GUANGZHOU, China -- The White Swan may be China's only luxury hotel selling baby formula and pacifiers in its drug store and strollers in its gift shop. But the White Swan has a special clientele.
Almost everywhere you look, Americans with tiny Chinese daughters are doing the delicate dance of early parenthood: diving under restaurant tables to retrieve plastic cups, swaying to calm wiggly babies, carrying timid toddlers who rest trusting hands on their arms.The White Swan in Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, is a magnet for adoptive parents because it is next door to the U.S. Consulate, where all immigration visas from China must be processed. The consulate handles 140 baby visas a week and expects to do more soon.
More North Americans and Europeans are looking abroad to adopt because there are too few healthy children needing adoption close to home or out of compassion for children left alone because of poverty, government policy or neglect.
Last year Americans adopted 13,621 foreign children, twice the total 20 years earlier. China is the second most popular place for American adoptions overseas after Russia, followed by South Korea, Guatemala and Romania.
China's legislature just expanded the pool of potential foreign and Chinese adoptive parents for the nation's tens of thousands of abandoned baby girls. A legal revision lowers the minimum parental age and now allows people who already have children to adopt healthy abandoned babies.
The law was passed Nov. 4 over objections it could become a way around China's strict controls on births.
These family size limits -- plus a rural tradition favoring boys -- result in a very large population of healthy abandoned baby girls waiting to be adopted. Many Americans and others are also attracted to China because it allows adoption by singles and people in their 40s or older, who face eligibility hurdles elsewhere.
In Russia and South Korea, economic turmoil has lead to abandonment by parents who can no longer support their children.
In Africa, nearly 8 million children have been left orphans because of AIDS, including some who are HIV-positive. In families that have lost working-age adults or cannot care for sick children, a tradition of the extended family caring for orphans is breaking down.
Some American adoption agencies say eastern European countries often limit foreigners to adopting children with health or developmental problems.
Criminals also have used children for profit through international adoptions.
Romania resumed foreign adoptions in June after passing a law banning privately arranged adoptions, which had been rife with corruption. In Guatemala, the United States and Canada recently began to administer DNA tests to ensure that women who bring children for adoption are truly the birth mothers.
U.S. and Canadian officials say the Chinese government's adoption program has been positive and open.
Abandonment in China is a side effect of strict population controls that allow only one child per family in cities, and two in most rural areas if the first is a girl.
At the White Swan, newly adopted Jenny, kicking tiny feet clad in blue corduroy slippers from her perch in her mother's front pack, had been left outside a theater when she was three days old.
Her new parents, Lou and Cindy Lunte, said her past was a mystery, but her personality was unfolding -- outgoing and playful.
She smiled at her mother holding her hands to help her walk, giggled when her father tossed her airborne, and clapped and patted her chest when a Chinese family stopped to smile at her.
"Food was a big comfort thing for her at first, then being held by Mommy, and then the thumb sort of worked its way in," her father said as he and his wife, biologists who live high in the mountains of Idaho, waited at the White Swan to leave for the airport and a flight home after 17 days in China for the adoption.
Adoptions from China have increased from 61 in 1991, when China passed its first adoption law, to 4,194 over the 12 months through Sept. 30.
Well over half of Chinese babies adopted by foreigners go to Americans, and many of the others become children of Canadians and Europeans.
Yet China's orphanages are still overcrowded. The government refuses to reveal the number of abandoned babies, if it is even known.
Abandonment declined after the Communists won a civil war and took power in 1949, but became a serious problem when enforcement of the strict family size rules geared up in the 1980s.
The adoption law was restrictive, limiting adoption of healthy abandoned children to childless people.
But under the revised law, which goes into effect April 1, people who meet requirements for adoptive parents may adopt an abandoned child whose birth parents cannot be found even if they already have other children. The minimum parental age also is being lowered from 35 to 30.
At the same time, the revision specifically forbids Chinese couples from giving a child up for adoption and having another, as a way of getting around family size limits.
The new rules apply equally to foreigners and Chinese. The state-run press said the aim is to help move many more children out of orphanages and into the warmth of families.
Foreigners adopt only a small percentage of China's abandoned children. Chinese culture has a long tradition of accepting adoption, but the old adoption law prevented many Chinese families from adopting legally.
In 1996, a report by Human Rights Watch alleged that a Shanghai orphanage deliberately allowed children to starve between 1988 and 1992 to decrease its population. The report also cited some government figures that showed high mortality rates in other orphanages.
China condemned the report as a fraud.
Kay Johnson, a scholar who has studied abandonment and adoption in China, said she found no evidence China had a policy of intentional abuse. Death rates were high due to a lack of government funding and the sometimes fragile state of abandoned children, she said.
Johnson recently wrote that many of China's largest orphanages have improved since 1992 because of money from foreign adoptive parents and domestic and international donations.
In a study in rural China, Johnson found many Chinese adopt, even at the risk of fines for exceeding family limits, because they want daughters.
Although traditional families believe they need sons to carry on their name, worship deceased ancestors and care for aged parents, many people today say the ideal family includes a daughter, because daughters tend to be close to their parents.
Chinese adoptive parents often went outside official channels because they found 35 too old to start a family or because they already had a child and were therefore ineligible under the original adoption law, Johnson said.
Foreigners must apply to adopt through an approved adoption agency that forwards their request to the government's China Center for Adoption Affairs.
Processing takes about eight months and costs on average $12,000 or more, including a trip to China and a fee of about $3,000 given to the child's orphanage.
Adoption advocates say the fees are reasonable.
After all the paperwork and waiting, parents at the White Swan who had finally adopted their daughters said they felt relieved, or a bit anxious, but most of all happy.
"It's like we died and went to heaven," Allyson McDougal of Ridegefield, Conn., said after she and her husband adopted 14-month-old Jamie.
Jamie, whose Chinese name was Jingjiang (Peaceful River), was found abandoned at two days old, wrapped in a piece of dirty carpet.
McDougal said she and her husband visited their daughter's orphanage and found it spotlessly clean with caring staff who gave each adopted girl a bag of earth to help her remember her roots.
"They have blessed us I don't know how many times over -- the Chinese people have," she said.