A southern Chinese province has begun investigating a report that officials had seized at least 16 babies born in violation of strict family planning rules, sent them to welfare centers and then sold them abroad for adoption.
The children in Longhui county near Hunan province's Shaoyang city had been taken away by officials since 2005 after their parents were accused of breaching the one-child policy or illegally adopting children, the Caixin Century magazine reported.
The local family planning office then sent the children to local welfare centers, which listed them as being available for adoption, the report said, adding the office could get 1,000 yuan ($154) or more for each child.
Some of the seized children were the sole children of couples who were often away working in the cities, the magazine added.
At least one migrant worker said she had found her daughter had been adopted abroad and was now living in the United States, it said. The welfare centers could receive as much as $3,000 for each child placed in overseas adoption.
"Before 1997, they usually punished us by tearing down our houses for breaching the one-child policy, but after 2000 they began to confiscate our children," it quoted villager Yuan Chaoren as saying.
The Shaoyang government is now investigating the case, the popular tabloid the Global Times reported on Tuesday, though it quoted one official as denying any involvement in child trafficking.
"When we found illegal birth children, we fined the parents in accordance with the law," the anonymous official told the newspaper, without elaborating.
Provincial officials, whose promotion is closely linked to the effectiveness of measures to stop people from having more babies, have often been criticized for using violence or coercion to enforce tough family planning policies.
Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist, drew international attention when he took on officials over forced abortions in his home province of Shandong and was jailed. He was released in September, more than four years after being convicted of damaging property and disrupting traffic in a protest, and has been held under virtual house arrest in his village ever since.
With a population expected to peak at 1.65 billion in 2033, China has been cautious about dropping its one-child policy that was implemented to spare the country the pressures of feeding and clothing hundreds of millions of additional people.
China already allows a number of exceptions to the policy, and some experts have called for a greater relaxation to tackle the problem of a population aging before it can first become rich.
($1 = 6.494 yuan)
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