Child-Theft Racket Growing in China

Times Staff Writer

The eerie pencil outline of Cheng Ying, done by her father one night last summer before she went to sleep, remains on the wall above the bed.

Her parents haven’t seen the 6-year-old since they sent her off to school dressed in a black-and-white-checked coat two months ago. The school was no help in finding her, they say. The police weren’t either, even refusing to fill out a missing person’s report.

As winter approached, the horrific realization sunk in: Their daughter, the child they had sacrificed everything for, had probably joined the thousands of children snatched from their parents each year in China in a burgeoning child-theft racket.


“You can see why someone would want to abduct her. She’s so pretty,” said her father, Cheng Zhu. “I just hope, wherever she is, they’re taking care of her.”

Some of the stolen children are babes in arms. In July, 52 ring members were convicted in the southern region of Guangxi after 28 baby girls, none older than 3 months, were found drugged and bound in nylon duffel bags on a long-distance bus. One died; the rest were taken to an orphanage.

The reasons for the terrible growth industry in child trafficking are as varied as they are disturbing. In a country that earns millions of dollars a year from foreign adoptions, some children end up abroad. Others remain in the country, especially in rural China, where having a son is still seen as a must for inheritance, carrying on the family line and tending relatives’ graves. But girls are also in demand in areas where men significantly outnumber women, as wives, caregivers for older relatives and for families that already have boys.

In the worst cases, activists and nongovernmental groups say, some are forced to work as prostitutes, maids or in begging rings.

China often balks at releasing embarrassing statistics, including the number of its youngest citizens abducted in front of schools, on streets and in busy markets. But experts say the problem is growing despite repeated efforts by the government to crack down on traffickers. China has disclosed that it rescued 3,488 abducted children in 2004, according to the official New China News Agency. Experts say those children are only a fraction of those lost. As the Cheng case suggests, many are not even recorded.

The government has another incentive to downplay the problem: lucrative overseas adoptions. The United States and other Western countries refuse to allow adoptions involving baby-selling.


China has laws against baby-buying and strict regulations to prevent children who have been purchased from entering international adoption channels. Nonetheless, the Hengyang orphanage in Hunan province, which has provided children for U.S. families, was recently caught buying babies.

Officials with the China Center of Adoption Affairs declined to comment, citing rules against speaking with foreign reporters, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs also declined to do so, because the case was still under investigation.

“Among the U.S. adoptive community, there’s almost a sense of freaking out over this,” said Brian Stuy, an American adoption activist who heads Research-China.Org. “Everyone adopts with the idea these are orphans needing a home. Even the hint they have families back in China, that baby-buying may be involved, is a big problem.”

The amount of money Chinese orphanages receive for foreign adoptions -- about $3,000 per child -- far outpaces what they receive for a domestic match, creating a big incentive to obtain children legally or illegally and route them into foreign channels, according to a Research-China.Org essay on adoption finances.

Referring to the Hengyang orphanage case, the essay said, “Given the highly lucrative nature of the international adoption program, the question is not how did this happen, but how come it hasn’t happened more often.”

Stealing children was virtually unthinkable 25 years ago when communism was the prevailing ideology and neighborhood minders watched a person’s every move. The headlong rush for material wealth since then has resulted in “transition problems,” as social mores give way to greed, experts say.


“Morality has disappeared, and people now do anything for money,” said Xia Xueluan, a sociologist at Peking University. “Child abduction is a truly ugly phenomenon, an extremely serious social problem.”

In many ways, the Cheng family has a typical migrant worker’s story. Cheng came to the outskirts of Xian, famous for its terracotta warriors, in 1996, and his wife, Jin Lunju, joined him a year later from an impoverished farm village. They earn $200 a month, barely enough to make ends meet, and live in a two-room apartment with no heat or toilet, wearing their coats indoors throughout the winter.

Although they had little money, they gave everything possible to their daughter and enrolled her in a special “Hope Primary School” three miles away. Given the reality of long hours and low wages, they taught her to take the public bus home by herself. In retrospect, they hate themselves for not being more vigilant. One witness later reported seeing a man with someone matching Ying’s description, but the police didn’t follow up on the lead.

Corruption is a problem in the lower ranks of China’s privileged public security bureau, an organization more responsive to political pressure or personal incentive than any sense of public responsibility, analysts say.

“Most of these families have little chance of ever seeing their children again,” said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist with People’s University in Beijing.

Sociologists, and other parents who have lost children, say the Cheng family fits the victim profile. Migrant workers living on the edge of China’s big cities in poor neighborhoods filled with desperate people make easy pickings. Their lack of clout with authorities reduces the chances that kidnappers will get caught. And their children often fetch relatively high prices because they are thought of as smarter and better educated than those from rural areas.


The abductions hit the headlines in the early 1990s, trafficking experts say, with the numbers rising sharply in recent years in line with China’s growing wealth and economy. Parents and scholars say that as the market develops and profits soar, relatively sophisticated gangs are replacing opportunistic freelancers or family rings in the child-theft racket.

Some children are also sold willingly by their parents, either in hopes they can have a son under China’s one-child policy, or simply for cash. A father in Henan was sentenced to 10 years in jail and a $600 fine in May for selling his infant son for $1,100 to buy lottery tickets.

Several other factors drive demand. Buying a boy and “legalizing” the adoption with bribes are often far easier than going through China’s formal adoption system.

“The adoption law really needs to be reviewed,” said Huang Jinxia of Save the Children China, who oversees pilot programs in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces in the south to educate teachers and students about abduction risks. “With the legal route blocked, many people say, ‘Why not buy a child?’ ”

In addition, going through the black market is often less onerous than paying penalties for a second child under China’s one-child policy.

To break their resistance and keep them quiet on long journeys, some of the older abducted children are abused or told that their parents divorced and abandoned them. In some cases, children pass through seven or more middlemen.


The markup can be substantial. Those who snatch the kids can expect to get $36 to $60, according to confessions of those caught, still a substantial sum in a country where the average income is about $100 a month. Middlemen can sell them for $400 or more, with the end buyer paying upward of $1,200 for “substandard goods,” or girls, and $2,000 for “quality goods,” or boys.

As if losing a child isn’t enough, desperate parents are often besieged by con artists once they appeal to the public for help in finding their children. These ploys range from petty scams -- Cheng lost $5, about a day’s wages, to someone who said he had seen his daughter and could provide a picture of her and the kidnapper -- to life-or-death threats and demands for huge ransoms.

Parents say they can’t find words to describe the people who would stoop so low as to steal someone’s children. “For a nation, the loss of a child may be small,” said Wang Chunkai, 33, a firewood seller whose daughter was taken in front of his brother’s house. “But for a family, it’s as big as the heavens.”

Wang says that if he ever found the kidnapper, he would like to stab him, not once but repeatedly. Jiang Xinzhou, a 34-year-old engineer whose 2-year-old daughter was snatched from her house while her parents were home, says he would separate the criminals from their own children so they could experience a fraction of the pain.

Most parents voice strong support for the government’s use of the death penalty against child thieves.

The government has carried out several executions in recent years, and handed down a death sentence last year to the head of a ring that sent dozens of children to Singapore over a five-year period.


But parents of the missing say the state should also come down heavily on those who buy children. Buyers are subject to a three-year jail sentence, but the law is almost never enforced.

As Cheng and Jin look over their two-room apartment, they are overcome with grief. They show snapshots of their daughter, touching her face in the picture in a bid to make a connection. Her image comes back to them through the day as they wonder what she’s doing, how she misses them, whether she’s crying or hungry or sick.

“Our loss is so great, I feel numb and thought about killing myself,” Cheng said. “But I realized this wouldn’t be fair to the rest of my family. We failed her as parents, but I won’t give up hope she’ll come back. I’ll never give up hope.”

Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.