BY AMANDA KLOER
Adopting a child from China has been a wish come true for many families in the U.S. who were unable to conceive children and didn’t want to wait the several years that U.S. adoption companies required. But beneath those sunny smiles of American and Western families playing with their new babies lies a darkness — a Chinese baby trafficking industry in which children are acquired through means ranging from shady to illegal, and where a strong profit motive drives the trade in infants. Is the Chinese baby trafficking industry just a means to find unwanted and abandoned children loving homes? Or is it a nefarious ploy to make money off desperate families and vulnerable children?
The Los Angeles Times recently interviewed Duan Yuelin, the head of a family of professional baby traffickers in China. The story paints them as criminals on the outside, but deep down as humble small-business owners who responded to the laws of supply and demand in the market in a slightly non-traditional way: by selling babies to orphanages. The Yuelin’s would find abandoned babies in the poor country province where they lived and sell them to orphanages in cities to be adopted by Western families. From 2001 to 2005, they sold 85 girl children in this way and Duan was sentenced to 6 years in prison because of it. But the description of this trafficking ring sounds almost charitable — children in need of a home find one with a loving family, and everyone makes a little money helping people make their lives complete. Right? Not so fast.
One of the key issues in any trafficking operation is the economic law of supply and demand, the market forces which Duan Yuelin was responding to. In the late 90s and 00s, Western demand for Chinese babies steadily increased as more couples looked to adopt abroad. The supply of unwanted Chinese babies, however, did not. This imbalance of supply and demand can have two effects on the Chinese baby trafficking industry: it can cause the price of babies to increase, and it can lead traffickers like the Yuelins to start kidnapping children and luring them away from parents to be sold. The price of babies went up almost 400% in the years the Yuelins were trafficking. As for kidnapping children, they never admitted to that. But the Yuelins were just one of many such operations motivated to procure more children by the large profits at stake.
The Yuelins did, however, participate in falsifying information about the children they sold to orphanages to prevent birth parents from claiming them. In China, the law states that an orphanage must make an attempt to contact the birth parents before adopting out the child. This is often done through ads in the local newspaper. The ads the orphanages placed, however, intentionally changed and obscured identifying information about the babies, like where they were “found.” And the orphanages have a vested interest in adopting the children out because they can earn $3000 or more per child in “donations” from the Western family who adopts it.
The whole Chinese baby trafficking system is set up around a powerful profit motive — for the traffickers, the orphanages, and the government officials who get fees and kickbacks from the process. There is little or no motivation, however, to reunite children with birth families or find out which babies who appear in the orphanage are really unwanted. And because of that, there are children living in healthy, happy Western homes who might have otherwise been left for dead in China. And there are also children living in healthy, happy Western homes who will never know they have a Chinese family who yearns to hold them and teach them where they came from.
Photo credit: Josh dubya