China's Quasi-Official Baby Snatchers


A story in Friday's New York Times describes another horrifying local twist on China's population control policy: Officials in Longhui County, a rural area of Hunan Province, have a history of kidnapping unauthorized babies and selling them on the black market when the parents are unable to pay exorbitant fines that may amount to five times their annual income. "I can't even describe my hatred of those family planning officials," says Yang Libing, the father of a nine-month-old girl who was snatched from his parents' home in 2005 while he was working in another town. "I hate them to my bones. I wonder if they are parents too. Why don't they treat us as humans?"

Yang's offense was failing to register his marriage, rendering any offspring illegal. Other parents in Longhui County have lost their children because they exceeded the government's birth limits or married before they reached the legally required age (22 for men, 20 for women). The Times says "at least 16" children were seized by the county's family planning officials between 1999 and 2006. Although seizing children in such situations is against official policy, the government does not seem much interested in getting to the bottom of these abuses:

Zeng Dingbao, who leads the Inspection Bureau in Shaoyang, the city that administers Longhui County, has promised a diligent investigation. But signs point to a whitewash. In June, he told People's Daily Online, the Web version of the Communist Party's official newspaper, that the situation "really isn't the way the media reported it to be, with infants being bought and sold."

Rather than helping trace and recover seized children, parents say, the authorities are punishing those who speak out. 

Like the brutal crackdowns on nonconforming families that periodically erupt across China, these kidnappings never would have happened if the national government had not authorized local officials to police people's reproductive decisions. As Wang Feng, a China scholar at the Brookings Institution, tells the Times, "The larger issue is that the one-child policy is so extreme that it emboldened local officials to act so inhumanely."

Last December I noted the admiration this oppressive policy elicits from Western newspaper columnists (such as the Times' own Thomas Friedman) who should know better. In a 2007 Reason article, I discussed the connection between China's population controls and international adoption of Chinese girls. The Times reports that some of the babies kidnapped by Longhui County officials ended up at the government-run Shaoyang orphanage, which has placed children with American parents through the Boston-based agency China Adoption With Love. It is not clear whether any of those children, whom the government said were orphaned or abandoned (a practice that also is encouraged by family-size regulations), actually were forcibly taken from their parents. The orphanage requires a $5,400 "donation" from adoptive parents.