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A family in China made babies their business

The lucrative trade in newborns was fueled by an adoption frenzy that saw government-run orphanages paying for children who they then made available to Westerners.

January 24, 2010|By Barbara Demick
  • Duan Yuelin and Chen Zhijin, his mother, who get children from the rural poor and adopt them out to foreigners, talk about their business in their home in Changning, China. Chen says the children are better off with their new parents.
Duan Yuelin and Chen Zhijin, his mother, who get children from the rural… (Barbara Demick / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Changning, China — The telephones kept ringing with more orders and although Duan Yuelin kept raising his prices, the demand was inexhaustible. Customers were so eager to buy more that they would ply him with expensive gifts and dinners in fancy restaurants.

His family-run business was racking up sales of as much as $3,000 a month, unimaginable riches for uneducated Chinese rice farmers from southern Hunan province.

What merchandise was he selling? Babies. And the customers were government-run orphanages that paid up to $600 each for newborn girls for adoption in the United States and other Western countries.

"They couldn't get enough babies. The demand kept going up and up, and so did the prices," recalled Duan, who was released from prison last month after serving about four years of a six-year sentence for child trafficking.

Huddled around a gas stove that barely took the chill out of their ground-floor apartment, Duan and his parents offered a rare look at the inner workings of a "mom and pop" baby-trafficking ring run by members of his family and an illiterate garbage collector with a habit of picking up abandoned babies.

From 2001 to '05, the ring sold 85 baby girls to six orphanages in Hunan.

His story, which is backed up by hundreds of pages of documents gathered in his 2006 court case, shed light on the secretive process that has seen tens of thousands of unwanted girls born to dirt-poor parents in the Chinese countryside growing up in the United States with names like Kelly and Emily.

"Definitely, all the orphanages gave money for babies," said the 38-year-old Duan, a loquacious man with a boxy haircut.

At first, Duan said, his family members assumed that they weren't breaking the law because the babies were going to government-run orphanages. It had been an accepted practice among peasant families to sell unwanted children to other families.

But the police didn't see it that way. Chinese law had been strengthened in 1991 to clearly prohibit commerce in children.

The concern is that not only is paying for babies unethical, it can encourage kidnapping, a rampant problem in China. And when babies are trafficked and their records falsified, they grow up with no sense of where they are from and their heritage.

Although Duan and his family trafficked babies only from the southern province of Guangdong, he says other families were doing the same -- bringing in babies from impoverished parts of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces to the west.

The merchandise may have been human, but it was a trading business like any other. Cash on delivery; prices set by laws of supply and demand. The Duans' supplier in Guangdong would charge extra if a baby was prettier or stronger than the average. The orphanages would often phone in their orders and haggle over the price.

"Sometimes they would give us money in advance to buy the babies. They'd say, 'We'll take this many babies at such-and-such a price,' " Duan recalled.

Duan and five members of his family -- two younger sisters, his wife, sister-in-law and brother-in-law -- were convicted in 2006 of child trafficking. The others remain in prison. Only Duan was released, on the grounds that he needed to support his parents.

Family members complain that they were made scapegoats in the widespread buying and selling of babies. Several orphanage directors involved were promoted afterward.

"The government was making the big money. . . . We only got a little bit, like the dregs of the tofu," said Duan Fagui, Yuelin's 59-year-old father. He said that many other families were selling babies to orphanages -- "the only difference is that we got caught."

It began in 1993 when Chen Zhijin, Yuelin Duan's mother, and the two sisters who remain in prison were hired for $1 a day to take care of babies for the orphanage in Changning, a town adjacent to the larger city of Hengyang.

At the time, the Communist Party's campaign to limit population size was running strong, and overly zealous cadres would sometimes demolish the houses of families that had more than one child (two for peasants if the first was a girl, because rural families wanted boys to carry on the family name).

It is illegal in China to abandon a baby, even at an orphanage, so people would discard their unwanted daughters in the dark of night in cardboard boxes or bamboo baskets. If they were leaving baby near an orphanage, they often would light a firecracker as a signal for the staff to find the child.

"We'd find the babies all over," recalled Chen, a tiny woman in tattered plaid trousers with short hair hugging her face. "They'd be wrapped in rags, filthy. . . . Sometimes they'd have ants all over their face because babies have a sweet smell and the ants like them."

Because Chen worked for the orphanage, rural people sometimes asked her to take their unwanted babies there. The orphanage would accept some, not all; it didn't have enough caretakers or formula for all the babies.

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