China's Lost Children

A foreign expert on child protection based in China cautioned against generalizing about all orphanages here, most of which do not violate the law. "You can't accurately see the big picture of the forest by just looking at a few trees. China is a big place with 1.3 billion people. Any illegal practice you can find in the world, you can find here."

Why the Market for Children Endures

The practice of selling children persists in China. Experts point to a number of factors keeping it alive: desperate parents who can't make ends meet, child traffickers who want the money and the high demand for Chinese babies.

Child welfare advocates say China's one-child policy has had an undeniable impact on the number of orphans. Parents must have a birth permit to have a child. If they don't and they are discovered, they are fined. If couples have a second child, they have to pay a fine. Many poor families can't afford to raise a child, pay the fees and feed themselves, so they feel selling their child is the only way to survive.

In rural China, boys are still valued over girls. Boys are seen as having more earning potential and the ability to carry on the family name. Many families are so eager to have a boy, they are willing to buy one on the black market.

Some families sell their first born if the child is a girl, in order to try again for a boy and avoid the fine for having a second child. Also, experts suggest that the one-child policy has contributed to the imbalance in the male-female sex ratio, which may continue to fuel the trafficking of girls and women to become brides.

A child protection expert who wanted to remain anonymous said, "It's very sensitive to discuss this here, but the one-child policy is definitely contributing to the problem. The government of China does not want to acknowledge this, but it is one big factor."

The Chinese government says that it is too simplistic to directly connect the one-child policy with the motivations behind child trafficking. It notes that countries without such a policy also have severe human-trafficking problems.

It is a criminal offense in China to kidnap women and children. It is also illegal to abandon, sell or buy a child. The Chinese have implemented new programs aimed at prosecution and prevention. But aid agencies and the U.S. State Department say the policies don't go far enough.

At the end of 2007, the Chinese government came up with the National Plan of Action to combat trafficking, involving 24 agencies from the central government and creating national-level mechanisms with substantial resources.

But in China, when dealing with an issue like this, it is the local provincial governments who really have the ability to prosecute and prevent.

"The kind of effective action they will be able to take is a big question mark. It is too early to assess but everyone wishes they would work on it more quickly," said a child protection expert here.

Like with the one-child policy, it is difficult to calculate the impact that the rise in foreign adoptions has had on the child-trafficking market in China. But it has certainly increased the demand for Chinese children.

While the national trend is that the number of children available for adoption is going down, one researcher points to several orphanages across the country where the number of adoptable babies has spiked.

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