Bias for Boys Leads to Sale of Baby Girls in China
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
China — With two daughters already, Liu Yihong was crystal clear
several years back about what he would do if his pregnant wife was
carrying yet another girl.
"You can take medicine to end the pregnancy," he explained matter-of-factly.
"Otherwise you have the baby and if it's a female, you try to find
another family who will take it, or you just put it up for sale."
This practical philosophy is deeply ingrained in this rural backwater
in southern China, a lush but poor area where the preference for
sons overwhelms all other impulses, and family planning laws strictly
limit how many children a farmer may have.
In March, the police here in Guangxi Province found the shocking
fallout of son worship packed away in the back of a long-haul bus:
28 unwanted baby girls from Yulin, 2 to 5 months old, being transported
like farm animals, for sale.
The girls had been swathed in quilts and then stuffed, two to four
together, into nylon bags. When the police, following a telephone
tip, raided the purple vehicle, one girl had already died of suffocation;
the rest were blue from lack of air. Twenty passengers on the bus
were arrested for trafficking. All of the babies had been purchased
from the same distributor in Yulin, most sold by poor farmers so
their parents could have another attempt at a son.
Baby-trafficking exists here because there is both supply and demand,"
said Yu Qing, a sociology professor at the Sociology Management
Institute of Guangxi University in Nanning.
"It is not that these people don't love their babies, but they are
very poor and if they can sell them for a few thousand yuan, they
will do it," Professor Yu said. "Also, the family planning limits
encourage selling off girls. That way they can give birth again
and hope for a boy."
In this picturesque but poverty-stricken area of southern China,
sons are gods, and daughters a burden — but that is common in much
of rural China. With no pensions and scant social welfare, sons
are a farming family's only old-age security. Daughters, for their
part, are expected to marry into their husband's household, often
in another village, and help support his parents.
What is distinctive about Guangxi and seems to have given rise to
the spirited baby trade here is a strict enforcement of China's
so-called one-child policy, which these days is only halfheartedly
followed by officials in other places.
In neighboring Guangdong Province, for example, families with four
or five children are common in many rural areas, and families who
want more than their allotted quota simply ignore the limits without
penalty or pay the government's modest fines.
But it is clear that in Guangxi population control is taken very
seriously. Family-planning boards tracking women's fertility are
still a feature in many villages, and a march of roadside banners
and painted slogans exhorts local farmers to "Have Fewer, Better
Children to Create Prosperity for the Next Generation."
The rules are simple and unbending: families are permitted only
one child if the first is a boy. A second child is allowed if a
girl comes first. But once a family has two children, there are
no more chances. Each subsequent birth brings a $3,500 fine, the
equivalent of two decades' worth of local farm income. For farmers
here, the policy is a universal gripe, a frequent topic of conversation.
"Family planning is very, very strict here," said one farmer surnamed
Xin, squatting in front of a field of taro and rice, outside his
simple farmhouse. "Last year, I had a son, so now we can't have
any more. But the tradition here is big families and lots of sons.
So no one is very happy."
In some cases the desire for a son is so strong that extended families
like Mr. Liu's pool their funds to pay the huge fine. He will not
say if his wife ended up giving away or selling infant girls. But
four years ago they finally had a son, happily enduring the fine.
But with such an investment at stake, they were ill inclined to
take chances. "The reason we kept trying is, I wanted a son," said
Mr. Liu, adding that he would never pay that kind of fine for a
Eighty percent of trafficked babies are girls, said Professor Yu.
The rest are boys with a health problem or deformity.
While local residents are loath to talk about baby sales, some villages
around Yulin have become rich from baby trafficking, Chinese researchers
say. Middlemen earn several hundred yuan, about $30, for procuring
a child, and that money has built houses and bought tractors in
villages that once relied on subsistence farming.
The mothers who sell daughters are mostly poor rural women who are
trying for a son, or those who fear fines for having exceeded the
allowed number of children. Such poor women frequently get no formal
prenatal care, so the pregnancy goes undetected by outside authorities.
They give birth at home, so the "illegal birth" is never registered.
Although baby smuggling is a widespread problem in this part of
China, the case in March was unusual only because of the large number
of babies involved, experts here said. The long-distance bus was
headed for Anhui Province, but the babies are sold all over China.
The main market for the babies probably consists of childless city
dwellers, said Ms. Yu, the sociologist. In surveys, urban Chinese
families, who are more likely to have pensions and other means of
support, tend to show a slight preference for girls, believing that
they take better care of aging parents.
But some are sold to rural families who already have a son but want
a daughter to help with the housework; others are sold for stranger
purposes. Last August, the police in neighboring Guizhou Province
arrested four traffickers with seven baby girls who were being sold
to be reared as child brides for farmers in remote mountainous regions.
Because of the selective abortion of girls in China, some researchers
estimate there are 111 males for every 100 females in the country,
making it difficult for poor farmers to persuade women to marry
into their villages.
Ms. Yu added that she had "seen documents to suggest that at least
some were destined for adoption abroad."
It is not clear exactly where the baby girls intercepted in Yulin
were headed, and the police here are not releasing information about
the case. For decades now the Communist Party propaganda machine
has been promoting the equality of the sexes, but successes in such
rural areas have thus far been limited.
Apparently shaken by the discovery of more than two dozen nearly
dead girls, President Hu Jintao ordered an investigation.
"The case is basically cleared up, but we have special instructions
from the Public Security Ministry not to release anything to the
media yet," said an official from Yulin who said he was on the special
task force but gave only his surname, Xie.
In the meantime, the 27 girls are living in a special sixth-floor
ward of the Yulin No. 1 People's Hospital, where they have been
named by the nursing staff. The oldest is now 9 months old, getting
ready to walk, but it is unclear where she will go.