. They hoped that they would have descendants.' Most adoptions involve children unrelated to the adoptive parents. But some couples do adopt their relatives' children (giveaways), like a maternal aunt who becomes the adoptive mother. The adoption of President Jiang Zemin is a classic case of guoji - passing the child to close friends and relatives. Mr Jiang was adopted by the wife of his father's brother, who died leaving her without a son. Another type of adoption was tongyangxi, an adopted girl raised by her family to marry their son later. 'Many of the tongyangxi had a very hard life but some of them were treated as daughters in the family,' Professor Wang said. After World War II, many Japanese soldiers left behind war orphans they fathered in China. 'Many of the Japanese orphans were adopted by Chinese families. Some parents treated them better than their own children,' Professor Wang said. Research by both Professor Wang and Professor Johnson has disproved the popular belief that domestic adoption is uncommon on the mainland. 'Educated urban people seem particularly ignorant about these practices in Chinese society, perhaps because they are less common in urban areas and because educated urban people are far more likely to try to keep adoption a secret,' Professor Johnson said. But now, with the passing of the new amendment, more couples are able to adopt and give hope to children staying in orphanages. Since it was implemented on April 1, local parents adopted 30 children from the Hefei Social Welfare Institute. The Hefei orphanage houses 420 children, from newborn babies to 18-year-olds. There are 170 nurses and teachers, or one staff to three to four children. As for handicapped children, the ratio is one to 1.5. 'We request our staff to treat the children as their own. They have a lot of love to give to our children, even visiting them on their days off,' said Zhang Yuxia, the institute's chief. In the antiseptic surroundings of the orphanage, the children look healthy, well-fed and well-clothed. A doctor visits twice a day, in the morning and afternoon. Children from three to seven study at the institute's learning centre. At eight, they go to a local primary school. Every year, babies are abandoned at the doorstep of the orphanage. In 1998, more than 100 were placed there - 60 per cent of them girls, and most of the remaining boys are handicapped. To ease the burden on orphanages, China allowed foreigners to adopt mainland babies in 1992, and parents came to the Hefei orphanage from the United States, Canada, Holland, Belgium, Finland, Sweden and Britain. Foreign parents donate US$3,000 (HK$23,250) for each child they adopt and the money is spent on improving the facilities of the orphanage, according to Ms Zhang. Now more children will be able to stay in China. 'The new amendment lets many more orphans enjoy the love of a family,' Professor Wang said. Some adult orphans who were never adopted told him there was a void in their life. They felt inferior to those who have parents. 'In the orphanage, nurses and teachers can only partly substitute parents, but children need parents' love - to feel a mother's embrace or hear a lullaby before they go to sleep,' he said.