BEIJING, May 12, 2008 — -- More than a year ago, Liang Di went missing.
He was 3 years old at the time and shopping at an outdoor food market in Dongguan, China, with his father and 6-year old brother.
The two boys were playing outside while their father was in a hardware store. A man approached the two brothers on the street and offered them sweets. And then the man took little Di away.
His father, Liang Xiangrong, and brother did not see where they went. His parents went to the police but were told that they needed to find more clues before the authorities could do anything to help. The police never launched an investigation. And Liang Xiangrong said trying to solicit help from government officials is useless.
"We didn't tell the local officials what happened to our boy. Even if we told them, who would believe what a poor migrant worker said?" he told ABC News.
All they could do was talk to police and with other families in the area whose children had been kidnapped. The family has not heard anything about the possible whereabouts of their child. The last year has been agony.
"We think of him every day. When we close our eyes in bed at night, we think of him. When we see other people's children, we think of him. We really miss him," Liang said.
There has been a spate of child kidnappings in Dongguan, among other cities in the last few years, mostly targeting the children of poor migrant workers. Now, little Di is a statistic.
The 2007 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons report says that domestic trafficking "remains the most significant problem in China." It estimates that there are up to 20,000 victims each year, but because this is an underground practice, it is virtually impossible to track. Some estimates put the number of children kidnapped or sold on the black market closer to 70,000. The Chinese government says the number is more like 10,000.
Some of the kidnapped children are forced into work, girls often into the sex trade. Others are purchased by families in China who desperately want a child, usually a boy to carry on the family name. But there is also a growing concern that some make their way overseas, with unsuspecting foreign adoptive parents who don't realize that some orphanages have baby-buying programs, offering cash for children.
In 2005, there was a child-trafficking crackdown in Hunan province. Six orphanages were caught purchasing young infants from baby traffickers who had transported them from the neighboring Guangdong province.
In three years, nearly 1,000 children were purchased by these six orphanages, which then adopted the children out to domestic and foreign families for a profit, according to court documents in this case.
Twenty-seven people were arrested; 10 were given jail time. Despite this warning to offenders, ABC News discovered the baby-buying practice seems to be continuing in the same province.
We traveled to Hunan province's Changde Welfare House orphanage. There were reports that the orphanage gatekeeper approaches people on the street, asking them whether they know anyone looking to sell their children. She reportedly tells passers-by that the orphanage will pay around $350 per child.
ABC News employees spoke with the gatekeeper, Ms. Jie, standing at the entrance of the Changde Welfare House. She told us that she speaks on behalf of the orphanage and that it offers money for healthy baby boys and girls younger than 5, but does not pay if the child is disabled.
She said the orphanage currently only has disabled children available for adoption, so the demand for healthy children is high. Some of the children are adopted by well-to-do Chinese families who can't have a baby of their own, but this orphanage also caters to foreigners.
We asked for contact information for some of the families who sold their children to the orphanage. Ms. Jie said the orphanage didn't keep contact information.
"We buy babies from migrant workers and farmers from poor provinces. … After the business is done, these people disappear and never come back," she said. She told us the cash-for-babies practice is legal but, according to Chinese law, it is not. It is against the law to buy or sell a child.
When ABC News contacted the adoption offices of the Changde Welfare House orphanage, staffers who answered the phone refused to give their names. They denied the program exists. "It is just a rumor," one woman told ABC News.
This orphanage is not the only one whose practices are under suspicion.
In the neighboring province of Jiangxi, which adopted more than 2,400 children internationally in 2007, we found what appears to be a similar cash-for-babies plan at the largest international adoption orphanage in China.
Mr. Zhou, the deputy director of the Fuzhou Welfare orphanage, told a caller over the phone, without hesitation, that the orphanage pays around $300 for baby girls.
"We don't want boys. It's quite risky to take boys. They are most likely kidnapped," he said.
Mr. Zhou told the caller that normally the orphanage requests an introduction letter from an employer or neighborhood committee to certify that the baby is not from traffickers. Mr. Zhou also said there is room for "leeway" if a family can't provide this sort of letter. But like the gatekeeper in Changde, Zhou maintains that it is perfectly legal to buy unwanted babies.
When ABC News called the director's office, the orphanage denied the program exists.
"It's against the law for anybody to sell a baby to a family or to an organization, including orphanages. It is a violation of criminal law," according to Chang Yacun, a child law specialist at the Association of China Social Work.
Some orphanages say they truly believe that these money-for-children programs are helping kids here. They believe children will be sold by families that don't want them or that can't afford to take care of them and then adopted by people who can give them a better life. But the increasingly lucrative business of adopting children to well-off Chinese or foreign families has certainly spawned some greed and corruption and may be encouraging child-trafficking.
Di's parents have no idea where he is. But the prospect that Di may have been adopted offers no comfort to them.
"However hard our life is, we would never want the boy to be adopted. We wish we could have him back," his father told us.
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."
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.
The researcher believes these orphanages may be buying babies to be put up for adoption. And in the past, there have been cases of orphanages forging birth papers for children who were abducted.
A child protection expert notes another trend. "A few years ago we saw a phenomenon of an increasing number of baby girls being trafficked and we had not seen that before. In the past, 95 percent of children trafficked were boys. But in certain areas, the number of baby girls was going up dramatically. There is no evidence to prove a link between foreign adoptions and the rise, but people talk about foreign adoption being a factor."
Since China began its international adoption program in 1992, nearly 70,000 Chinese orphans have been adopted by foreign families, 80 percent by Americans, according to foreign adoption watchdogs.
China's International Adoption program has long been held in high esteem relative to many other countries that adopt children abroad. It is, for the most part, deemed corruption free and transparent, which has been a motivating factor for U.S. families looking to adopt here.
The number of foreign adoptions here peaked in 2005 and is going down slightly in recent years, but applications are still pouring in.
Pi Yijun, a scholar at the China University of Politics and Law, says that the numbers of international versus domestic adoptions are strictly confidential.
National figures are not even provided to Chinese researchers. He said foreign adoptions are an embarrassment to the government.
"It is considered a negative thing to discuss disabled or abandoned babies. It has to do with China's birth policy and the social insurance system. It's a very sensitive issue."
The influx of foreign applications to adopt Chinese kids is, in many cases, making it more difficult for Chinese couples who can't have children to adopt from orphanages here.
At the orphanage in Changde, the gatekeeper said that foreign families usually spend five to 10 times more on adoptions than Chinese families, which often makes foreign families more attractive. That leads to long wait times for Chinese couples, many of whom resort to the other option, an underground market for infants.
One post on a chat room for Chinese parents looking to adopt expresses the frustration in wait times. "It's very hard to adopt a healthy baby from orphanages in Shanghai. You have to wait probably for five years. … If you really want to adopt one, you will probably have to go to orphanages in other places."
The Chinese government has recently put into effect new restrictions, making it harder for foreigners to adopt Chinese children. There is a definite push by the central government to encourage domestic adoptions, but for some Chinese families, the process is not getting any easier.
The Yang family has been waiting three years to adopt a child. They are both in their late 20s and have been married for six years, but Mrs. Yang can't conceive. They want to adopt a healthy baby girl but have been unsuccessful.
"We visited orphanages, checked orphanages online and put up adoption ads online, but without success," Mr. Yang told ABC News.
Yang says, for some babies, the costs involved with legal adoption are too high. And they are fighting the urge to turn to the black market. "
We don't want to adopt babies from traffickers. Some people introduced to us babies from traffickers, but we don't even want to see them," said Mr. Yang.
Back in Dongguan, the Liang family struggles every day with the loss of their little boy. They have nearly lost all hope of finding him. All they have left are his clothes, which are still hanging in the closet, and his father's torment.
"I don't want the boy to think when he grows up that I didn't take good care of him and lost him. I am ashamed of myself as a father."