Date: 1999-04-14

Scripps Howard News Service

SHANXI PROVINCE, China - There is no secret about the baby-selling business the barren highlands of north China. This lively traffic, in which poor families from the hinterland sell surplus infants to the richer coastal provinces, is taken for granted. The prices are as familiar as those for vegetables.

"Girls are less popular," says a railway worker who lives in Shanxi province near a well-known center of the trade. "That's why they only fetch $194. A good healthy boy is worth four times as much."

A local government official adds: "It is not just that Chinese peasants have a tradition of wanting a male heir. A boy is more useful because of his labor power. As he grows up he can earn more in the fields, and even more if he becomes a migrant worker in the city. But some families like to have an extra girl too."

This is a bleak place. The vast plain in northern Shanxi stretches dimly into the mist. A few solitary poplars stand with magpie nests perched in their bare branches. But the plain is riven with gullies up to 100 feet deep, in whose slightly less hostile climate small communities live a very basic life. Small fields are perched on precarious ledges. Solitary figures turn the earth with a wooden mattock.

Extra births outside the "one-child family" (or two in some areas) are severely punished by a minimum fine of $421. Local cadres may extort as much again. No wonder some peasant families seize the chance to make money instead out of misfortune.

The traffic, recently exposed in a now less constrained Chinese media, illustrates one of many loopholes in the "one-child-family" policy. Others range from bribing local officials to ignore irregular births, to simply failing to register them.

Statistics from a rural district devastated in last summer's floods have caused particular alarm. The registered population in Paizhou on the Yangzi river was just over 57,000. But relief workers found the real figure to be 64,000 - 12 percent more.

One little girl, plucked from the torrent in Paizhou when the Yangzi broke its banks, appeared on national television saying she had four brothers and sisters.

If the same discrepancy existed throughout rural China, it would add another 100 million to the national population of 1.2 billion. More conservative estimates suggest a surplus of 30 million.

The baby traffic is statistically much less significant, but it evokes unhappy images of the past, when families sold their children in times of famine.

It came to light in January, when police in Liaocheng, in the coastal province of Shandong, found four babies in the back of a small van. They arrested two drivers and a woman hired to look after the babies by the ringleader, Dong Liangmao, who escaped.

Dong was traced to his home village near the town of Xinzhou, not far from Shanxi's provincial capital of Taiyuan. He turned out to run regular baby transports into the more prosperous coastal areas. According to an investigation by the popular Southern Weekend newspaper, Dong made a profit of $648 on each baby.

Dong is said to have built a palatial house filled with electronic gadgets, in a village where most dwellings are still made of packed mud. He used to earn his living by collecting empty bottles before realizing the possibilities of the baby trade.

The "one-child family" imposed on urban China has been slightly eased in many rural communities, where a second child is often allowed if the first is a girl. But couples may still sell their first child if it is a boy; having a daughter first is the only way to have a larger family.


Pound Pup Legacy