- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

BEIJING

Liang Guihong is a good-hearted 56-year- old woman who finds homes for abandoned infants. Or she’s a leader of a gang that sold abducted babies, some of whom were adopted abroad. court in southern China sentenced Liang last month to 15 years in prison after she was convicted, along with an orphanage director and eight others, of selling scores of babies — 78 of them last year alone.

Supporters say Liang and the others passed on foundlings to orphanages at no charge and are victims of a miscarriage of justice prompted by official zeal to stamp out China’s black market in kidnapped or purchased babies.

Touchy issue

The case is acutely sensitive for China, where thousands of babies are adopted every year by Americans and other foreigners, and the government wants to assure adoptive parents and its citizens that the children are treated well.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing says it has asked Chinese officials, who have a respected adoption system, to look into Liang’s case and confirm that any babies adopted by Americans were orphaned or abandoned, not abducted or sold.

“It’s certainly a nightmare for any adoptive parent to have that seed of doubt,” said Meghan Hendy, executive director of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services in Alexandria, an association of adoption agencies and parents’ groups.

“The adoption community wants orphans to find homes, not children who may have had a family that could have taken care of them in their own country,” she said.

Thousands of babies are abandoned every year in China. Many are girls given up by couples who are bound by rules that limit most urban families to one child and want to try to have a son. Others are left at orphanages or by the roadside by unmarried mothers or poor families.

The United States is the No. 1 destination for Chinese babies adopted abroad. Ms. Hendy said Americans adopted a record 7,906 children from China last year, bringing the total since 1989 to 48,504.

At the same time, thousands of Chinese babies are abducted or bought each year by traffickers and sold to families that want another child, a servant or a future bride for a son.

China’s system is meant to ensure that all adoptees are orphaned or abandoned. Foreign parents are matched with children by the government’s China Center for Adoption Affairs and are barred from dealing directly with orphanages.

Pointing fingers

The Qidong County People’s Court in Hunan province convicted Liang, orphanage director Chen Ming and eight others of buying babies stolen from families in neighboring Guangdong province and selling them to welfare homes, the state press reported.

Some were adopted by foreigners “who made donations” to the homes, the government’s Xinhua news agency said. It said the homes paid $400 to $540 per baby.

Liang and two others were sentenced to 15 years, Chen to one year and six others to terms ranging from three to 13 years, news reports said. They said 22 officials were fired for negligence.

The court took the unusual step of ordering participants in the case not to talk about it publicly.

The court, the Qidong County prosecutors’ office and the local Civil Affairs Bureau, which is in charge of orphanages, declined to release details on how many babies were adopted abroad or where. A spokeswoman for the Center for Adoption Affairs, who refused to give her name, said the agency is looking into the case.

Supporters of Liang, who lived in Wuchuan County in Guangdong, and the others say they passed on as many as 1,000 abandoned babies to orphanages in the past 14 years. They say they weren’t paid for the babies, but were reimbursed for travel and other expenses.

Questionable case

The supporters say the legal troubles of Liang and the others began when one of them, a woman named Duan Meilin, was stopped by police while taking several children to Hunan.

Police initially cleared Duan, but the Xinhua bureau in Hunan filed a report for internal government use, saying a baby-trafficking ring was operating, they said. Xinhua files thousands of such “internal reference” reports every year.

Officials in Beijing saw the report and ordered Liang, Duan and others prosecuted, their supporters said. They said local officials told the court to convict them. Duan also got 15 years.

Defense lawyers and human rights activists frequently accuse Chinese officials of interfering in cases to dictate verdicts or sentences.

The chief editor of the Xinhua bureau in Hunan, Zhang Yong, wouldn’t confirm whether it had filed such a report.

Zhou Xiaoyong, a prosecutor in the Qidong county prosecutor’s office who said he knew about Liang’s case but wasn’t directly involved, said the babies appear to have been abandoned or given away, and no one has come forward to claim them.

“There is no apparent evidence that these children were abducted,” Mr. Zhou said.

A man who answered the phone at the Civil Affairs Bureau in Wuchuan County, where Liang lives, said he hadn’t heard of her. The man wouldn’t give his name.

China has cracked down on baby trafficking, raising maximum penalties to life in prison or even death if a baby dies.

“The Chinese adoption system is one of the most well-run,” Ms. Hendy said. “For the most part, I don’t think there are great concerns about corruption. So parents do feel secure that the children really are abandoned and need loving homes.”

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