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More Than Missing: Why China’s Child Trafficking Problem Isn’t Going Away

REUTERS/China Daily

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter

China has cracked down on child trafficking in recent years, but the problem remains a serious challenge the country has yet to overcome.

Children in China are sometimes seen as goods or products that can be traded or sold. Each year, the country has thousands of child trafficking cases, many of which go unsolved, and even if they are solved, reuniting children with their parents is often difficult.

Nan’an Business News reported Friday on a woman who organized a team of five child traffickers after hearing the “business was booming” in Fujian, a province in Southern China. She sold two Chinese boys for roughly $30,000 in December 2015, an excellent payout given the limited cost of acquiring and caring for the two young children during the search for a suitable buyer. It wasn’t until the woman tried to sell her sister-in-law’s son that she was caught — and that was only because the buyer got spooked.

In another recent example, a woman in Tianjin reportedly spotted an advertisement with the words “mai mai er tong” (child trading) and a phone number scribbled on a bridge while she was out for a walk on August 5. She reported it to a local news agency, and reporters called the number. When someone in another city answered the call, the reporters pretended to be criminals interested in trafficking and asked about the going rate. The unidentified trafficker responded, “Eight children are worth RMB 3 million.” That means one child is worth around $50,000.

In a case that was recently tried in court, a young man’s parents attempted to sell their grandchild for around $10,000 after the man’s wife died during childbirth. The grandparents felt the child would be a burden to their 21-year-old son, who would likely remarry later, so they decided to sell the kid and use the money to buy a house.

The number of children who are abducted and trafficked in China each year is unknown. Conservative estimates put the number at around 20,000, but some media reports have indicated that the figure could be as high as 200,000, according to a recent China Policy Institute (CPI) report by Quanbao Jiang, a professor of Demography in the Institute of Population and Development Studies at Xi’an Jiaotong University.

While child trafficking is a major problem the world over, the problem persists in China for a number of troubling reasons.

For starters, parents are often directly involved in the trafficking of their children. According to Jiang’s recent CPI report, out of 363 cases released by lower courts since 2014, the birth parents were involved in roughly 40 percent of the cases.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to money. Some parents try to skirt the fines associated with the one-child policy, which has been adjusted but still puts a strain on certain parts of the country — rural areas in particular. Sometimes parents view selling their children as a way to overcome economic hardships. In other cases, some people see kids as a renewable resource  for a fairly decent payday.

Even some orphanages in China are corrupted by the potential profits. When foreigners adopt Chinese children, they are regularly required to pay extravagant fees, including a donation of several thousand dollars to the orphanage. Orphanages don’t often kidnap children, but they have been known to obtain kids through questionable sources.

In other instances, if authorities are unable to find a child’s parents, the child will be placed in an orphanage, which may put the kid up for adoption before the parents ever have the chance to find them. Jiang indicated in his CPI report that the number of children who are reunited with their parents could be as low as 0.1 percent.

Police indifference is also a critical problem. Not only are local police sometimes unwilling to put in the effort to find missing children, but a kid can’t be reported missing until 24 hours pass. This rule gives child traffickers a head start and the ability to cross several provincial borders before police even start looking.

Male children are the primary targets due to the cultural desire to have male descendants to carry on a family name. Families who are unable to conceive sometimes see “purchasing” children as a more attractive option than adoption, which is often quite expensive.

Furthermore, gangs of professional beggars often purchase children and force them to beg on the streets. In some cases, buyers will intentionally maim children to increase sympathy and the amount of money they bring in each day. In other circumstances, criminals will buy children and use them as pickpockets.

While 86 percent of all child trafficking cases involve children under the age of six, with infants making up the vast majority, child trafficking doesn’t strictly apply to young kids. Teenage boys are regularly kidnapped, sold to work groups in rural communities, and used as slave labor. Teenage girls, on the other hand, are sold into prostitution.

Meanwhile, many traffickers, particularly those who sell children to families who can’t have children, believe they are providing a public service.

While China struggles to control the child trafficking problem, it does take a strong stance against the crime.

People who participate at the most basic level may be given five to 10 years in prison, but serious involvement can result in imprisonment for anywhere between 10 years and life and the seizure of all financial assets. In certain situations, China will give child traffickers, individuals who have sold numerous children, moved children beyond China’s borders, or intentionally or inadvertently killed the child, the death penalty.

Between February 2008 and April 2013, a group of traffickers in Henan sold a total of 22 children and were sentenced to death. Those who purchased the children were also punished, but their sentences were lighter.

In 2009, China’s Ministry of Public Security created a DNA database for homeless children and parents with missing children to help combat the country’s growing crisis. But many parents are unaware such a system exists and have yet to provide blood samples.

Still, this system has had several successes.

A Chinese boy named Zhu Yuhu was reunited in July with his parents 17 years after being abducted and sold to child traffickers. The little boy was eight months old when he was kidnapped by one of his father’s co-workers after an argument over a card game. The parents worked with a number of organizations and used DNA tracking to find their son.

China has also established state-level anti-kidnapping taskforces. A report on the implementation of the “National Program for the Development of Children (2011-2020)” showed that 1,460 child trafficking cases were solved in 2014, but the number of cases that occur each year far outweighs the number of solved abductions.

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