Infant Trafficking from the Earthquake Zone and Other Cases Reflect Anti-Trafficking Challenges

August 15, 2008

Numerous reports of infant abductions have surfaced in the wake of the earthquake that hit China's Sichuan province on May 12. Officials, focused on resettling large numbers of people displaced by the earthquake, have not been sufficiently able to protect children, leaving some to wander around and fall into the hands of human traffickers, according to a June 2 Christian Science Monitor article.

Numerous reports of infant abductions have surfaced in the wake of the earthquake that hit China's Sichuan province on May 12. Officials, focused on resettling large numbers of people displaced by the earthquake, have not been sufficiently able to protect children, leaving some to wander around and fall into the hands of human traffickers, according to a June 2 Christian Science Monitor article. In response to these and other crimes, the Supreme People's Court issued the Circular on Completing Trial Work According to Law During the Earthquake Disaster Relief Period to Earnestly Safeguard Social Stability in the Disaster Area on May 26, which lists seven categories of crimes that courts, under the guidance of the Communist Party, must severely punish according to law. Courts, mandated with safeguarding stability, settling disputes, and promoting harmony, are advised to emphasize mediation and handle cases in different ways. Courts should have "fast docketing, fast trial, fast enforcement" for cases involving people's livelihoods in the disaster area while being cautious in accepting cases that are sensitive, involve groups, and could affect the successful completion of disaster relief and post-quake reconstruction work. The circular mentions the "trafficking of orphaned or injured children or women from the disaster area" as one of the crimes.

Recent reports of infant abductions and other cases, including the abduction and selling of children and forced labor in Shanxi province brick kilns, reveal challenges in China's anti-trafficking efforts, including:

China's legal definition of trafficking does not reflect China's current situation or international standards. The trafficking of persons, defined in Article 240 of the Criminal Law as the "abducting, kidnapping, buying, trafficking in, fetching, sending, or transferring a women or child, for the purpose of selling the victim," is prohibited in China. This definition is narrow and does not conform with the United Nations (UN) definition in Article 3 of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol, which China has not signed. China's definition does not cover all persons, such as male adults, or forms of trafficking such as forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation involving fraud or coercion, where the purpose is not to sell the victim. These forms of trafficking exist in China, as seen from Chinese media reports of forced labor (June 10, 2007, CCTV video via Xinhua) and commercial sexual exploitation involving fraud or coercion (December 21, 2007, Yangcheng Evening News article). The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) acknowledged in July 2007 that it has handled an increasing number of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation cases in recent years. Reflecting the narrow definition of trafficking, however, the MPS has stated that the official number of trafficking cases has been on the decline.

China's definition, moreover, considers the abduction and selling of children as a form of trafficking regardless if the child was abducted or sold for the "purpose of exploitation," which is a necessary component of trafficking under the UN definition. For example, abducting and selling human beings for adoption or marriage is still considered a crime, but not necessarily a trafficking crime under international standards if there is no exploitation such as forced labor present. The implication of this is that official trafficking-related data and many of the cases reported in Chinese media, which tend to highlight certain types of cases such as the abduction and selling of children, would not automatically be considered trafficking cases by international standards. They are considered forms of trafficking in China, however, with the Chinese word for trafficking literally translating into "abducting and selling."

Inadequate protection of trafficking victims, with links to official corruption. Treatment of victims freed from forced labor in Shanxi brick kilns reveals existing challenges in China's protection of trafficking victims. Some victims drifted between different agencies for days or were sent back to their former boss. They were then given a few hundred yuan and sent home unescorted, with a few never making it home. Civil affairs bureaus, responsible for the care of the majority of rescued victims, failed to notify parents that their child had been found. In one case, labor supervision bureau officials responsible for protecting a 14-year-old child that had been freed from a brick factory sold the victim to another brickyard instead, and withheld the 300 yuan (US$44) in victim compensation for their own use, according to a May 21 China Labour Bulletin article. The recently released National Plan of Action on Combating Trafficking in Women and Children states that "rescued children of school age should return to school" and lists "strengthening relief and rehabilitation of rescued women and children" as an area of focus.

Need for more effective prevention efforts as many individuals remain unaware of the full scale of trafficking, and that trafficking constitutes a crime. Individuals in some provinces know that people can be trafficked for forced marriage or adoption but remain unaware that people can also be trafficked for labor exploitation and forced prostitution, according to a 2005 International Labour Organization report. In addition, a trafficker sentenced in a massive child abduction case noted that she was unaware that the abduction and selling of children was a crime. She said that she herself had been sold into marriage for 9,000 yuan (US$1,310), and that many other people in her area had "lost their children," according to a November 25, 2005, Southern Metropolitan Daily (SMD) article (via

A Hubei province National People's Congress representative observed in 2008 that many individuals who purchased abducted children or women did not know they were committing a crime. She attributed this gap in knowledge to inadequate awareness of the law, and called on law enforcement agencies to expand their prevention efforts. The representative, along with other representatives from Hubei, submitted a proposal in March that recommends changes to Article 241 of the Criminal Law, including increasing the punishment for buyers and abolishing the provision that exempts buyers from investigation of criminal responsibility under certain conditions. The representative mentioned that the proposal, if accepted, should be implemented after a period of large-scale awareness efforts that are aimed at farmers and other rural residents in particular, as reported in a March 10 Legal Daily article.

In order to be effective, awareness campaigns should take into consideration the viewpoint of the target audience, and prevention efforts must ultimately go beyond these campaigns to address root causes that leave individuals vulnerable to trafficking. Of particular concern are children of migrant workers who may not be in school or under the care of their parents. In several cases mentioned in this article, those abducted were children of migrant workers. In at least one case, the perpetrators deliberately targeted these children because they believed that public security officials would take such cases less seriously, according to a March 12, 2006, Washington Post article. The National Plan of Action mentions poverty alleviation and other prevention measures, but it remains to be seen how well-funded or effective these measures will be. 

Disparity in punishment, including lenient punishment of public officials. Article 240 of China's Criminal Law allows punishment up to death for the crime of human trafficking. The Decision Regarding the Severe Punishment of Criminals Who Abduct and Traffic in or Kidnap Women or Children, issued by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in 1991, lays out the punishment for traffickers in greater detail. Yet individuals involved in trafficking rings are often given criminal sentences while government officials receive lighter sentences or administrative punishments. Government officials involved in the 2007 Shanxi brick kiln incident, for example, were punished administratively while other participants in the incident were given criminal sentences, including one death sentence. Yet official knowledge of the forced labor system went back as far as 2004, and a kiln contractor reported that many kiln operators received advance notice of local police inspections and hid enslaved laborers during these inspections, according to page 72 of the CECC's 2007 Annual Report. Similarly, in an infant abduction and illegal adoption case in Hengyang city, Hunan province, a local court sentenced nine individuals to 3 to 15 years in prison in February 2006 while a state-run welfare institute director received 1 year in prison. City government agencies dismissed or censured 22 other welfare institute employees and local civil affairs officials. Employees at various welfare institutes in Hengyang knowingly purchased abducted babies and worked with local civil affairs bureaus to forge abandonment certificates in order to arrange for the babies' adoptions.

Two cases of attempted infant abductions from the Sichuan earthquake zone: Public security officials in Jiangyou city, Sichuan province, detained six people on May 16 who were attempting to transport five infants from the earthquake zone, according to a May 30 Jiangnan Metropolitan Daily article (via Xinhua) and a May 26 South China Morning Post article (subscription required). The individuals admitted that an unknown person gave them the babies to transport to Linyi city, Shandong province, where someone else would pick the babies up. They would have received 1,500 yuan (US$216) in "transportation fees" for each infant. The babies ranged in age from under 10 days to 2 months old. Public security officials were unable to locate the infants' parents, transferring them instead to a Jiangyou welfare institute where they received medical treatment. According to the welfare institute director, the infants were kidnapped around the time of the earthquake, with some likely taken from hospitals. The perpetrators then fed them sleeping pills to prevent them from crying. In another case, Shandong province public security officials rescued three infants who had been transported from Sichuan province on May 29, according to a May 30 People's Daily - Photobase article (via NetEase). Four suspected perpetrators, who reportedly purchased the babies in Sichuan and had planned to sell them in Henan province, have been detained. The infants were under one month old. Shandong public security officials are coordinating with their counterparts in Sichuan to locate the babies' families, according to a June 2 Liaocheng News Net article. It is unclear what kind of care the infants are currently receiving.

Recent punishment of perpetrators involved in major cases of child abduction and selling:

  • On March 14, 2008, the Nanyang Municipal Intermediate People's Court in Henan province sentenced two people to death, and sentenced five others to 2 to 13 years imprisonment for abducting and selling children. Between April and December 2007, the perpetrators abducted nine boys in Henan and sold them for 12,000 to 33,000 yuan (US$1,746 to US$4,803) each in other counties in Henan and a county in Shandong province. The defendants were ordered to pay a total of 68,000 yuan (US$9,919) in compensation in a civil suit that was also filed, according to a March 20 Legal Daily article. In at least one case the child was sold into a family who already had two daughters and appeared to be raising the boy as their son, according to a January 9 Zhengzhou Evening News article (via A physical examination of the children revealed that they were in normal health, although many of the children experienced psychological effects after returning home, such as having nightmares and feeling withdrawn, according to a January 3 Xinhua article (via and the Zhengzhou Evening News article. Besides the physical examination, it is unclear if the children received any other aftercare.
  • On May 15, 2008, the Qujing Municipal Intermediate People's Court in Yunnan province sentenced 16 people to prison terms ranging from three years to life, with the ringleader receiving the death sentence, according to a May 19 Legal Daily article. The individuals kidnapped and sold 15 children over the span of three months. The children were often resold several times; three of them are still missing. In at least one case the child was sold to someone who wanted to raise him as her own child, according to a February 11, 2007, Life News article (via According to the Legal Daily article, the court, citing Article 240 of the Criminal Law and related provisions, handed down the following sentences:
Individual(s) Sentence
Wang Shuhua Death sentence, lifelong deprivation of political rights, and confiscation of all property.
Wang Yunmei, Sun Yan, and Liu Qicui Life imprisonment, lifelong deprivation of political rights, and confiscation of 50,000 (US$7,294) yuan of personal property.
Zhou Dexiu and Wang Meitao 15 years' imprisonment, a 40,000 (US$5,835) yuan fine, and 5 years' deprivation of political rights.
Zuo (who had not reached 18 at the time of the crime), Zhou Jiafen, and Wu Qingyuan 9 years' imprisonment and a 20,000 (US$2,917) yuan fine.
Deng Bofu and Wu Shuqing 8 years' imprisonment and a 20,000 (US$2,917) yuan fine.
Guo Yongshi 4 years' imprisonment and a 10,000 (US$1,459) yuan fine.
Lu Sanqing, He Renmin, and Li Zufen 3 years' imprisonment and a 10,000 (US$1,459) yuan fine.
  • On June 5, 2008, the Dongguan Intermediate People's Court in Guangdong province upheld the previous ruling of the same court in 2005 that sentenced the leader of a child abduction ring to death, according to a June 9 China News article (via NetEase) and the SMD article. From March 2001 to May 2004, the ring abducted and sold 38 children who were playing in market areas without adult supervision from the Dongguan vicinity to Shantou city, Guangdong, where they were sold to other people. Each child was sold for around 10,000 yuan (US$1,459), according to the SMD article. The China News article reports that 12 children remain missing. According to media reports, a child was sold to a villager in at least one case, although it is unclear if there was exploitation involved and if the other children were sold into a similar situation.

See previous CECC analyses for more information on child abductions and human trafficking in China, including the rise of child abductions in 2004, the abduction and selling of children from ethnic minority areas to predominantly Han areas, and the section on Human Trafficking in the CECC's 2007 Annual Report.