Child Abductions in China, Then and Now

A close friend of mine in Shanghai sent me an email a couple of weeks ago, and I’d like to share it here. It looks at two newspaper articles, one from a few weeks ago and one from five years ago, and compares them for language and content. The topic of both is one of the grimmest, namely the abduction of children by officials who then sell the children to foreigners for adoption.

Today I saw this article in Shanghai Daily, about government officials in central Hunan confiscating babies from local families who violated the “one child” law. The babies were then sold to foreigners for adoption – apparently a very lucrative practice.

This sounded so familiar to me. I searched my own archives, and found the 2006 story I was thinking of, in the Washington Post:

The article is about the staffs of orphanages (“welfare homes”?) who paid kidnappers for stolen babies, which they would then sell to foreigners for adoption.

That does sound familiar!

Some striking parallels:

– 2006 story: “Twenty-three local government officials (…) have been fired.”

– 2011 story: “Officials with the family-planning authority (…) have been taking away babies from families (…) and putting them up for adoption,

– 2006 story: “Hengyang [Hunan], the city at the center of the case (…)”

– 2011 story: “(…) the family-planning department of Longhui County in Hunan [Note: Shaoyang, the seat of Longhui County, is just 75 miles from Hengyang]

– 2006 story: “They were purchasing infants from traffickers

2011 story: “The homes were even reported to have conspired with human-traffickers

– 2006 story: “(…) in exchange for mandatory contributions of $3,000 per baby.”

– 2011 story: “(…) overseas families usually paid US$3,000 to adopt a child.”

– 2006 story: “(…) a ring that since 2002 had abducted or purchased as many as 1,000 children”

– 2011 story: “They just abducted your babies starting from 2000 (…),”

Good god! It sounds like the very same story! The 2006 article said that 23 officials were fired over the practice, yet – it sounds like nothing at all has changed.

I wonder, is this some kind of central Hunan “specialty”? Or does it happen in other places, too? Maybe it’s just a bigger operation in Hunan, or for some reason it gets more attention in the press?

First, I need to congratulate my friend on his remarkable memory. Second, I wanted to quote from his email to me today, further expounding on this unhappy phenomenon.

You know the routine well: if you note a morally outrageous incident in China, someone is sure to pipe up that you are being racist, or that terrible things happen everywhere that people are poor and desperate, or China’s huge population raises the incident rate … blah blah.

Of course poverty and population size are factors behind lots of things. But … you know how it is, in China, sometimes you encounter incidents that are so beyond the typical moral pale, usually in some “mamu”-related way, that you cannot simply chalk it up to those factors.

For me, this story was an all-time classic of that genre.

I have no doubt babies are stolen and and sold in numerous sad places on earth. But … when the trading is being done by gov’t officials! And not just any gov’t officials, but gov’t officials in charge of … orphanages! And not just one orphanage, but apparently an entire regional *network* of orphanages! Over the course of many years! I mean … fuck. That’s not an act of impulse or poverty-spawned desperation. That’s an organized, large-scale, long-term operation. And now we learn that the operation is still apparently chugging away! Good god.

I have to agree with my friend. While China has made strides in dealing with corruption and other nasty problems, child trafficking still runs rampant. (Go over to China Geeks and dig around for some excellent posts on both child abductions and child beggars.) What can we chalk it up to? As with the dairy and melamine scandals and so many others, it’s about money and corruption (they go hand in glove) but it’s also about mamu, as my friend mentioned: a lack of concern for anyone who’s not in your family or circle of friends/co-workers.

In my last few trips to China I saw big improvements in this area. Most people lined up for the subways, and even the driving seems a lot more civil than in 2001, when I would frequently see cars drive onto sidewalks or fan out into the oncoming lanes. The “me-first” attitude is definitely changing, for the better. But stories like these are reminders that when it comes to making money, a relatively small group of corrupt Chinese will do nearly everything imaginable to get their piece of the pie. Even selling abducted babies to orphanages.

And yes, I know of the horrible things that go on elsewhere. But I also believe that China takes the lead when it comes to child abductions and, sadly, it makes the entire country, just about my favorite in the world, look bad. If ever there was a crime to crack down on hard, this is it.

The Discussion: 9 Comments

This sounds very similar to something I had read recently, which resulted in my off-topic comment #62 on the recent “Mao’s legacy” thread. The difference is that what I read didn’t refer to officials in orphanages, but officials confiscating children from families who had allegedly violated the one-child policy. But the theme is similar: “officials” selling children for personal profit.

As I often say, there is no need to compare. It really doesn’t matter if similar travesties are being committed in other countries, because it doesn’t change the fact that it is terrible that such travesties are occurring in China.

May 19, 2011 @ 7:33 am | Comment

“Of course poverty and population size are factors behind lots of things. But … you know how it is, in China, sometimes you encounter incidents that are so beyond the typical moral pale, usually in some “mamu”-related way, that you cannot simply chalk it up to those factors.”

Love this comment. The whole 人太多 argument has become a automatic response to all the social ills in China for many people. While it can’t be discounted, when it becomes an excuse for EVERYTHING one has to become suspicious of it as just another “slogan” keeping people under the impression that the problem is insurmountable and therefore any further discussion is futile.

To me, people should be expecting more of their self-proclaimed “brilliant” leaders. Didn’t CCP drive out the imperialists once and for all? Didn’t they bring 30 years of SCIENTIFIC development and turn around the prospects of this once impoverished nation? Did they not build the world’s longest bridge, the world’s highest building (well almost), the world’s biggest dam, and the world’s highest railway? For all the things the great accomplishments they praise themselves for daily, shouldn’t they be able figure out how to stop a few government officials (who they should have DIRECT supervisory control over) from human trafficking?

Wait. What’s that you say? 人太多? Oh yeah, forgot about that. Let’s give them a pass…

May 19, 2011 @ 8:45 am | Comment

SK, I put in the comparison only because this kind of topic often results in my being tarred as “anti-China” and I have to let readers (esp. trolls) know that I know China isn’t the only country where people do bad things.

Andy, thanks for the excellent comment. I believe high population is a big factor in the mamu phenomenon. I mean, with so many people on lines and on the road and on the streets, it’s not surprising people an adopt a me-first attitude that manifests itself in rushing into elevators and subways, cutting lines and trying to grab as much as you can for yourself. But as my email friend says, for a crime this horrific the answer lies elsewhere; over-population cannot be the only answer. How much human trafficking goes on in Hong Kong or Tokyo? No, this is mamu in extremis, and I honestly don’t have the answer as to its derivation, though I think a big factor is sudden monumental growth without an accompanying growth in ethics, resulting in incredible, ruthless greed. And the Cultural Revolution. Over-population. A get-rich-at-any cost mentality. Corruption and unaccountability. Lack of rule of law. Inability of the disenfranchised to raise their voices and demand justice. Etc. That’s a pretty toxic brew.

May 19, 2011 @ 10:00 am | Comment

Some more information for any interested. The U.S. State Department issues a yearly Trafficking in Persons Report that compares these issues across countries.

The portion on China can be found at:

The report does provide a good sense of where China’s legal system stands on human trafficking and how China’s efforts compare to international norms. The picture painted of China is, as you might imagine, not very pretty but also not surprising.

Frankly, China lags far, far behind peer countries in respect for human rights and anyone with an open mind to the issue can see that clearly. Of course, to say so is always couched as an attack on China, which is a shame. Chinese should rightfully be furious at their own government for complicity and/or failure to prevent these crimes, but instead, anger is usually reserved for the likes of Peking Duck and other foreigners who are “meddling in China’s internal affairs” and of course, “hurting the feelings of all Chinese people.”

May 19, 2011 @ 10:40 am | Comment

This is scary. For the longest time, the impression that I was given on adoptions in China that it was actually LESS corrupt and seemingly more honest than countries like Russia, parts of Eastern Europe, Indonesia, etc., and that that was one of the driving factors for Westerners to adopt in China (combined with America’s own ridiculously discouraging adoption process). This saddens me because my wife and I have thought very strongly about adopting from China.

May 19, 2011 @ 11:07 am | Comment

To Richard:
understood. However, certain readers will reflexively react that way even in the face of any and all evidence to the contrary, so catering to the lowest common denominator will likely be a fruitless exercise.

To other RIchard:
like you say, if I had a nickel for every time the usual suspects uttered those phrases from your last sentence, I’d have a lot of nickels.

May 19, 2011 @ 11:09 am | Comment

Not to be Mr. Negative, but the sentence “China has made strides in dealing with corruption and other nasty problems” caught my eye. I can’t help but feel that corruption is even worse now than it has ever been? Am I missing something?
Not to change the subject of course… these family planning officials’ shenanigans seems to me to just be another example of corruption, in terms of officials blatantly abusing their unchallenged power for material gain at the expense of the people, who in turn have no choice but to accept this sad state of affairs.
So, no matter whether we’re talking about abduction or corruption or clamping down on free speech or really anything related to citizens’ basic rights and government accountability, I would just say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Perhaps I should change my name to Mr. Negative.

May 19, 2011 @ 3:30 pm | Comment

I think they’ve made some strides cracking down, and the Internet has forced some improvements, if only from fear of getting caught.

May 19, 2011 @ 11:33 pm | Comment

@ S.K. Cheung

My third favorite argument, of course, is “the United States does x, therefore it’s ok for China to do the same.” There are numerous variations on that argument, of course, but as you eloquently point out, “It really doesn’t matter if similar travesties are being committed in other countries, because it doesn’t change the fact that it is terrible that such travesties are occurring in China.”

May 20, 2011 @ 11:39 am | Comment

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