Bias for Boys Leads to Sale of Baby Girls in China

ULIN, 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 daughter.

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.