The man from family planning liked to prowl around the mountaintop village, looking for diapers on clotheslines and listening for the cry of a hungry newborn. One day in the spring of 2004, he presented himself at Yang Shuiying's doorstep and commanded: "Bring out the baby."
Yang wept and argued, but, alone with her 4-month-old daughter, she was in no position to resist the man every parent in Tianxi feared.
"I'm going to sell the baby for foreign adoption. I can get a lot of money for her," he told the sobbing mother as he drove her with the baby to an orphanage in Zhenyuan, a nearby city in the southern province of Guizhou. In return, he promised that the family wouldn't have to pay fines for violating China's one-child policy.
Then he warned her: "Don't tell anyone about it."
For five years, she kept the terrible secret. "I didn't understand that they didn't have the right to take our babies," she said.
Since the early 1990s, more than 80,000 Chinese children have been adopted abroad, the majority to the United States.
The conventional wisdom is that the babies, mostly girls, were abandoned by their parents because of the traditional preference for boys and China's restrictions on family size. No doubt, that was the case for tens of thousands of the girls.
But some parents are beginning to come forward to tell harrowing stories of babies who were taken away by coercion, fraud or kidnapping -- sometimes by government officials who covered their tracks by pretending that the babies had been abandoned.
Parents who say their children were taken complain that officials were motivated by the $3,000 per child that adoptive parents pay orphanages.
"Our children were exported abroad like they were factory products," said Yang Libing, a migrant worker from Hunan province whose daughter was seized in 2005. He has since learned that she is in the United States.
Doubts about how babies are procured for adoption in China have begun to ripple through the international adoption community.
"In the beginning, I think, adoption from China was a very good thing because there were so many abandoned girls. But then it became a supply-and-demand-driven market and a lot of people at the local level were making too much money," said Ina Hut, who last month resigned as the head of the Netherlands' largest adoption agency out of concern about baby trafficking.
The Chinese Center for Adoption Affairs, the government agency that oversees foreign and domestic adoption, rejected repeated requests for comment. Officials of the agency have told foreign diplomats that they believe that the abuses are limited to a small number of babies and that those responsible have been removed and punished.
For adoptive parents, the possibility that their children were forcibly taken from their birth parents is terrifying.
"When we adopted in 2006, we were fed the same stories, that there were millions of unwanted girls in China, that they would be left on the street to die if we didn't help," said Cathy Wagner, an adoptive mother from Nova Scotia, Canada. "I love my daughter, but if I had any idea my money would cause her to be taken away from another mother who loved her, I never would have adopted."
Twisting the laws
The problem is rooted in China's population controls, which limit most families to one child, two if they live in the countryside and the first is a girl. Each town has a family planning office, usually staffed by loyal Communist Party cadres who have broad powers to order abortions and sterilizations. People who have additional babies can be fined up to six times their annual income -- fines euphemistically called "social service expenditures," which are an important source of revenue for local government in rural areas.
"The family planning people are even more powerful than the Ministry of Public Security," said Yang Zhizhu, a legal scholar in Beijing.
Throughout the countryside, red banners exhort, "Give birth to fewer babies, plant more trees" and, more ominously, "If you give birth to extra children, your family will be ruined."
But the law does not give officials the power to take babies from their parents.
Some families say they were beaten and threatened into giving up their daughters, or tricked into signing away their parental rights.
"They grabbed the baby and dragged me out of the house. I was screaming -- I thought they were going to knock me over," said Liu Suzhen, a frail woman from Huangxin village near Shaoyang in Hunan province. She was baby-sitting her 4-month-old granddaughter one night in March 2003 when a dozen officials stormed her house.
She said they took her and the baby to a family planning office, where a man grabbed her arm and pressed her thumbprint onto a document she couldn't read.
Once a child is taken to an orphanage, parents can lose all rights.
"They wouldn't even let me in the door," said Zhou Changqi, a construction worker whose 6-month-old daughter was taken in 2002 by family planning officials in Guiyang, in Hunan province. Zhou tried repeatedly over three years to get into the Changsha Social Welfare Institute, one of the major orphanages sending babies abroad, until one day he was told:
"It's too late. Your daughter has already gone to America."
In much of China, villagers live in dread of surprise visits from family planning officials. It was certainly the case for the residents of Tianxi, a mist-shrouded village of 1,800 people tucked high in lush mountains near Zhenyuan.
No matter that the village is a two-hour drive down a rutted dirt road and then a 30-minute hike uphill, family planning officials make inspections as often as twice a week. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when families were too poor to pay, the officials would punish them by ransacking their homes or confiscating cows and pigs, residents say.
Then, in 2003, things changed. The year after the Social Welfare Institute in Zhenyuan was approved to participate in the burgeoning foreign adoption program, family planning officials stopped confiscating farm animals. They started taking babies instead.
"If people couldn't pay their fines, they'd take away their babies," said a retired municipal employee from Zhenyuan who used to work as a foster parent for the orphanage.
"We were always terrified of them," said Yang Shuiying, the 34-year-old mother whose daughter was taken away.
In December 2003, Yang gave birth to her fourth daughter, delivering her at home with the help of a midwife. It was an unplanned birth. In fact, her husband had gotten a vasectomy just a few days before she realized she was pregnant again.
"I hadn't planned to have another baby, but once I did, I wanted to raise her," said Yang, a soft-spoken woman who told her story with downcast eyes.
Her husband, Lu Xiande, felt even more strongly that the girl belonged at home. Away at the market when the baby was seized, he erupted in fury when he discovered what had happened.
"I'll get her back," he promised his distraught wife. He headed off to China's east coast, hoping that as a migrant worker he could raise the money to pay the family planning fine. But Lu fell sick and had to return home. Shortly afterward, he tried to slit his throat with a butcher knife.
Almost everybody in the village knows somebody whose baby was taken away. An old man leaning on a hand-carved walking stick told of how his granddaughter was taken away. A younger man spoke of a niece.
The villagers resent the suggestion by some that they don't love their daughters and readily abandon them.
"People around here don't dump their kids. They don't sell their kids. Boy or girl, they're our flesh and blood," said Li Zeji, 32, a farmer who says his third daughter was taken in 2004.
Under Chinese law, officials are required to search for the birth parents of abandoned babies. Four months after Yang Shuiying's daughter was taken, her photograph ran in a notice in the province's Guizhou City Daily along with those of 14 other babies.
The ad claimed, falsely, that the baby was "found abandoned on the doorstep" of a home in Tianxi village.
"Whoever recognizes this child should contact the orphanage in 60 days; otherwise, the baby will be considered an orphan," read the Aug. 14, 2004, announcement.
The parents say they never saw the notices because they lived in remote villages where newspapers were not available. In addition, many of the parents are illiterate and they had been told by family planning officials that the law allowed them to confiscate the babies, so it did not occur to them to complain.
The truth emerged because a teacher with relatives in Tianxi village heard about the confiscations and reported them to police and a disciplinary agency. When there was no response, he posted complaints on the Internet, which made it into the Chinese press in July of this year after a few earlier stories were censored. The teacher is in hiding for fear of retaliation.
The U.S. Embassy said in a statement released in July that it had been advised by China's Central Adoption Authority "that seven officials implicated in this case have been arrested." It added, "The United States takes seriously any allegation that children were offered for inter-country adoption without their parents' knowledge or consent."
But in Zhenyuan, officials denied that anybody had been arrested or fired from their jobs. They said the penalties ranged from demerits to warnings placed in their files. Shi Guangying, the official who took Yang's baby, was demoted.
Zhenyuan officials angrily defended their conduct.
"It's a lie that they took babies away without their parents' permission. That's impossible," said Peng Qiuping, a party official and propaganda chief for Zhenyuan. "These parents agreed that the children should be put up for adoption. They understood that they were greedy and had more children than they could afford."
"They're better off with their adoptive parents than their birth parents," argued Wu Benhua, director of Zhenyuan's civil affairs bureau.
From 2003 to 2007, the orphanage in Zhenyuan sent 60 babies to the United States and Europe. Given the suspicious clusters of the babies listed in the notices and the remoteness of the villages where it would be difficult to hike in and abandon a child, many, if not most, are believed to have been confiscated by family planning officials.
Wu said the money received from adoptive parents, $180,000 in all, went toward food, clothing, bedding and medical care for the babies and to improve conditions in the Social Welfare Institute.
But most of the babies had been housed with families who were paid only $30 a month for their services, according to one foster parent. And there were no obvious signs of renovations at the institute, a grim three-story building where a couple of senior citizens could be seen through barred windows lounging on cots. Reporters were not permitted to enter.
"We don't know what happened to the money, and we don't dare ask," said Yang Zhenping, a 50-year-old farmer from Tianxi.
Brian Stuy, an adoptive father in Salt Lake City who researches the origins of Chinese adoptees, has noticed an unusually large number of older babies reported as abandoned. He suspects these were babies who were confiscated, stolen or given up under duress.
"If you don't want a girl, you give her up as soon as she's born," Stuy said.
He believes that the $3,000 adoption fee -- about six times the annual income in rural China and usually handed over in new $100 bills -- has inspired abuses.
"It is international adoption that is creating the suction that causes family planning to take the kids to make money," Stuy said. "If there was no international adoption and the state had to raise the kids until they turned 18, you could be sure family planning wouldn't confiscate them."
China's family planning laws don't just restrict the number of children in a family. Couples are supposed to get a birth permit before conceiving. Women must be at least 20 years old and men 24. Couples must have a marriage certificate, which requires that each partner have proper hukou, the cumbersome residency permits that control where people live.
Residents in Gaoping, a small town in Hunan province, say family planning officials have used the fine print of the law to confiscate even first-born children.
Yang Libing and his wife, Cao Zhimei, both migrant workers, said their 9-month-old daughter, Ling, was taken away in 2005 because, as migrant workers, they weren't able to gather all the documents to register their marriage. The local family planning officials struck when Yang's elderly parents were baby-sitting.
They told Yang's father that the family would be fined the equivalent of more than $1,000, but that if he signed a document saying that the baby was not their birth child, but adopted, they would be spared the fine.
"They were people I knew. I trusted them. They tricked me," said the father, Yang Qinzheng, a Communist Party member who, though literate, didn't read the document carefully because of poor eyesight.
The officials then took the baby to the orphanage in nearby Shaoyang, promising to bring her back after her registration papers were filed. The family did not see her again.
The couple, who had another child later, a boy who is now 3, still grieve for their daughter.
"Everybody in the village adored her. She had big eyes like saucers and a smile for everybody she saw," said Cao, the mother. "I think of her all the time. I wonder if she looks like an American now."
In all, residents say, about 15 babies were confiscated in Gaoping. A schoolteacher helped families from villages around Gaoping write a petition in 2006, which they submitted to a deputy of the National People's Congress, China's legislative body.
When the news broke in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, some of the family planning officials were reassigned to other posts, but no one was arrested and none of the families recovered their children.
"They still have jobs. Nothing really happened to them, but they at least stopped stealing our children," said Yang Libing, who was a leader of the group.
But the practice continues elsewhere. In December in Dongkou county, 10 miles from Gaoping, family planning officials took a nearly 6-week-old boy out of his mother's arms, saying the family owed more than $2,000 in penalties because he was a second child.
"They didn't say what they were going to do with the baby, just that they would send him to the orphanage, but I realized that they were planning to sell him," said the baby's father, Hou Yongjun, a driving instructor. Unable to raise the money on short notice, he telephoned everybody he knew, including a journalist.
At 10:30 that night, Hou's wife heard a noise and looked out the window to see two people running away. Thirteen hours after he had been taken, she found the baby on the doorstep, hungry but unharmed.
Adoption experts say that China's system is badly in need of repair.
Deng Fei, an investigative journalist based in Beijing who has written frequently about the issue, believes there should be more scrutiny of the cash paid by foreign parents.
"That money is a windfall for the orphanages and local officials," Deng said. "It seduced them into going to look for babies to send abroad."
In Philadelphia, Wendy Mailman, who adopted in 2005 from the orphanage in Zhenyuan that took in confiscated babies, now questions everything she was told about the girl who orphanage officials said was born in September and abandoned in January.
"Why would a mother who didn't want a baby girl be so heartless as to wait until the dead of winter to abandon her?" she said.
She wonders what she would do if she discovered that her daughter was one of the stolen babies. She knows she could never return the Americanized 6-year-old, who is obsessed with "SpongeBob" and hates the Chinese culture classes her mother enrolled her in. But she said, "I would certainly want to tell the birth family that your daughter is alive and happy and maybe send a picture."
"It would be up to my daughter later if she wanted to build a relationship," she said.
For many birth families, that would be enough.
"We'd never make her come back, because a girl raised in the West wouldn't want to live in a poor village like this," said Yang Shuiying's mother-in-law, Yang Jinxiu.
"But we'd like to know where she is. We'd like to see a picture. And we'd like her to know that we miss her and that we didn't throw her away."
Nicole Liu and Angelina Qu of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.