Adopted Canadian Swimmer Wins Gold and Sparks Debate on China’s Abandoned Girls

In Margaret Mac Neil’s birthplace, it was not unusual for families to abandon their daughters so they could have boys under the one-child policy.
July 29, 2021, 8:57am
Margaret Mac Neil china adopted
Margaret Mac Neil says her Chinese heritage has little to do with her swimming career. Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images 

The Olympic triumph of a Canadian swimmer who was adopted in China at a young age has set off heated discussions about the gender discrimination in the country that led to families abandoning their newborn daughters.

Margaret Mac Neil, a 21-year-old Canadian swimmer, won gold in women’s 100m butterfly, beating China’s Zhang Yufei and Australia’s Emma McKeon.

Her win went viral on Chinese social media after people discovered that she was born in the Chinese city of Jiujiang. The success of ethnic Chinese abroad has often prompted pride in China, but Mac Neil’s win has reminded people of the cruel history of the country’s one-child policy.

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The circumstances of how Mac Neil was adopted are unclear. In her birthplace of Jiujiang, in Jiangxi province, a less developed region in eastern China, it was not unusual for couples to give up their daughters so they could have a son under the one-child policy, which was vigorously enforced in the 80s and 90s and remained in effect until 2015. The province is home to dozens of orphanages that allowed international adoptions. 

Some families would abort female fetuses, and in rare cases, kill newborn girls in order to have boys instead. With the world’s most skewed sex ratio at birth, China had nearly 35 million more men than women in 2020, according to census data. 

Many of the unwanted girls have been adopted by foreigners, mostly Americans, thanks to the strong demand from aspiring parents and the popularity of transnational adoption programs. U.S. gymnastics world champion Morgan Hurd was also adopted in China. 

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Chinese couples are now allowed to have three children instead of one, and abandoning girls has become less common as the Chinese population has grown wealthier. In the meantime, more women are speaking out against gender discrimination, including the preference of sons that remains prevalent in many parts of China.

Following Mac Neil’s win, many internet users criticized Chinese media for putting her Chinese ethnicity in the headlines, and said her life story was only a reminder of an embarrassing history for the country. 

“Stop calling her Chinese,” said one of the most liked comments on the microblogging site Weibo. “Her achievements have nothing to do with China.” 

“Her birth parents please don’t go looking for her,” another comment said. “You don’t deserve it.” 

Mac Neil, who seldom spoke about the adoption, did not respond to requests for comments. 

At a press conference following her Olympics win, she said her being born in China had little to do with her swimming career. 

“I was born in China, and I was adopted when I was really young. That’s just as far as my Chinese heritage goes,” the gold medalist said. “I’m Canadian. I’ve always grown up Canadian. So that’s just a very small part of my journey to where I am today. And it’s kind of irrelevant when it comes to swimming and how far my swimming has come.” 

Mac Neil’s win also prompted some women to share their own experiences with gender discrimination. On Chinese social site Douban, a woman from Jiangxi said her family members had complained about the lack of male heirs and aborted female fetuses. Her parents once gave her away to a relative so they could have a son, but she could not stop crying and was eventually sent back.

“Many people said [Mac Neil] is fortunate,” the woman wrote in a widely-shared article. “She is only one of the tens of thousands. The fate of most other abandoned girls is about pain and loss.”