China’s Trade in Children: The Business of Child Abduction

“People abduct infants because the profits are huge, and that makes the risks worth taking,” said Chen Shiqu, director of the human trafficking office at the Criminal Investigation Department. A healthy infant can be bought for ¥10,000-30,000 (£1,050-3,200) in poverty-stricken areas, and can fetch as much as ¥70,000-80,000 (£7,400-8,500) in richer provinces such as Fujian and Guangdong. To put this amount into perspective, the annual average wage in rural China is ¥10,489 (£1,070). 

Child kidnapping and trafficking is so prevalent in China that it has become a lucrative business reflected by the staggering amount of uncovered cases. According to Xinhua News, police has rescued over 54,000 children since the government began to crack down on the problem in 2009. Despite the glaring severity of the situation, official figures relating to child trafficking still remains classified. Indeed, it is unclear if authorities are even monitoring and documenting the problem. As a result, unofficial statistics that are available are based on the numbers of missing-child reports posted by parents online and the number of children rescued each year. Most commentators, however, estimate that a range of 10,000 to as high as 70,000 children are kidnapped and sold each year.     

What are the causes for the trade in children? Poverty is often the motive behind the sale of children. Rural areas, in particular, are increasingly susceptible to the willing practice of selling children and child abductions. Due to economic disparities between urban cities and the countryside coupled with high unemployment, some parents end up selling their children for their own economic survival.     

Of course, avarice and corruption has contributed to child trafficking. Left-behind children, who have been abandoned by their parents in order to seek higher wages, are the most vulnerable to abductions. A prosecuted kidnapper in Hunan Province claimed to have sold more than 1,000 children a year, either forced into the sex trade or slave labour. In 2013, Xinhua News reported a disturbing case of child trafficking involving corruption in the highest echelon of Fuping’s maternal and child healthcare hospital. Dong Shanshan had given birth to a healthy baby boy but was convinced otherwise by her obstetrician, who told the mother that her son would not survive due to congenital illnesses and should leave the baby in her care. The doctor then sold the boy to traffickers for ¥21,600 (£2,300). Police had arrested the obstetrician along with the director and two deputy directors of the hospital. Together, the perpetrators had trafficked up to eight babies.    

In an atmosphere of cost competitiveness where children are the new form of cheap labour and where there are massive profits to be made, child abductions will continue to fuel this market. In addition, China’s one-child policy has created such an environment where finding a buyer for children is rarely difficult, specifically for boys. Due to Chinese culture with its traditionalism and anachronistic perceptions, families who lack sons will be potential buyers as boys are considered more suited to support their parents in old age. Although China’s one-child policy has been recently scrapped, any change in this current trend is yet to be seen.

What is being done? At the national level, the Chinese government takes child abductions very seriously with the implementation of a national anti-kidnapping taskforce, frequent anti-kidnapping campaigns, and the creation of a DNA database to reunite abducted children with their parents. In spite of these efforts, corruption, made possible by the decentralisation of power in favour of regional control, has created an environment in which local officials and business owners can pursue financial incentives to the detriment of vulnerable populations. Making matters worse is the slow reaction of local police, a lack of legal enforcement and understaffed and under-resourced labour bureaus. In consequence, those responsible for the law’s enforcement are oftentimes its worst abusers. 

In 2007, such corruption was blatantly exposed as 532 slave labourers, of which 109 were children, were rescued from brick kilns that were run under the protection of local officials in Shanxi Province. The unravelling of the Shanxi brickyard scandal was due to a public appeal by parents whose children had disappeared. The parents wrote: “Most of the children were lured into or forced into cars at Zhengzhou railway and bus stations. They were then sold into hard labour in areas with large clusters of brickyards such as the Shanxi municipalities of Yongji and Linfen for ¥500 (£52) a head.” In due course, a police investigation discovered that the labourers were regularly beaten, starved and maimed if they tried to escape. Some of the victims were held captive for over seven years. The youngest amongst the 109 child labourers was only 8 years old. In an attempted cover-up, Shanxi government officials claimed the actual figure of rescued children was only 6. Overall, 95 Party officials from Shanxi Province were subjected to a range of “disciplinary” measures for their role in the labour scandal and negligence of law enforcement. None were criminally prosecuted.   

Despite being freed, the lack of an effective administrative system to care and provide long-term treatment for victims of slavery and abduction is further fuelling the problem. Traumatised children from the brickyards were simply escorted to railway stations and sent home, where 8 out of 31 children went missing during the trip home.   

The issue of child kidnapping and child labour can only be effectively addressed through an increase of public awareness and government transparency. The inability of local authorities in enforcing the country’s laws needs to be corrected, and without government accountability, the very institutions created to protect people become sources of abuse. As it stands, China’s trade in children is still in business.      

By Anthony Ho