XIAN, China — 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.