When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.


The Mothers Who Sold Their Newborns: A Tale Of Child Trafficking In China

With a recent crackdown on child trafficking in China, a journalist recalls the shock of an earlier visit to the same remote Sichuan Province area where wretchedly poor women willingly sold their newborns -- and didn't want them back.

A panda at the Beauval zoo in France enjoys a piece of bamboo
Last week, 181 abducted children were rescued (IvanWalsh.com)
Mélody P

According to the Xinhua News official press agency, a unified command of the Ministry of Public Security organized a synchronized operation last week in 14 provinces of China. It broke up two infant trafficking gangs, arrested 802 criminal suspects and rescued 181 abducted children.

Among the 168 suspects from the southwest province of Sichuan, 16 of them are so-called "producers and traffickers of infants," that is mother-traffickers who have sold their own babies.

This piece of news has started me thinking about of a report that I myself participated in 10 years ago.

On July 4 2002, the Public Security Department of Shouguang City, in the coastal Shandong province, uncovered a big baby-trafficking case. Eleven traffickers were captured and 11 newborn babies were rescued. The summer that year was so hot that these babies, aged between 2 and 4 months, were found in a critical condition. Some of them had dermatitis and the others suffered from omphalitis.

After some care, the newborns were out of danger. The Shouguang authority tried their best and found out that most of the babies came from Liangshan County in Sichuan. They contacted Liangshan's local government to arrange to send these babies back to their parents. Although the local authority seemed to be caught in a dilemma, they nonetheless came up with a way of getting these babies home.

As a reporter, I witnessed the whole process of sending these infants back.

After three days of a bumpy journey on the train and a dozen more hours on a bus, the 11 babies finally reached their hometown. During the trip, so as to be able to identify them, the health care staff had numbered these babies on their foreheads. During the intolerably long journey where the temperature hit its highest level in 48 years, the babies behaved so gently and hardly cried. Maybe they felt they were approaching home, little by little.

However, when the bus arrived in the county township of Liangshan, no mother rushed forward to fetch their returned infant. No one covered their little darling with hysterical kisses as we had expected. The streets appeared extremely calm. The filming and interviews that the cameraman and I had planned came to nothing.

The infants were settled in two empty rooms at the local martyrs' cemetery for their mothers to come and claim them. We waited outside the rooms with our cameras set up ready hoping to catch images of reunions of mothers and babies. Yet nothing happened.

After nearly a day of waiting, the local department of civil affairs posted a notice informing the families who had lost their babies to come and collect them. Still, nothing.

Someone's making a killing

Finally, a local told me that I was never going to see any mother come. "These mothers don't want their babies anymore. These are the goods they have sold. Have you ever seen a shopkeeper who has sold his goods feel happy to see the goods returned?" he asked me.

His words shocked us.

So after some investigation, we found out that these babies were indeed born of parents who intended to sell them for money right from the beginning. It was said to be very common locally. The problem was that so many newborns were sold at the same period this time that it aroused the attention of the outside world.

According to the local people, a newborn was sold by their parents for between 1000 to 2000 RMB ($150 to $300). They were usually taken to faraway places and resold for more than five times the price.

The statement was confirmed by a human trafficker interrogated by the police. "It's not a risky business. If a baby dies on the way, I just throw the dead corpse out of the window," he said. "Even if I get to sell only one out of two, I still make money."

Being so intrigued by these mothers who sold their own flesh and blood, we tried to interview some of them. With the assistance of local inhabitants and a lot of effort, we found a mother who once sold her baby. We first took a four-hour car ride, then we changed to a tractor for two hours on a bumpy road, and then another three hours on a three-wheeled motor-moped. When we finally got to the remote mountainous village, I felt as if my bottom did not belong to me anymore.

There was no electricity in the village. The several rough stone cottages seemed interlocked together. Inside out, this was clearly a very poor village. It was very quiet everywhere, no one seemed to want to talk. Only the pigs and chickens scattered freely around the corners of the houses made some occasional sounds.

It took us quite a while to find the woman whom we wanted to interview. She was in front of the door of her house chopping some herbs to feed her pig. Her hands were dyed green by the juice of the herb. The guide told us she was the woman who had sold her baby two years earlier.

We began to ask the woman questions very cautiously. But she was so calm, and nothing like what we had anticipated. "Look around and tell me, what is there in this house that would be worth 1000 Yuan, apart from a baby?" she asked us.

We looked in the direction her finger was pointing. In the dark house lay a crumbling bed. A deformed pot was hanging beside a stove. Underneath were a few jagged bowls. Further in the corner, stood a pig that was staring warily at us.

She shook her head and then said, "We just couldn't think of any other way of making 1000 Yuan in just one go. That's the equivalent of two harvests."

"Don't you care about the life and death of your child?" we asked.

"If one is doomed to be dirt-poor in life, one can never change that fate. That's one's fortune. That's destiny." She then raised her head and looked faraway. "Maybe, maybe he'll be able to find a good home," she said, seeming to be talking to herself as much as to us.

At this moment some unusual radiance flashed across her eyes, and we couldn't tell whether it was joy or sadness.

On our way back to the county township, one reporter from Shandong remarked: "They are so poor that the only thing that they have got left is their fertility."

Ten years have passed, and I don't know whether the situation in those poor rural areas has improved. With my whole heart, I, of course, applaud the combat against infant-trafficking crimes. But at the same time, the same importance should be given to fighting the poverty which nurtures such evil. That would be a real solution.

*Zeng Ying is a blogger at Caixin media and a columnist for several Chinese newspapers and magazines

Read the original article in Chinese.

Photo - IvanWalsh.com

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.


A Writer's Advice For How To Read The Words Of Politics

Colombia's reformist president has promised to tackle endemic violence, economic exclusion, pollution and corruption in the country. So what's new with a politician's promises?

Image of Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaking during a press conference in Buenos Aires on Jan 14, 2023

Colombian President Gustavo Petro, speaks during a press conference in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 24, 2023.

Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
Héctor Abad Faciolince


BOGOTÁ — Don't concentrate on his words, I was once advised, but look at what he's doing. I heard the words so long ago I cannot recall who said them. The point is, what's the use of a husband who vows never to beat his wife in January and leaves her with a bruised face in February?

Words are a strange thing, and in literal terms, we must distrust their meaning. As I never hit anyone, I have never declared that I wouldn't. It never occurred to me to say it. Strangely, there is more power and truth in a simple declaration like "I love her" than in the more emphatic "I love her so much." A verbal addition here just shrinks the "sense" of love.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest