This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
From the 1940s onward China experienced a demographic boom which ultimately saw the country’s population double to almost one billion by the late 1970s. Desperate to prevent an excess 400 million births that would have compromised the country’s plans for financial growth, the Chinese government introduced its so-called one-child policy in 1979, limiting how the number of children couples were allowed to have by law.
Although the system included several exemptions and often lent on financial incentives for compliance, millions were severely punished for violating the rules with sanctions ranging from fines to forced abortions and sterilisations. Some felt forced to resort to giving up their children in order to avoid punishment, and many of these children ended up in orphanages and were later adopted by people from outside of the country. But according to Nanfu Wang, director of the documentary One Child Nation, many of the children listed for international adoption were actually forcibly taken away from their families without the parents’ consent.
Among these international adopters was Youqine Lefèvre’s father, a Belgian national who, in July 1994, met up with five other Belgian families at the Brussels airport in Zaventem. (Lefèvre prefers not to disclose her dad’s name for privacy reasons.) The group of nine would spend the next two weeks together in Yueyang, a city in the Hunan province in China, to finalise their adoption processes. From the moment they left Brussels, Lefèvre’s dad filmed the group’s journey to the Yueyang orphanage on a camcorder.
His images show the group’s journey through fields and seemingly desolate tracts of land before its arrival at the orphanage’s courtyard. The place was shabby, with paint peeling off the walls. After a short wait, the caregivers introduced them to the six children, all little girls, assigned to them. That’s when he first met Lefèvre, then only eight months old. All six kids were adopted that day.
By 2017, almost 25 years later, time had passed and memories had been lost. But by watching the images recorded by her father, Lefèvre, 27, recovered a precious testimony of her origins. “For years, I had a conflicting relationship with China and I had no desire to go back at all,” Lefèvre says. “But, at 23, I instinctively felt ready to go. I think it's a maturity thing, wanting to explore where you are in your life.”
Freshly graduated from the School of Graphic Research (ERG) in Brussels, Lefèvre decided to embark on a journey back to China. She visited the orphanage in Yueyang. The surrounding neighbourhood had grown with new buildings and roads, and her orphanage had changed, too. Today, the centre also welcomes people with physical and mental disabilities, as well as elderly people who need care. The yard where the bus carrying the Belgians had parked in 1994 no longer exists. Only the building where Lefèvre’s father held her for the first time is still standing.
Lefèvre knows nothing about her biological parents. She lived a month with them before allegedly being abandoned, along with a piece of paper noting her date of birth. Someone found her in the neighbourhood of Wulipai and took her to the police station, where they transferred her to the orphanage.
Lefèvre went to visit the police station where she had been taken. Seeing with her own eyes places she had only known from administrative documents gave her an unsettling feeling. “It made them more real,” she says. “Preserving their traces thanks to photography is an attempt at ownership. I incorporated them into my story.”
Lefèvre’s latest photography project, The Land of Promises, brings together pictures she’s taken over two trips to Yueyang, the first in 2017 and the second in 2019, but is not autobiographical. While the basis of the project relates to her childhood, she chose to limit the more personal aspect to tackle another important subject. “In reality, I wanted to understand the one-child policy,” she says.
Only rolled back in 2015, the policy had many unexpected consequences, notably generating a gender imbalance in the population. “Because of the patriarchy and the cultural preference for sons, girls were increasingly discriminated against through abortions, abandonment, infanticide or neglect,” Lefèvre explains. This shortage of women has also accelerated the population’s ageing process – one that has become so pronounced that, in 2021, China started allowing families to have up to three children.
Discarded and unwanted for decades, girls are now increasingly rare and sought after, especially in rural areas that have become almost entirely male-dominated. "It's creepy but there are plenty of villages with only men,” Lefèvre says. “Everyone is poor, and the women, who have more choices, have left these areas to go and live in the cities." As a result, women and girls from nearby countries including Cambodia, Nepal, Indonesia and North Korea, are kidnapped or sold by their families and trafficked into China to become brides.
Lefèvre said she might try to find her biological parents one day, armed with what she thinks is the first picture ever taken of her – a passport photo of the sort taken of all children awaiting adoption. “I've always seen this image in my files, but I never really thought much of it,” she says. “I don’t even know exactly how old I was. I really don’t know much about what happened to me before the adoption.”
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