The rescue of 15 infants by Chinese police from a 78-member child-trafficking gang has drawn attention to poverty and lack of legal awareness in the country's poorest regions.
The 15 infants, with the youngest only four days old, have been sent to welfare institutions for temporary placement. Most hail from the Yi Autonomous Prefecture of Liangshan in Sichuan Province, southwest China. Just ten days ago, they were waiting to be sold some 2,000 km from their homes, according to sources with Sichuan police.
Blood samples of the 15 infants have been taken in order to help find their parents through a national DNA database. Most of the infants were sold voluntarily by their parents, according to Chen Shiqu, director of the anti-human trafficking office under the Ministry of Public Security. Chen added that poverty has always been the motivation for parents to sell their infants.
In 2013, Liangshan had 13.5 percent of its population, or about over 600,000 people, living below the national poverty line (defined as annual per capita net income of 2,736 yuan, or 415 U.S. dollars).
Children are not commodities, and exchanging them for money is illegal, but couples living in remote areas are just "too poor and too numb" to comprehend the law, Chen said.
CURSE OF POVERTY
A police investigation showed that parents could receive 20,000 yuan for a baby boy, two to three times the annual income of a local family. Boys were sold for 50,000 to 60,000 yuan, while girls were sold for between 20,000 and 30,000 yuan.
In the joint operation launched by Sichuan and Shandong police under the supervision of the Ministry of Public Security, a couple was discovered to have traveled frequently from Liangshan with infants to Linyi City in the coastal province of Shandong, east China, returning empty-handed.
Police found that the woman purchased infants from parents in poor villages and recruited other women, who pretended to be mothers, to transport babies to Linyi by train.
A police investigation found the husband was responsible for seeking buyers in Linyi. He developed a sophisticated network of liaisons in several districts and counties in the coastal province.
The couple even arranged for pregnant women to deliver their babies at the homes of buyers.
"The gang members were managed in an organized way and had different duties, including trafficking infants, transportation and seeking buyers," a police officer said.
Lack of awareness of the law has also contributed to the problem.
"Hardly anyone knew selling their own child was illegal. They believed they were doing the infants a favor by sending them to grow up in a better environment," said a local civil servant.
By 2012, police found cases had dwindled substantially due to a severe crackdown and poverty alleviation.
To lift people out of poverty, the Sichuan provincial government has introduced a package of poverty alleviation policies. Highways connecting mountainous Liangshan and neighboring cities are being built, paving the way for development.
About 15,000 public servants, including many leaders, have been sent to poor villages to do poverty-relief work and publicize the knowledge of laws, while relief funds were poured in to improve education and medical services.
Latest official statistics showed the per capita net annual income for the rural residents in Liangshan has risen to 8,264 yuan in 2014, only 539 yuan below the province's average, and up 12.3 percent from the previous year.
To prevent falsification of statistics and assure the needy are being lifted out of poverty, the central government has decided to tighten supervision and introduce in a third-party evaluation system.
Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang on Thursday reiterated the importance of providing assistance to poor people.
CRACKING DOWN ON BUYERS
For local police who have been battling child traffickers, another challenge came from the rigid demand from buyers.
Police found most buyers were from the prosperous provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Shandong in southern and eastern China, or the inland regions in Hebei and Henan, where traditional gender preferences prevail.
Demand has generally been for boys in order to carry on the family line, but girls have been sought after in recent years by parents who already have a boy.
"An infant trafficking case often involves too many suspects in several different places," said a police officer. "Buyers use fake names in transactions and adopt various methods to pass procedures when they register the purchased babies with local police."
Evidence against buyers is difficult to obtain, a police officer said.
According to an amendment to China's Criminal Law passed Nov. 1, those who buy trafficked women and children shall be prosecuted for criminal offenses.
Experts said China's stringent adoption system might have led some potential adoptive parents to buy children instead.
"A humane and sound adoption system with a workable channel for qualified families to adopt children, including those who have been trafficked, will effectively reduce such tragedies," Chen said.