(Sixth Tone) – On the Chinese social app WeChat, a father tries to sell Sixth Tone to his daughter.
“Baby, 90K,” said the man in a private message, referring to his asking price of 90,000 yuan ($ 12,700). Moments later, he posts a video of a gurgling baby in a stroller.
Sixth Tone contacted the man in an investigation into clandestine placement networks in China, which are helping people bypass Chinese adoption laws and exchange children for money.
Illegal adoption groups have been discreetly active on Chinese social media for years, despite periodic crackdowns by law enforcement. But public scrutiny of trade has intensified in recent weeks following a high-profile scandal involving Bao Yuming, former non-executive director of Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE.
Bao’s adopted daughter – mentioned in the media by the pseudonym Xingxing – accused the executive of raping her on several occasions since she was placed in her care at the age of 14. Bao also allegedly sought out other children to feed through the QQ instant messaging platform. Bao denied having had a nurturing relationship with Xingxing.
The Xingxing case sparked a huge public reaction in China, with a related hashtag seen over a billion times on the Weibo Twitter microblog. In doing so, he revealed how the main Chinese Internet companies have become vectors of illicit adoption practices that endanger children.
After the story broke out in early April, the Chinese media discovered underground adoption groups operating openly on several major platforms, including QQ, the forum site Baidu Tieba, and Zorahu-like Quora. The platforms then announced that they had closed the groups and banned the keywords associated with the practice. Tencent, the owner of QQ and WeChat, added that he encouraged QQ users to report any illegal activity.
But Sixth Tone has found that adoption networks evade these security measures with relative ease – and remain active on multiple platforms.
Although searches with keywords such as “adoption” and “give birth” no longer produce results on QQ, Baidu Tieba or Zhihu, this is not the case with other terms related to the adoption business. . A search for “birth certificate” on QQ generates a list of several agents offering to help clients obtain the documents necessary to legally become the parent of a child.
When Sixth Tone presents himself as a potential client and contacts the agents on April 18, it is proposed to create a new birth certificate for a child – with the client’s name included as one of the biological parents – for 50,000 yuan. Another advertises the same service for 25,000 yuan.
“Our clients are either people seeking surrogacy or (covert) adoption,” an agent told Sixth Tone, before sending a series of screenshots showing messages from previous customers saying the fake certificates worked.
When asked if there was a risk that the Chinese authorities would find out about the illegal transaction, the officer replied, “Don’t worry. We always know things in advance. “
Three days later, the agent invites Sixth Tone to join an adoption discussion group on WeChat. The group, named Fate Has Arrived, has 390 members. Each has an alias.
Those looking to adopt a child identify themselves as “L” – an abbreviation for ling, the Chinese word for “adopt”. Those who want to sell a child use the initial “S” – short for the song, or donate. Officers, on the other hand, use more direct nicknames, such as “I can forge birth certificates” or “I have contacts in hospitals”.
Aliases allow group members to connect directly and chat privately, rather than posting to the entire group. Sometimes, however, conflicts arise on the group discussion thread, with L users complaining that the prices quoted by members of group S are too high.
Sixth Tone reaches out to an S, again presenting itself as a potential customer. The man says he is the father of a 9-month-old girl from Shantou in southern Guangdong province.
The man says he is giving his daughter away due to “economic problems,” although Sixth Tone has no way of verifying her identity or relationship to the baby. When asked if he had requirements in addition to the 90,000 yuan, he said he would like to see a video of the baby every month for the first year after the transaction ends.
It is not known how many groups like Fate Has Arrived exist on the Chinese Internet, but the evidence suggests that the underground adoption trade is significant.
A 2013 study by researchers at the People’s Public Security University of China said that child trafficking activities are “endemic” and affect “tens of thousands” of families. In more than 50% of the cases examined by the researchers, the children involved had been donated by their biological parents.
In 2017, officials from Hainan Province in southern China estimated that “the majority of adoption cases in China are illegal” and warned that “illegal adoption can easily lead to violations of children’s rights ”.
In many cases, people buying children through illegal adoption networks are ordinary couples excluded from China’s rigid adoption system, according to Li Ying, a women’s rights lawyer who provided advice services to Xingxing.
China’s adoption law imposes many restrictions, says Li. In most cases, only childless couples over the age of 35 are allowed to adopt, and they can only adopt one child. Only orphans, abandoned infants and children whose parents cannot raise them are eligible for adoption. For couples who do not meet these conditions, clandestine adoption networks are their only means of obtaining a child.
“Where there is demand, there is supply,” Li told Sixth Tone. “The heavy adoption law has forced these unqualified couples to seek illegal means (to adopt). And when a considerable number of people are involved in illegal adoption, a network of companies is formed. “
But the illegal channels have none of the guarantees of the government-run adoption process. Dou Zhenfang, a social worker in a state-run orphanage in the northern city of Taiyuan, told Sixth Tone that prospective adopters have to go through a strict verification process – which usually takes up to six months – to legally adopt an orphan. After adoption, social workers will then make follow-up visits to check on the family for a year.
“I think the potential harm from illegal adoption can be pretty scary,” says Dou. “First, the motivations of the adopters may not be innocent. Second, there is no basic protection for children, which could put them at risk. “
Bao Yuming is not the first senior businessman to be accused of raping a girl he had illegally fed. In 2018, Shi Zengchao – a prominent owner of a clothing company in eastern Zhejiang province – was reported to the police for repeatedly raping a child in his care. According to court documents seen by Sixth Tone, Shi had illegally favored the girl through online channels.
Lack of monitoring of illegal adoption networks makes young girls particularly vulnerable, according to experts at Sixth Tone. According to a 2019 Beijing-based nonprofit girl protection report, 90% of minor victims of sexual assault in China are women and 80% of victims are under the age of 14.
“Many of the girls returned for illegal adoption come from rural areas or from families who are unable to care for them,” says Li. “It is a combination of factors (class and gender) that make finally this already vulnerable group even more vulnerable. “
Fate has arrived, future adopters show a clear preference for girls. Of the 106 adopters who specify a preferred sex, 73 say they want a girl.
Chinese authorities have launched several crackdowns on online adoption networks in the past. In 2014, officials shut down the Orphan Net website and three other groups, arresting more than 1,000 suspects and recovering nearly 400 infants.
But the application was not strict enough to eliminate the trade – even, it seems, on Orphan Net.
The website has a section called “Supporting the foster family of orphans” which is only accessible to users who have paid a subscription. Inside, several users have posted details of children available for adoption, indicating that they expect to receive “grants” for their service. Under Chinese adoption law, it is illegal to exchange hands during the adoption process.
According to Li, oversight is sometimes lax because of the overlapping of responsibilities between law enforcement agencies.
“Since the groups are on the Internet, it is difficult to know how the civil servants distribute their work,” explains Li. “Cybersecurity police? Or the public security office? It is not clear (who is responsible). “
In addition, the Chinese legal system is used to imposing relatively light sentences for sexual offenses, which does not deter potential assailants, said Li.
Under Chinese criminal law, rape involving minors will be subject to “harsher penalties”, up to the death penalty. In 2019, the Supreme People’s Court declared that it had “zero tolerance” towards sexual assaults on minors.
In some cases, however, the courts end up with lighter sentences. For example, records from the Supreme People’s Court show that a man convicted of raping his adopted daughter in 2019 was sentenced to four and a half years in prison – barely more than the minimum sentence of three years imposed by China for this crime. The sentence was reduced because “the adoptive father had obtained the pardon of his daughter”, according to the decision.
“We often see that in reality, judges impose light penalties on rapists, even if minors are involved,” said Li. “Only when the sentence is severe enough can it act as a deterrent and warn the public. “
When asked to comment on the details of this story, WeChat told Sixth Tone that it is trying to suppress illegal foster and adoption groups.
“(These) groups are subject to the WeChat platform user agreements and are part of our daily crackdown. Once discovered, we will treat these groups in accordance with relevant national laws and regulations, ”WeChat said in a written statement. “We also invite users to provide us with relevant clues through complaints and reports.”
Li believes legal reforms are needed to limit the long-term illegal adoption trade. She says authorities should not only impose tougher sentences on abusers, but also amend the adoption law to prevent couples from turning to illegal channels in the first place.
“Our adoption law should respond to the high demand for adoption from people – clauses such as allowing only one family to adopt a child, or only allowing those who do not have children to adopt , can be updated, “says Li.” Look at Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt: they adopted many children, even if they have their own. “
Back on fate arrived, Shantou’s man seems to be in a hurry. After pushing Sixth Tone to pay the fees several times, he finally gave up and posted a message to the whole group.
“Hello everyone,” he wrote. “Send me a message if you want a baby.”
Publisher: Dominic Morgan
This story was first published by Sixth tone.
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