Mon, Jul 21, 2003 - Page 16 News List

When family planning becomes baby trafficking

China's one-child policy hits the poor living in the countryside hardest

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , YULIN, CHINA

In the picturesque but poverty-stricken area of Guangxi, in southern China, population control is taken seriously. What is distinctive about Guangxi is a strict enforcement of China's one-child policy, which these days is only halfheartedly followed by officials in other places. Xin, a farmer in Guangxi, has one son and regrets that he and his wife, right, are not allowed to have more children.

PHOTO: NYT

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 said 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 in Guangxi Province found the fallout of son worship packed away in the back of a long-haul bus: 28 unwanted baby girls from Yulin, two months to five 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," Yu said.

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. Since there are 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 US$3,500 fine, the equivalent of two decades' worth of local farm income.

"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."

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