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By Sharon Lafraniere
August 6, 2011 / The Sydney Morning Herald
LONGHUI COUNTY, China: Parents and grandparents have long known to grab their babies and hide whenever family-planning officials show up at the mountainous Longhui region of terraced rice and sweet potato fields. Too many infants have been snatched by officials, never to be seen again, they say.
But Yuan Xinquan was caught by surprise one December morning in 2005. A new father then at 19, Yuan was holding his 52-day-old daughter at a bus stop when six men sprang from a government van and demanded his marriage certificate.
He did not have one. Both he and his daughter's mother were below the legal age for marriage.
Nor did he have 6000 yuan, or about $893, to pay the fine he said the officials demanded if he wanted to keep his child. He was left with a plastic bag holding her baby clothes and some powdered formula.
''They are pirates,'' he said. Six years later, he still hopes to relay a message to his daughter: ''Please come home as soon as possible.''
Yuan's daughter was among at least 16 children seized by family-planning officials between 1999 and late 2006 in Longhui County, an impoverished rural area in the southern province of Hunan, parents, grandparents and other residents have said. The abduction of children is a continuing problem in China, where a lingering preference for boys coupled with strict controls on the number of births have helped create a lucrative black market in children.
Last week, the police announced they had rescued 89 babies from child traffickers, and the deputy director of the Public Security Ministry assailed what he called the practice of ''buying and selling children in this country''.
But parents in Longhui say that in their case, local government officials treated babies as a source of revenue, routinely imposing fines of $US1000 ($958)or more - five times more than an average local family's yearly income. If parents could not pay the fines, the babies were taken and often put up for adoption by foreigners, another big source of revenue.
The practice in Longhui came to an end in 2006, parents said, only after an eight-month-old boy fell from the second-floor balcony of a local family-planning office as officials tried to pull him from his mother's arms.
China's state-controlled media ignored or suppressed the news until May, when Caixin, a magazine known for unusually bold investigations, reported the abductions.
Zeng Dingbao, who leads the Inspection Bureau in Shaoyang, the city that administers Longhui County, has promised a diligent investigation but parents say authorities are punishing those who speak out.
The scandal has renewed questions about whether foreigners have adopted Chinese children who were falsely depicted as abandoned or orphaned. At least one US agency organised adoptions from a government-run Shaoyang orphanage.
Lillian Zhang, director of China Adoption With Love based in Boston, said the agency had found adoptive parents in 2006 for six Shaoyang children - all girls, all renamed Shao, after the city. The Chinese authorities certified that each child was eligible for adoption, she said, and her agency cannot now independently investigate their backgrounds without a specific request backed by evidence.
''I'm an adoption agency, not a policeman,'' Ms Zhang said.
Xiong Chao escaped the fate of many. Villagers say he was the last baby that officials tried to snatch, and one of the few returned home.
Now, six years later, his 63-year-old grandmother, Dai Yulin, patiently scrawls blue and white chalk numerals on her concrete wall, hoping that Chao will learn them. ''He has been to primary school for a whole year and he still cannot recognise one and two.''
Nearby is the tiny, dark room where, she said, she tried and failed, in September 2006, to hide Chao from family-planning officials. He was eight months old and her son's second child. The officials demanded nearly $US1000 ($958), then took him away when she could not pay the money.
His mother, Du Chunhua, rushed to the family-planning office to protest. There, as she struggled with two officials on the second floor balcony, she said, the baby slipped from her grasp and fell more than three metres to the footpath below.
Later, she said, as the baby lay in a coma in the hospital, his forehead permanently misshapen, officials offered a deal: they would forget about the fine as long as the family covered the medical bills for Chao.
Also, they said, the Xiongs could keep him.