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Baby theft in China: Parents devastated by an obstetrician's arrest

Chinese police say Dr. Zhang Shuxia convinced families that their babies were dead, dying or afflicted with ailments, then sold the infants to child traffickers.

August 17, 2013|By Barbara Demick
  • A photo taken at a high school reunion shows obstetrician Zhang Shuxia, left in the front row. She was arrested in July on suspicion of selling newborns to child traffickers.
A photo taken at a high school reunion shows obstetrician Zhang Shuxia,…

FUPING, CHINA — Dong Genlao, a 24-year-old new father, was giddy over the birth of his child, a robust 8-pounder, until the obstetrician beckoned him into the hallway and lowered her voice.

The newborn had a serious genital deformity and could never lead a normal life, she explained.

"He is not completely male, but not female. It will bring shame on the family," whispered the doctor, Zhang Shuxia, a trusted family friend whom they affectionately called "Auntie." "Don't worry," Dong recalled Zhang telling him. "Auntie can help you."

She advised that Dong and his mother give up the baby, euphemistically, to let him be euthanized, a fate common in China for disabled newborns.

In fact, Chinese police believe that Zhang tricked Dong into abandoning the baby so she could sell it. The 55-year-old obstetrician at Fuping County Maternal and Child Healthcare Hospital was arrested last month and charged Aug. 9 with trafficking newborns as far back as 2006, when Dong's baby was born.

As many as 55 possible baby thefts from the hospital are under investigation, with Zhang a principal suspect in half of them, according to police statements.

Child trafficking is a huge problem in rural China, where babies are sometimes snatched from their parents' arms and sold to couples unable to conceive or who desperately want a boy. In December, the Public Security Ministry said it had rescued 54,000 children since April 2009, when a nationwide campaign against trafficking began.

Zhang's arrest has devastated families in villages near Fuping, a county of 800,000 in northern China's Shaanxi province, famous for its apple orchards. The doctor, who grew up nearby, has delivered many babies in the area, as did her mother, also an obstetrician.

Her method, authorities and victims say, was cruel and effective: convincing families that their babies were dead or dying, or afflicted with incurable diseases or congenital deformities. In rural China, a lack of support and restrictions on family size can make people reluctant to raise a child with disabilities.

Police say the doctor's victims were often friends and neighbors, forced to make heart-wrenching decisions about whether their babies should live or die, thus becoming complicit in their purported deaths. Zhang, the families say, even charged them a fee of about $10 to dispose of the corpses.

Zhang is believed to have frequently preyed on the fears of the grandparents, who in the Chinese countryside are desperate for healthy grandchildren to carry on the family line. The mothers were frequently left out of the loop.

The doctor was detained after one young couple, whose son was born July 16, contacted police.

They said they had been told by Zhang that their baby had hepatitis B and syphilis transmitted through the mother. The husband and wife initially accused each other of infidelity, then went to another doctor, who examined them and found them free of the diseases.

Police last week raided a home 300 miles away in adjacent Henan province where a family is believed to have purchased the baby from traffickers for nearly $10,000. Zhang's cut was reported to be $3,500, according to police reports in the official press. The baby was reunited with his parents.

Police have also recovered twin girls born at the hospital in May, saying they were sold, separately, at slightly lower prices — girls being the less favored gender in China.

Dong, a polite man, sounds more incredulous than angry when speaking about Zhang.

His family knew the doctor through her younger sister, who lived a block away. Zhang would give free prenatal exams for villagers who didn't want to travel to the county seat 25 miles away. Dong's family liked her so much they would take a gift of steamed bread when they had their checkups.

"She seemed like a very warm person. Tall, strong, smart, but down to earth," he said. "We absolutely trusted her and she tricked us."

Five people have been arrested on suspicion of being accomplices to Zhang, and families think others may have been involved. Zhang was well-connected in local government: Her husband is a recently retired county official and the couple's son works in the county's legal affairs department.

The maternity hospital, which opened in 1996, has a staff of 120 doctors and treats 20,000 patients a year, according to its website.

The allegations are particularly embarrassing from a symbolic standpoint because Fuping is best known as the ancestral home of President Xi Jinping, whose father, Xi Zhongxun, an early Communist Party revolutionary, was born here.

"It is a disgrace for the hometown of our president that they could not protect us," raged Luo Sanliang, a 57-year-old carpenter, who now believes his granddaughter was sold by Zhang. "This was a government-run hospital, directly under the control of the county…. Zhang was a wolf in sheep's clothing, but I blame authorities too."

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