About 10 years ago, I was at the US consulate in Guangzhou arranging for a visa when I saw many Americans in the queue holding Chinese babies and doing the same. Some of those babies looked different. I realised later they had some disability or were sickly, and had been abandoned by their Chinese parents. The healthy ones were mainly girls. Still later, I read in The New Yorker a short story about Chinese parents dumping their baby girls.
A few years ago, I went to Beijing for a meeting. There, at a somewhat secluded high-class hotel, I again saw some Americans holding Chinese babies. Some of these babies had disabilities and looked weak, in scenes similar to those I had witnessed previously, but there appeared to be more healthy children. There were also boys this time.
At the hotel, a rumour was going round that every Chinese child would cost the Americans more than 300,000 yuan (about HK$334,000 in exchange rates then) to adopt. The word was that, to get the money, some Chinese would abduct the babies and sell them to orphanages where they would be 'laundered' to become 'orphans', then sold to Americans. The rumour was in fact true. In Hengyang, Hunan, a law court convicted and jailed 10 people in a case that uncovered how local orphanages had collaborated with baby traffickers to abduct and sell babies 'legally'.
The speculation that each baby could cost 300,000 yuan, however, could not be verified. But it reflects the common belief that, at a certain price, some people would be willing to forget their conscience and humanity to abduct and sell children. After reading a report this week by Caixin Century magazine, I know now the price could be as low as US$3,000. For US$3,000, family planning officials of Longhui county in Shaoyang city, Hunan, brazenly snatched babies directly from their parents; they didn't even need to use traffickers as middle-men, thus saving on commission. The reporters' investigation showed at least 16 babies in the county have been abducted, and some of them were found to be already living in the United States.
In California two years ago, I met a woman who said she taught part-time at a school that catered for adopted Chinese children. These children were sent by their adoptive parents to learn the Chinese language so they would grow up with some knowledge of their own culture. The teacher, who's ethnically Chinese, said most of these children received a far better quality of life and education in America than they would in China. Besides, they were orphans, she said.
Behind these happy new lives, how many Chinese parents were left heartbroken and in despair? This is something the teacher and the adoptive parents may never know. Would the American parents be willing to believe that some of the children were not in fact abandoned, but ruthlessly taken away by family planning officials?
The bereft parents do everything they can to find their child, and discover the child is actually living in America. On the one hand, they are happy and grateful to know that their child is receiving good care from his or her American adoptive parents, but, on the other hand, they feel wretched that the child has been taken to such a faraway place. How will they get back the child?
Some adoptive American parents who face demands that the child be returned to China argue that they have adopted the child legally.
But what were these legal procedures? They included documents that were shown to prospective parents in America by orphanages stating that these children were abandoned by their parents. But the problem is that these documents were forged, as found by reporters' investigations, and mainland authorities approved the adoptions based on such fake documents. So, what happens now?
Bands of family planning officers in Shaoyang, Hunan, went to the villages and forcibly took the children away from families that had breached the one-child policy. Parents were told that they had to pay a penalty for violating the policy - a 'social support compensation' - to get back their child. When the parents said they didn't have enough to pay the fee, the officers raised the amount anyway. When the parents finally raised enough money to pay, they were told their child had been adopted by Americans and had moved to the US. The US$3,000 paid by the Americans for the adoption of the child then lined the pockets of the workers and officials in some departments. To make the adoption legal, family planning officials fabricated parental statements and documents from village heads. They forged the signature of the parents on the documents that said the parents had agreed to give up their child.
Even in mainland China and even under the family planning rules, these officials have no right to take the children, extort money and fabricate documents, all of which are serious crimes. But they did not even have to hide their wrongdoing; they took the children away in broad daylight. They took government pay and abducted children; we could say that abducting children was their job.
The case of Ai Weiwei, who has been 'disappeared' by the authorities, is not an isolated one. In many parts of China, an act that is obviously a crime can be considered as 'compliant with legal procedures'.
What should others do? In fact, the Americans who adopted children who should not have been put up for adoption unwittingly became part of an abduction syndicate.