Friday, January 31, 2020

Five Questions about the Duan Family Trafficking

The recent interest in the Hunan scandal, and the Duan family specifically, spurred by their being featured in Nanfu Wang's "One Child Nation," prompted some questions after we posted an essay on our subscription blog. The article, "Two of Duan Yue Neng's Statements in 'One Child Nation'", dealt with two assertions Mr. Duan made in the documentary: 1) That he and his family trafficked over 10,000 children; 2) That he commonly found children along the road, and that he and his family began trafficking to save the lives of these foundlings. 

We felt the answers to these important questions might be of interest to families.  

1. Did the Duans only traffic children from Wuchuan/Guangdong or did they also traffic them from other provinces and if so, do you have any sense of the approximate percentage?

In our conversation with Chen Zhi Jin, the mother of the Duan family, she indicated that about 50% of the kids came from the Wuchuan area, and 50% came from the Changning area itself. The Duans had contacts with area doctors and midwives that provided local children. Now, although the quesiotn addresses the source of the children obtained by the Duans, we know from DNA matches and other evidence that the children obtained by the Duans ended up in many orphanages scattered across China. 

2. Could you share the typical purchase prices from the ledgers that the Duans charged the orphanages and if they changed over time? The logs presented at trial contain various amounts of information to specific children, but some payment trajectories are visible. 

Qidong’s logs contain prices of 2800 yuan being paid for children starting in July 2004, and monies paid per child increased to 4100 yuan by November 2005. Hengdong County’s logs show a similar trajectory: 2900 paid in June 2004, increasing to 4300 in November 2005. Hengshan begins showing payment amounts in January 2005, when 3500 yuan were paid for each child, increasing to 4500 in November 2005.



3. Could you share more about the notice posted by the police in Qidong? Maybe a translation of the notice? Do I understand correctly that the police was paid off to create and sign off on police reports of baby findings and they wanted better pay for that? Is that why the Duan sister got arrested or was the notice in the newspaper and signal to the orphanages to pay more if they wanted to avoid further arrests of their sellers?




On Friday, November 18, 2005, at approximately three o’clock in the afternoon, Qidong County police surrounded two women at the Hengyang County railway station, confiscating three young female infants. Duan Mei Lin and Duan Zi Lin, two sisters from Yiyang Town in neighboring Changning City, were arrested for baby trafficking. The story of the Duan family trafficking ring became known in adoption circles and in the Western press as the “Hunan baby trafficking scandal.”

Initial press reports indicated that “orphanages in central China’s Hunan Province” had bought “at least 100 babies over the past few years,” and had resold the children to other orphanages or childless couples for 8,000 yuan to 30,000 yuan.” While the earliest report did not connect this buying by the orphanages to international adoption, later press coverage began to make the connection. Xinhua News, in an update published the following week, stated that officials involved indicated that “some of [the children] were even sold to foreign adopters.”

The trafficking scandal was quickly picked up by the Western media. Reuters reported on November 24, 2005, that “Hunan Province [police] arrested 27 people, including the head of an orphanage, in another child-trafficking crackdown the official People’s Daily said on its Web site . . ..” Chinese officials, realizing much of the Western media was simply republishing articles originating inside China, responded to the increased attention to this story by shutting down media coverage two weeks later, preventing any additional information from being published in China.

The Chinese press accounts, and as a result the derivative accounts published by Western media outlets, presented the story as an orphanage-trafficking ring being discovered and shut down by diligent Chinese police investigators. “This August, the public security bureau of Qidong County was informed that some infants were being abducted from Zhanjiang and Wuchuan in Guangdong Province to neighboring Qidong and Hengyang counties in Hunan Province,” reported Xiao Hai Bo, deputy director with the Hengyang City Police Bureau. “Qidong County police in Hunan Province, China, uncovered a situation of babies being sold. This discovery led to the exposure of a scandal involving some people in the Hunan social welfare institutes, who were buying and reselling babies.” Police revealed that “at least 100 babies, between several months and 4 years old, have been traded between the orphanages or sold to others.” The Western world was meant to believe through these accounts that Qidong police had investigated and broken up a trafficking ring that involved “about 100” children being bought and sold by a handful of orphanages and that “the government was investigating the allegations and would punish anyone found guilty of breaking the law.”

Behind the scenes, court documents detail a different story. The trial records show that, rather than the orphanages being discovered by Qidong police through anonymous tips or police investigations, the scandal was the result of a small-town power struggle over money between the orphanages and the traffickers, and the Qidong Police Bureau and the area orphanages. The Hunan scandal was revealed because of a calculated attempt by the Qidong police to get a bigger piece of adoption revenues.

By 2005, the Duan family in Hunan had established a professional and personal relationship with Liang Gui Hong, an elderly woman in Guangdong’s Wuchuan City. The relationship formed, as most relationships in China do, as a result of personal relationships between members of the two families. The Duan family had a long history of providing children to the Hengyang City orphanages. In 1996, Chen Zhi Jin, the matriarch of the Duan family, brought her first child, a two-year-old girl she had found as an infant, to the Qidong orphanage. The orphanage paid her 700 yuan. Chen was told that if she could find more children, the area orphanages, specifically the Changning orphanage, would gladly receive them. Since the Changning orphanage itself was not yet performing international adoptions, it made arrangements for these children to be internationally adopted by orphanages in Chongqing Municipality, Guangdong Province, and other areas of Hunan Province.

The orphanages began offering incentives to their employees to find and recruit children to bring into the orphanage as early as 1996. According to insiders interviewed by reporters following the scandal of 2005, orphanages initially paid 200 yuan for each baby, but that amount quickly escalated:
Towards these ends, the Hengyang County Welfare center once clarified the mission for lower levels: an employee that was responsible for the adoption of three children within that year could be said to have completed their work duties for the year and was able to receive an extension of their salary and also a bonus at the year’s end.

By the time the scandal broke in 2005, orphanages were routinely paying more than 3,500 yuan for each child procured by orphanage employees, the Duan family, and others. “Some welfare center employees even went so far as to urge the human traders to secure infants with complete disregard for any sense of morality or legality.”

The operation was not without risk. In 1998 or 1999, and again in 2002 and 2003, members of the Duan family were arrested by railway police after suspicious passengers reported the two women feeding six or more children kept in boxes under the train seats. Each time the women were released after having the orphanage directors vouch for them. Chen recounted:
I was just honest with the policemen. I told them that I was bringing all the babies to the Changning orphanage. I told them that I was just making a little money for a living, and that I got paid 10 yuan per day per baby by the orphanage to take care of those babies. My job is to take care of babies for the orphanage. Then the policeman called the Changning orphanage director and asked if my story was true. They went to Liang’s house to investigate also, to make sure that that part of my story was true. After they investigated, and they learned that I didn’t kidnap those babies, they let us go. The director of the Changning orphanage told the police that the babies we were bringing were for the orphanage. The director told the policeman that the orphanage needed those babies because there were so many babies in Liang’s house, so he sent us to get the babies. As soon as the police learned the true story, they let us go.

After the Duan’s third arrest in 2003, they were ready to quit the trafficking, but the orphanage directors, by this time accustomed to the huge profits flowing into their orphanages as a result of the adoption of the Duan foundlings, aggressively worked to keep the Duans in the game. “See, that wasn’t much trouble,” the Changning director reassured the Duans after one of their arrests. “As soon as the police found out the truth, there was no more trouble. You are fine now.” Chen recounted that
the director told me if I saved a person’s life it is worth thousands of yuan, and you know that there are people who want those babies. If you were to let those babies die, it would be a pity. Then, after the director talked to us, we decided to keep sending babies to them.

By 2005, the Hunan orphanages grew tired of paying the Duans for the children, and began working to make arrangements with the Duan’s Wuchuan contact, Liang, directly in order to remove the need to pay the Duans for what, in the eyes of the orphanages, amounted to simple transportation needs. In November 2005, unknown to the Duan family, the assistant director of the Hengyang County made a trip to Wuchuan to form a partnership with Liang. But Liang refused to cooperate with the orphanages. “You are an old customer of mine,” Liang reassured the Duans, “so I will give the babies to you. I won’t give the babies to them.”

When the assistant director returned to Hengyang empty-handed, the orphanage director, Zhang Jian Hua, was livid. “So,” according to Chen,

they called the police. The assistant director had a family member working for the government office, and they had a relationship with the Qidong Police Bureau. So, the Qidong police set up a sting, waiting for us to come back to pick up babies again. When we went back to Guangdong, we picked up three babies, and the police followed us. The babies were supposed to go to the Hengyang [County] orphanage.

On November 18, 2005, Duan Mei Lin and Duan Zi Lin were arrested as they returned from Guangdong with the three children.

Although the Hengyang City orphanages intended the Duans to simply be removed from the trafficking pipeline to Wuchuan, the Qidong Police had other ideas. After the arrest of the Duans, the police demanded that each orphanage pay 600,000 yuan in order to conduct business as usual. According to Chen,
At a closed meeting [of the Hunan Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau] the Qidong County Police Bureau request was discussed, in which they demanded that the six orphanages in Hengyang City pay the police a fee of 600,000 yuan each for a total 4.8 million [sic]. First, they arrested several trafficking people [the Duans] who were helping the orphanages collect abandoned babies. Next, they hired a reporter [Li Ling] who was unfamiliar with the actual story, to write an article reporting that the orphanages were buying babies.

Li’s article was published on November 24, 2005 in Hunan’s Sanxiang City News.

It is certain that no one from the Qidong Police Bureau expected that the small article would be picked up by other newspapers in China, including the China Daily,xx and then by media outlets outside China. But in the age of the Internet, the article was instantly picked up, and its publication grew exponentially with every passing day. As the planted story was being picked up by various newspapers and websites across China, Qidong police again asked “each of the orphanages to pay 600,000 yuan as a fee.”

With the story rapidly becoming an international scandal, Hengyang City Municipal Party Secretary Xu Ming Hua
was afraid this news would explode and arouse strong reactions. The Party Secretary told them if each of the orphanage employees paid 30,000 yuan bail, they could be released after 30 days. Assistant Deputy Director General Lei Dong Sheng of the Qidong County Police Bureau was reluctant to accept this offer since he felt he was about to get much more from the orphanages.

When the directors refused to pay the demands of the Qidong Police, the police arranged for another article to be published on December 2, 2005. While the first story did not mention that the trafficked children had been adopted internationally, this article made it specific: “Some of them were even sold to foreign adopters, said the official, adding that they are now looking into the hometowns and whereabouts of the trafficked infants.”

The articles were designed to increase the pressure on the orphanage directors and they apparently succeeded. Of the six orphanages implicated, only one director was sentenced to any jail time, Chen Ming, director of the Hengdong County orphanage, who served only three months. Chen Zhi Jin, the mother of the Duan children, and no relation to Chen Ming, offers her belief regarding this seeming discrepancy:
Let me tell you why they only charged Chen Ming. Chen Ming was sent to jail, along with my family, but the other orphanage directors, they also bought the babies and sent them for adoption. All of those orphanages belonged to the government. Those people all worked for the government; they all are supposed to follow the formalities of the government. Some of the directors said to us all those babies will be sent for outside adoption. They will have foreign parents. But those families will all have legal adoption documents, so what [the orphanages] are doing doesn’t break the law. Why Chen Ming was the only one to go to jail is because Chen Ming didn’t cooperate with the other orphanage directors; the money he paid was not enough. That is very clear. For our family, we are just common people — we had no power and no money, and no one to back us up. Actually, with the police when they caught us, it was about money too. If the police catch you, it is about money. Our family didn’t have money to pay the police, but some of the orphanages paid lots of money to them.

The Hunan scandal was intentionally limited in its scope by Hengyang City Civil Affairs officers to prevent the Beijing government from getting involved and to prevent further scrutiny of China’s international adoption program. Thus, while initial press reports implicated other orphanages in Hunan, Guangdong and Guanxi Provinces that had been purchasing babies from the six Hengyang City orphanages, because they had no direct dealing with the Duan family when the story broke, they were not prosecuted. The narrow focus of the trials prevented Zhuzhou City orphanage, for example, from being pulled into the scandal. Zhuzhou had had direct dealings with the Duan family in 2002, but the orphanage director, Zhang Hong Xia, tried, in an act that would be replayed in 2005, to impose a financial kickback system on the Duans, which they rejected. The director then called her husband, an employee of the Zhuzhou Police Bureau, to arrest the Duans as they made their way to the railway station. Chen Zhi Jin explained that episode:
[Zhang] paid us the money [for the three children], but it seems that since we didn’t pay her a “commission” — she is a very bad person — also her husband worked for the police station, so for him it was important to solve a case to show he was a successful officer — the husband tracked us down, took the orphanage money from us, and put us in jail for a month. After that happened, I would never do business with her anymore, no matter if she died or rotted away.

Despite this extralegal behavior, Zhuzhou’s director was recognized in 2009 as one of the “Hundred Excellent Orphanage Directors” of China.

In the end, the Hunan trial was an exercise in damage control by Hengyang City official Xu Ming Hua. After having the scandal break due to ill-advised publicity brought on by the newspaper articles placed by the Qidong Police, Xu simply wanted to present a show of getting something done. Xia Jing, a defense attorney involved in the Hunan trials, wrote,
The Beijing officials were not familiar with what really was happening, so they sent a document telling the Hengyang City Municipal Party Secretary to not obstruct the Qidong Police Bureau from investigating the case. The Hengyang City Municipal Party Secretary Xu Ming Hua wanted to close the case quickly, so he arranged for the traffickers to be convicted and sentenced to jail for fifteen years.

Yuan Bai Shun, defense attorney for Chen Ming, explained, “The Hunan scandal was not about the orphanage buying babies. It was more about how Chinese government officials can turn the law upside down.”

This experience shines a little light on something that is often missed by Western families. By and large, police are looked upon favorably by citizens in the U.S. and other Western countries. We feel the police largely have the best interests of the citizenry at heart. This is, in many ways, the opposite of how things are in China. In China being a police officer allows one to tap financially into the various “processes” that allow one to enrich themselves extra-legally. Whether it is spot inspections of businesses, payments for traffic violations, or fees paid by orphanages to produce finding reports, the police in China are viewed by average citizens as corrupt and self-serving, which, as the Qidong example illustrates, they often are.

To illustrate with an example that concerns all searching families: It is widely believed that putting an adoptees DNA into the national police data base, ostensibly used by “Baby Come Home” and other organizations inside China to search for lost children, is something that may bring success. Sadly, however, the birth parents, through long history and experience, avoid the police data base due to skepticism as to the police motives. Simply put, they are afraid of the police: that they will be shaken down, arrested, harassed, or otherwise abused. Additionally, birthparents understand that in many, many instances the police will work against them in their search. It is this last point that should be understood.

When a domestic family wants to adopt a child inside China, they must first go to the police if they want to register that child. To get a “hukou” for the child, the police need to be paid for this service. It represents a significant source of money for the police generally, and individual offers in particular. But, if the child is later found to have been kidnapped, the registration process represents a significant source of potential trouble for the approving officer down the road.

Thus, in practical terms, the police are anxious to tap the registration funds, but slow to assist birth families to locate lost children. We have interviewed birth families who have gone to multiple police stations to submit DNA, paid the fees, given the DNA sample, only to discover later that the police did nothing with the donated DNA. They buried it. For these reasons, the police are not seen, in China, as reliable and committed helpers in the search process. Quite simply, the police in China rarely benefit from successful reunions, and often work against allowing them to happen.  

4. As to your comment that very few children were abandoned, while I suspect you are right, I wonder how much that changed e.g. from the 80’s and early 90’s compared to later. Nanfu Wang’s uncle did indeed abandon a baby and she died, and Liang does mention that some she just “found”, although there is no elaboration on that. Xin Ran also describes outright abandonments and killings the 80s. I guess we may just never get the numbers. 


“One Child Nation” really documents two periods in the one-child policy: the period from 1979 to 1990, when the policy was brutally enforced to slow the population train and redirect the Chinese people’s thinking on the need for many children; and 1990 through 2015, when the thinking had been changed and the market for children from domestic and international families exceeded the slowing supply of over-quota children. The family planning official, midwife, and even the stories from Nanfu’s family all took place in the early period (Nanfu herself was born in 1985). How much impact the international adoption program had on the change in policies is unclear, but we know from Family Planning confiscation stories that confiscations increased after the start of international adoption.


But the abortion side of the equation seems to have also changed. While gender-reveal ultrasounds were prohibited by Chinese law, the law was frequently broken. This allowed orphanages to make connections with area doctors and midwives to coax expectant birth families of girls to not abort their child, but rather bring her to full term and relinquish her to the doctor for adoption by another family (usually a well-to-do local family, although that was usually a lie). We recently was told the following story by a birth mother from Changde, Hunan:

“When I was five months pregnant with my second child, I went to my doctor friend who worked at the city hospital. I did a B-mode ultrasound with my doctor friend’s help and found out my baby was going to be a girl. Because of the one-child policy, I told my doctor friend that I was thinking about terminating the pregnancy. My doctor friend asked me to keep the baby and told me that she knew someone who wanted the baby.

“Then, on May 1, 1996, the same day I gave birth to my baby girl at the city hospital, my baby girl was taken for an adoption arranged by my doctor friend.

“About a month later, I went to see my doctor friend in the hospital. I missed my baby girl so much, so I asked my doctor friend for information about my baby. But I was shocked when my doctor friend told me that my baby girl didn’t survive because she had all kinds of health problems.

“I was ill for several months. Over a year later, I went to see my doctor friend again in the hospital. My doctor friend finally told me that actually my daughter was in the USA. . . .

“I was shocked when I heard this news. I have been to the Changde orphanage to try to find out any information about my daughter, but the orphanage people told me to stop looking for my daughter, that I was guilty of abandoning my daughter and that I would get into trouble and punishment by the government if the government found out. They also told me to wait for 20 years and then to come back, and then I might able to find my daughter. But it has been more than 20 years, and no results about my daughter.”

There were, no doubt, many instances like this one, where a birth family would have terminated a pregnancy through abortion, but was convinced not to by a friend, doctor, or other person. Thus, the international adoption program can be seen as having saved lives. When one considers the program in its entirety, the pluses and minuses, it becomes more difficult to assess, as there are also instances where poor villages were turned into baby mills, with women getting pregnant in order to sell the child for adoption.

5. I seem to remember at the time that the Chinese authorities claimed and international adoption agencies confirmed that no children from the trafficking (or maybe only a handful?) had been adopted internationally. Do I remember correctly? The stats you share very clearly contradict this.

Yes, the stats do contradict the statements by the CCAA. Again from “Open Secret”:


With the trial concluded in February 2006 and the Duan family sentenced to fifteen years in prison, all that was left for the Chinese government to do was quell fears of the international adoption community as to the integrity of its adoption program. This need was exacerbated in March 2006 when Wash. Post published an article titled “Stealing Babies for Adoption.” The article attempted to tie the recently concluded Hunan scandal with China’s epidemic in trafficking, including kidnapping, of children for adoption. “[S]ources familiar with the investigation said many children were abducted. The court ruled that the director of the Hengdong County orphanage ‘was cognizant of the fact that he had purchased babies that had been abducted,’ according to the verdict, which was read to the Washington Post.” The article created panic in the Chinese adoption community for two reasons: it increased the number of children involved in the Hunan scandal to “as many as 1,000 babies,” and it led adoptive families to wonder if their children had been kidnapped in order to be adopted.

The Chinese government responded to the Wash. Post article by issuing a tightly worded pronouncement to each government involved in their international adoption program: “The CCAA [China Center for Adoption Affairs] informed us that it had concluded its investigation into all of the children from Hengyang adopted by Americans and found that all of these children were legitimately orphaned or abandoned and that there are no biological parents searching for them.”

A similarly worded statement replacing the country of destination was issued to each government participating in China’s international adoption program.

As indicated by an unnamed U.S. State Department official, “The Chinese government has told Washington that an investigation found no children involved in a recent baby-trafficking case were adopted by American families.” Maura Harty, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, echoed that finding in a letter to The Washington Post:

The State Department has sought to determine whether any Chinese child adopted by U.S. parents had been bought or sold. We have not confirmed any such case to date. Meanwhile, the CCAA says it has concluded its investigation into the origins of children from Hengyang adopted by Americans and found that all were legitimately orphaned or abandoned and that no biological parents were searching for them.

Beijing had given it to Harty, and adoptive parents generally, to understand that no children trafficked by the Duan family had been internationally adopted. But court documents presented in the Hunan trials show such a conclusion was unwarranted. Chen Ming, Hengdong orphanage director, indicated that

there were 85 babies involved in our case. Our orphanage [Hengdong] had bought eighteen of those babies. There were five other orphanages that bought the other sixty-seven babies: Hengnan County orphanage bought 22 babies; Hengyang County orphanage bought 11 babies; Changning orphanage bought 7 babies; Qidong county orphanage bought 15 babies; and Hengshan County orphanage bought 12 babies.

Court-submitted orphanage records, however, provide a much more detailed accounting of how many children were brought to the six orphanages and undermine the conventional understanding of the Chinese government’s above statement. Court documents show that the Changning orphanage, for example, purchased 274 children from the Duan family between December 2001 and November 2005. Nearly all of those children were adopted internationally and represented 90% of all international adoptions from the orphanage in those years. Chen Ming’s orphanage, Hengdong County, purchased 356 children from the Duans between May 2002 and November 2005, with almost all of those children being internationally adopted. These children represented 92% of all of Hengdong County’s adoptions in that period.

A similar situation is seen in the other two orphanages for which detailed logs are available. Hengshan County, prosecuted for having officially purchased twelve children, had in fact purchased 132 children between January and November 2005 alone, representing 85% of all children submitted for international adoption by the orphanage in that period. The Qidong County orphanage, officially charged with purchasing fifteen children from the Duans, in reality purchased 122 children in the period between August and November 2005. These children represented more than 90% of all adoptions from the Qidong orphanage in that period.

The Changning orphanage trafficking logs from 2002 through 2004 also detail into which country each child was adopted. Between January 2002 and October 2004, 191 children were brought into the Changning orphanage by the Duans. Orphanage logs show that these trafficked children were adopted to the following countries:

Canada – 32
Ireland – 6
Netherlands – 9
Norway – 4
Spain – 25
Sweden – 4
United States – 111

It is unknown whether the Chinese government intentionally sought to mislead the United States and other national governments about the origin of the children sent abroad by the six Hunan orphanages. Taken at face value, the statement by Chinese officials simply indicates that none of the children had been kidnapped (an assertion reported in Goodman’s Wash. Post article). It did not say that none of the children had been trafficked.




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