Chinese officials have imposed a wall of silence on a baby-trafficking scandal in which orphanages and child-welfare agencies were implicated in a scheme to buy and sell at least 100 children.
The case, in which some of the smuggled babies were reportedly adopted by foreign families, raises new questions about corruption in China's adoption system, which has become the most popular source for Canadians who adopt children abroad.
Many of the suspects arrested were child-welfare officials and employees of an orphanage in Hengyang county in Hunan province in southern China. For years, the orphanage has been selling children to other orphanages in Hunan and other Chinese provinces, such as Guangdong and Guangxi, according to a Chinese newspaper report.
Hunan province is one of the main sources of children who are adopted by Canadians and other foreigners. Chinese investigators are now said to be searching for the hometowns and whereabouts of the trafficked children.
Police have detained more than 50 suspects in the black-market ring that operated for years, selling babies to orphanages and child-welfare institutions for the equivalent of $110 to $165 each. They were then resold to other orphanages or childless couples for up to $4,200 each. Some of the babies had been abducted from their parents.
The baby-trafficking scheme was partly aimed at obtaining government subsidies, since government funds are allocated on the basis of the number of children in each orphanage, the report said.
Black-market schemes to buy and sell children have been active in China for many years.
Hundreds of people have been jailed or even executed for selling babies. But the latest report suggests that many orphanages and child-welfare organizations are heavily involved in the rings.
Police and child-welfare officials in Hunan are refusing to comment on the latest case, and Chinese media have been ordered to stop covering the story.
"No media are allowed to do any further reporting on this case now, because of an urgent order from the government," one Chinese journalist said.
China is by far the biggest source of foreign children adopted by Canadians. Last year, Canadians adopted 1,001 children from China -- more than half of all the international adoptions in Canada last year.
Sandra Scarth, president of the Adoption Council of Canada, said she wants more information about the baby-trafficking allegations. "I am perturbed by the allegations, as we have felt that China was one of the more organized and ethical adoption processes for Canadian families," she said in an interview.
"It is hard to say if a trafficked child could end up in an orphanage that Canadians adopt from, but I suppose it is a possibility," she said.Ms. Scarth, who is also the executive director of a Victoria-based adoption agency that has placed Chinese children with Canadian families, said she believes it is unlikely that there is any significant corruption in the orphanages that are the sources of children for Canadian adoptions. But ultimately it is the Chinese authorities who must verify the honesty of the orphanages, she said.
"China does not allow our agencies to work directly with the orphanages," she said. "We have to depend on the assurances of the CCAA [China Centre of Adoption Affairs]that the child is legally free for adoption. . . . We, as a receiving country, don't have any control over what happens in another country."
Revelations of baby-trafficking and corruption in the adoption systems of some countries -- including Vietnam, Cambodia and Guatemala -- have led to decisions by Canadian agencies to suspend adoptions from those countries until they improve their practices.
With its one-child policy and traditional preferences for male heirs, China has long had an active black market in children. Last year alone, according to state media, 3,500 children were rescued from baby-trafficking rings in 1,975 cases. In some cases, babies are drugged to keep them asleep while being transported, and some have died as a result.
In one case last August, two men in the Chinese province of Fujian were sentenced to death for organizing gangs that bought 82 children from their parents and sold them to families in Singapore.
In another case, a man was sentenced to 10 years in jail for selling his son for about $1,300 to raise money to buy lottery tickets. And in another case, someone tried to sell children over the Internet on eBay's Chinese website, offering them for up to $4,000 each.