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2020-04-29 08:32:04

On the Chinese social app WeChat, a father is trying to sell Sixth Tone his daughter.

“Female baby, 90K,” the man says in a private message, referring to his asking price of 90,000 yuan ($12,700). A few moments later, he posts a video of an infant gurgling in a stroller.

Sixth Tone has contacted the man as part of an investigation into China’s underground fostering networks, which help individuals circumvent Chinese adoption laws and trade children for cash.

Illegal adoption groups have been quietly active on Chinese social networks for years, despite periodic clampdowns by law enforcement agencies. But public scrutiny of the trade has intensified in recent weeks following a high-profile scandal involving Bao Yuming, a former non-executive director at Chinese telecom giant ZTE.

Bao’s foster daughter — referred to in media reports by the pseudonym Xingxing — has accused the executive of repeatedly raping her since she came under his care at age 14. Bao allegedly also sought other children to foster through instant messaging platform QQ. Bao has denied having any foster relationship with Xingxing.

Direct message me if you want a baby.

Xingxing’s case sparked an enormous public reaction in China, with a related hashtag viewed over 1 billion times on Twitter-like microblog Weibo. In the process, it revealed how China’s major internet companies have become conduits for illicit adoption practices that are putting children at risk of abuse.

After the story broke in early April, Chinese media discovered underground adoption groups openly operating on several major platforms, including QQ, forum site Baidu Tieba, and Quora-like Zhihu. The platforms later announced they had shut down the groups and banned keywords associated with the practice. Tencent, the owner of QQ and WeChat, added it was encouraging QQ users to report any illegal activities.

But Sixth Tone found that adoption networks are evading these security measures with relative ease — and remain active on multiple platforms.

While searches including keywords such as “adoption” and “giving away children” no longer produce results on QQ, Baidu Tieba, or Zhihu, that’s not the case with other terms related to the adoption trade. A search for “birth certificate” on QQ generates a list of several agents offering to help clients obtain the documents needed to legally become a child’s parent.

When Sixth Tone poses as a potential client and contacts the agents April 18, one offers to create a new birth certificate for a child — with the client’s name included as one of the birth parents — for 50,000 yuan. Another advertises the same service for 25,000 yuan.

A medical certificate of birth offered by an agent. From Sixth Tone’s interview

A medical certificate of birth offered by an agent. From Sixth Tone’s interview

“Our customers are either people looking for surrogacy or seeking (underground) adoption,” one agent tells Sixth Tone, before sending a series of screenshots showing messages from previous clients saying the fake certificates had worked.

When asked whether there was a risk of Chinese authorities discovering the illegal transaction, the agent replies: “Don’t worry. We always know about things in advance.”

Three days later, the agent invites Sixth Tone to join an adoption chat group on WeChat. The group, named Fate Has Arrived, has 390 members. Each has given themselves an alias.

Those looking to adopt a child identify themselves as “L” — an abbreviation of ling, the Chinese word for “adopt.” Those wanting to sell a child use the initial “S” — short for song, or give away. Agents, meanwhile, use more direct monikers, such as “I can forge birth certificates” or “I have connections at hospitals.”

The aliases make it easy for group members to connect directly and chat privately, rather than posting to the entire group. Occasionally, however, disputes break out on the group chat feed, with L users complaining that the prices quoted by S group members are too high.

Sixth Tone reaches out to one S, again posing as a prospective client. The man says he’s the father of a 9-month-old girl from Shantou in the southern Guangdong province.

A chat history with a user on the WeChat group Fate Has Arrived. From Sixth Tone’s  interview

A chat history with a user on the WeChat group Fate Has Arrived. From Sixth Tone’s interview

The man says he’s giving away his daughter due to “economic problems,” though Sixth Tone has no way of verifying his identity or his relationship to the baby. When asked whether he has any requirements in addition to the 90,000 yuan fee, he says he’d like to see a video of the baby every month for the first year after the transaction is completed.

It’s unclear how many more groups like Fate Has Arrived exist on the Chinese internet, but evidence suggests the underground adoption trade is extensive.

A 2013 study by researchers at the People’s Public Security University of China stated that child trafficking activities are “rampant” and affect “tens of thousands” of families. In more than 50% of the cases the researchers examined, the children involved had been given away by their birth parents.

In 2017, officials in the southern Hainan province 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 shut out of China’s rigid adoption system, according to Li Ying, an attorney specializing in women’s rights who provided legal counsel to Xingxing.

Moment/People Visual

Moment/People Visual

China’s adoption law imposes numerous restrictions, Li says. In most cases, only childless couples aged over 35 are allowed to adopt, and they can only adopt one child. Only orphans, abandoned infants, and children whose parents are unable to raise them are eligible for adoption. For couples who don’t meet these requirements, underground adoption networks are their only way of obtaining a child.

“Where there’s demand, there’s supply,” Li tells Sixth Tone. “The cumbersome adoption law has made those unqualified couples seek illegal ways (to adopt). And when there’s a considerable number involved in illegal adoption, a business network forms.”

But the illicit channels have none of the safeguards of the government-run adoption process. Dou Zhenfang, a social worker at a state-run orphanage in the northern city of Taiyuan, tells Sixth Tone prospective adopters have to pass a strict vetting process — which usually takes up to six months — to legally adopt an orphan. After the adoption, social workers will then conduct follow-up visits to check on the family for a year.

The potential harm brought by illegal adoption can be quite scary.

“I think the potential harm brought by illegal adoption can be quite scary,” says Dou. “First, the motivations of the adopters might not be innocent. Second, there aren’t basic protections for the children, which might put them in danger.”

Bao Yuming isn’t the first high-profile businessperson to be accused of raping a girl he had illegally fostered. In 2018, Shi Zengchao — a prominent apparel business owner from the eastern Zhejiang province — was reported to the police for repeatedly raping a child under his care. According to court documents seen by Sixth Tone, Shi had fostered the girl illegally through online channels.

The lack of oversight of illegal adoption networks leaves young girls especially vulnerable, experts tell Sixth Tone. According to a 2019 report by Beijing-based nonprofit Girls Protection, 90% of underage victims of sexual assault in China are female, and 80% of the victims are under 14.

“A lot of girls who are sent away through illegal adoption are from rural areas, or families who aren’t able to take care of them,” says Li. “It’s a combination of (class and gender) factors that eventually makes this already vulnerable group even more vulnerable.”

On Fate Has Arrived, prospective adopters display a clear preference for female children. Of the 106 adopters who specify a preferred gender, 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 website Orphan Net and three other groups, arresting over 1,000 suspects and recovering nearly 400 infants.

Moment/People Visual

Moment/People Visual

But enforcement hasn’t been tight enough to eliminate the trade — even, it appears, on Orphan Net. 

The website has a section titled “support orphan fostering” that is only accessible to users that have paid a membership fee. Inside, several users have posted details about children available for adoption, stating they expect to receive “subsidies” for their service. Under China’s adoption law, it’s illegal for significant sums of money to exchange hands during an adoption process.

According to Li, oversight is sometimes lax due to overlapping responsibilities among law enforcement agencies.

“Since the groups are on the internet, it’s unclear how officials divide up their work,” says Li. “Cybersecurity police? Or the public security bureau? It’s not clear (who has responsibility).”

China’s legal system, moreover, has a history of handing out relatively light sentences for sex offences, which fail to deter potential abusers, Li says.

Under China’s criminal law, rapes involving minors will be subject to “more severe punishment,” which can include the death penalty. In 2019, the Supreme People’s Court said it has “zero tolerance” toward the sexual assault of minors.

E+/People Visual

E+/People Visual

In some cases, however, courts end up handing out lighter sentences. For example, Supreme People’s Court records show that one man convicted of raping his foster daughter in 2019 received a prison sentence of four and a half years — only slightly more than China’s minimum three-year sentence for the crime. The punishment was reduced because “the adoptive father had gained the daughter’s forgiveness,” according to the ruling.

“We often see that, in reality, judges hand out light punishments to rapists, even if minors are involved,” says Li. “Only when the punishment is severe enough can it act as a deterrent and warning to the public.”

When asked to comment on the details in this story, WeChat told Sixth Tone it’s attempting to remove illegal fostering and adoption groups.

Only when the punishment is severe enough can it act as a deterrent.

“(Such) groups are subject to the WeChat platform user agreements and fall within the scope of our daily crackdowns. Once discovered, we will deal with such groups in accordance with the relevant national laws and regulations,” WeChat said in a written statement. “We also welcome users to provide us with relevant clues through complaints and reports.”

For Li, legal reforms are necessary to curtail the illegal adoption trade over the long term. She says authorities should not only impose stronger sentences on abusers, but also amend the adoption law to prevent couples from turning to illicit channels in the first place.

“Our adoption law should respond to the large demand for adoption among the people — clauses such as only allowing one family to adopt one child, or only allowing those who don’t have children to adopt, can be updated,” says Li. “Look at Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt: They’ve adopted many children, even though they have their own.”

Back on Fate Has Arrived, the man from Shantou appears to be in a hurry. After pushing Sixth Tone to pay the fee multiple times, he finally gives up and posts a message to the entire group.

“Hello, everyone,” he writes. “Direct message me if you want a baby.” 

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: From Photodisc/People Visual, reedited by Sixth Tone)