Police have rescued 92 abducted children and held 301 suspects in connection with the bust of one of the biggest cross-country child-trafficking networks on the mainland in years.
The suspects are said to have sedated the children, many of whom were under the age of two, including some newborns, with sleeping pills to render them docile while they were transported to sellers.
Police in Henan province began to investigate the ring in March and started to detain people on September 11, state media reported on Friday, citing the Ministry of Public Security. Suspects have been held in 11 provinces.
Members are believed to have collected children in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces by either purchasing them or deceiving the parents. Deliverymen would take them to sellers elsewhere on the mainland in a highly organised operation, the ministry said.
"The ring members took buses or the train to go to places like Henan, where some of the children were sold, while others would be taken to Shandong or Hebei ," said the leading police officer in the bust, Chen Shiqu. "The children are very little, and were fed a lot of sleeping pills. It must have wrecked them mentally and physically," Chen said.
One woman suspected of delivering the captives said feeding the babies sleeping pills "spared a lot of potential trouble" because they would be sound asleep for a day or two. She said she got 4,500 yuan (HK$5,680) for smuggling each child. A notebook owned by one of the suspected ringleaders showed the details of each transaction. Most babies were sold for about 20,000 yuan each.
The ministry said it was drafting a law in co-operation with the judiciary and the prosecutor general to impose harsher punishments on traffickers and buyers, and that parents who sold their children would also be sentenced severely.
But Beijing-based lawyer Zhang Zhitong, of Jingrun and Partners, was doubtful whether the heavier punishments would stop the practice, as long as the demand for other people's children existed.
"Those who sell and buy children are usually in inland, poorer areas, and people know little about the law. They see the economic incentive - from thousands to tens of thousands of yuan - and think it's a good deal," he said.
The total number of children that the gang has kidnapped is unknown
Zhang said the market was fuelled in part by the adoption law. Rather than navigating the bureaucracy that was involved, adults would sometimes turn to traffickers instead, he said.
A month ago, it was revealed that a maternity doctor in Fuping county in Shaanxi province sold over 20 newborns after lying to parents that the babies had died or had serious birth defects.
In 2011, 178 abducted children were rescued in an operation that saw more than 600 people detained across 10 provinces.