(Shaoyang) – On a long journey in search of his lost child, Yang Libing carries a single photograph. It's a faded snapshot of his daughter Yang Ling, who this year turns seven years old.
Family planning agency cadres in the poor mountain town where Yang Libing lived with his wife Cao Zhimei seized their daughter in 2005 and shipped her to an orphanage because they didn't pay a 6,000 yuan penalty – so-called "social support compensation" – for violating China's one-child policy.
The nearly three-decade-old policy limits parents to a single offspring with certain exceptions. Authorities decided that the family of Yang Ling had overstepped strict bounds imposed by family planners in their hometown Gaoping and Longhui County, near the city of Shaoyang in Hunan Province.
Local officials decided to take a tough – arguably inhumane – stand for central government population controls by claiming rights to the toddler and, as the parents have argued since 2009, allowing her to be sold into adoption abroad.
Not only did the decision to confiscate the little girl serve to punish the parents, leaving them with mere memories and a worn baby photo, but it also provided operating cash for the local government.
Indeed, a Caixin investigation found that children in many parts of Hunan have been sold in recent years and wound up, sometimes with help from document forgers and complacent authorities, being raised by overseas families who think they adopted Chinese orphans.
The official China Center of Adoption says more than 100,000 orphans and disabled Chinese children were adopted by families abroad until last year. The largest number now lives in the United States.
In some cases, child-selling revenues as well as social support compensation fees paid by Hunan parents who break one-child rules have become important sources of income for local governments in poor parts of the province.
Family planning agencies received less than 20 percent of the fees paid by Hunan's violating parents in 2004 and '05, according to the provincial Family Planning Commission. Most of the money was used to cover general government expenses, government sources told Caixin.
Highlighting the importance of this income source – and the power of local family planning officials – was Longhui County Director Zhong Yifan, who addressed the issue at a public meeting last year.
"Small town (Communist) party committees and governments have a deep relationship with family planning departments," Zhong said, adding that the committees "dare not offend" family planners.
"As a result," he said, "the family planning team holds the party committee and government hostage."
At the same time, though, local government officials appear to be happy to accept funds from family planners that help supplement what have been relatively meager tax collections in recent years.
In Gaoping, officials told Caixin that the local government's budget was sorely strained after the central government abolished agricultural taxes in 2006. At times, payrolls went unmet.
Family planning violation fees, though, have boosted fiscal budgets ever since Gaoping, population 70,000, started penalizing parents in 2001.
Initially, the fee was 3,000 to 4,000 yuan per child. But a few years, local officials said, the penalty rose to 10,000 yuan and sometimes more. In addition, for at least the past decade, family planners have been taking children from parents who failed to pay the fee and selling them to orphanages.
The child-selling practice apparently received a stamp of official support from Longhui officials, who went the extra mile to enforce family planning rules. For example, over the years the county government has dispatched some 230 cadres to Gaoping as well as area villages to monitor population control activities.
Moreover, seven judges and four court police officers from Longhui were assigned to an administrative judicial system specifically designed to oversee family planning enforcement, especially fee collections.
Gaoping residents say the judiciary has treated parents arbitrarily. Those forced to turn over children but who later wanted to reclaim a son or daughter were ordered to pay a non-specific fee. Fee amounts were set according to the whims of family planning authorities, they said.
Altogether between 2000 and '05, according to Caixin interviews with local residents, family planning authorities seized at least 16 children including little Yang Ling from Gaoping parents who broke the rules and couldn't pay fines.
Twelve of these children were turned over to the Shaoyang Prefecture Orphanage in the city of the same name. A source told Caixin most of the 12 were adopted by families outside China.
Not all these children were being raised by biological parents when they were removed from their homes. Caixin learned that some were being raised by grandparents, aunts and uncles. Some parents, such as Yang Ling's, were working as migrants in distant cities when the seizures occurred.
The government's efforts have been credited with bringing Gaoping's population under control. Lowering the birth rate is also seen as an important accomplishment for Longhui, which is on a central government list of China's most impoverished communities. China has been working on population control since the early 1970s, and the one-child policy took effect nationwide in 1982.
Across the country, birth control rule enforcement is linked to performance evaluations and political futures among local government cadres. An authority in a community that misses a population target may be denied promotions.
Despite strong incentives for government enforcement, however, some families in impoverished mountain areas such as Gaoping have found ways to sidestep rules and follow their traditions, supported by the ideas that sons offer valuable insurance against old age, and more children bring more happiness.
Indeed, many of the town's residents have borne children while working as migrant laborers far from home. Others have found ways to hide from authorities by living deep in the forested mountains.
Yuan Chaorong is a Gaoping farmer who found an abandoned baby girl on a street in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, in 2004. At the time, he was an unmarried migrant worker at a furniture factory.
Yuan brought the girl home, named her Yuan Qingli, and told his village chief back in Hunan that he wanted to adopt her as his daughter. His plan called for the chief to help him with the adoption paperwork, while he wanted an aunt to raise the child in her home with 350 yuan a month from Yuan's factory salary.
All went well until the next year, when Yuan learned that five staffers from the local family planning agency had broken into his aunt's home and took the child. To get her back, authorities said, the family would have to pay an 8,000 yuan social support compensation fee.
Yuan was unable to leave his job for four months. When he finally returned to Gaoping, he learned from family planning officials that the girl had been sent to the Shaoyang orphanage.
Local residents told Caixin the orphanage would pay a family planning agency 1,000 yuan per child. Jiang Dewei, orphanage director, declined to answer questions about payments.
Shaoyang orphanage records have confirmed, however, that 13 babies were delivered to its doors between 2002 and '05 by the Gaoping Civil Administration Office and Family Planning Office. One was later reclaimed by parents, while the rest were officially declared "abandoned" through public notices, making them available for adoption in China and abroad.
After receiving a child, the orphanage complies with the law by posting a notice in the Hunan Daily newspaper for 60 days. If no one claims the child within 60 days, the orphanage records the receiving date as its birthday and gives him or her a new name, with the family name Shao, suggesting its hometown is Shaoyang.
Since any unclaimed child can be put up for adoption, the newspaper notice offers the only hope for a family to learn about and start petitioning for the return of a son or daughter. But poor families living in the mountains or working as migrants outside the province may never see these notices.
The adoption process can be a money-maker for an orphanage as well as the provincial government.
"Adoptees need to pay an adoption fee," Jiang said, which for a foreign family is usually US$ 3,000. Payments go through a provincial adoption center tied to a civil affairs department, which takes a cut. The largest chunk is then transferred to the orphanage.
Hunan's system has been marred by underground trafficking in the past. Seeking cash through foreign adoptions, according to provincial media, three county-level orphanages around Hengyang bought 810 babies through traffickers and other sources between 2003 and '05. The scheme was uncovered and, after a clampdown, 10 people were sentenced to up to 15 years in jail in November 2005.
Parents in Gaoping whose children were seized by family planners likewise argued that they had been victims of injustice. So they formed a group in hopes of locating and reclaiming their children.
In 2006, some of these parents started planning to travel to Beijing to petition central government authorities about the perceived wrongs of the family planning agency. But local government officials quickly thwarted the appeal effort.
Apparently to cover the tracks, the Communist Party secretary in Shaoyang ordered an investigation of the Gaoping parents' claims by a group of high-ranking Longhui officials.
One day after the group tried unsuccessfully to deliver their petition, county investigators including procurators, family planning officials and the propaganda department completed a report. It concluded that of the 12 children brought to the Shaoyang orphanage by family planners, 11 had been illegally adopted by local families and needed the orphanage's protection.
Before Hunan family planning officials started seizing children, local residents said, parents who broke childbearing regulations were subjected to other forms of harsh punishment.
Yuan Chaoren, who was punished for becoming father to a second child, told Caixin that before 1997 the official way to deal with violators involved smashing a home and arresting the family head. Authorities demolished Yuan's home, for example.
"Since 2000," he said, "they haven't smashed homes. They abduct children."
Yuan said several circumstances can lead to a seizure: Birth to an unmarried couple, or a couple whose marriage has not been officially registered; parents who exceed quotas and parents who raise an adopted child without meeting adoption requirements.
A Los Angeles Times story in 2009 brought the topic to the U.S. Through Americans who wanted to help the families, photos of possible children adopted in the United States who may have been from Gaoping made its way to the town.
That year, a stranger met Yang Libing and his wife in a hotel in the city of Chengde. They were shown two photos of a little girl, and they recognized her immediately.
"I was certain at first glance that she was my daughter," Yang Libing said.
Later, a translator who sent the photo and used the family name Ye told the parents that the girl "is living a happy life in the United States, and her adopted parents love her." Ye provided no further information.
Local parents, including Yang, could only guess whether their children were in the photos.
DNA tests were never conducted, nor did the Gaoping residents receive any further information about how to contact the families with adopted children.
Searching for Daughter
Yang Ling was born a year before Yang Libing and his wife migrated to Guangzhou for jobs. The daughter was seized from the home of her grandparents in Gaoping, who had been raising her while the parents worked far away.
Later, Yang Libing remembers, family planning cadres tried to stop him from searching for the girl.
"They promised to give me two licenses" so that the couple could have "two children with no penalty, as long as I stopped looking for my daughter," he told Caixin.
He said he rejected their offer and eventually traced the girl to the Shaoyang orphanage. But by the time he got there, she was gone.
Yang Libing's case file at family planning department includes statements supposedly signed by Yang Libing and his father. The documents claim the little girl was found on a street, and that the family had been willing to accept all of the government's decisions for her care.
But no one in the family admits making such depositions. Moreover, the signature of Yang Libing's father in the documents was misspelled.
Another file, supposedly signed by a now-retired local official named Wang Xianjiao, had similar problems. Wang said she never wrote nor signed such a document, and that her name was misspelled.
Other local parents have similarly rejected government arguments that they wrote letters giving up custody rights. They claimed local government officials forged these files.
Their claims go against a statement by Liu Shude, Gaoping's director of family planning in five years ago, who said "it's impossible to fake" these documents.
Yang Libing's wife Cao Zhimei was happy to learn that her daughter apparently lives in the United States. She told her husband she wanted Yang Ling to come home, right away.
But later it became clear that the family could not afford to pursue more than a local search for the daughter. So the mother abandoned Yang Libing, and moved away.
"She left a note saying that since her daughter was abducted and could not be brought home, what's the use of living with me," said Yang Libing, as tears welled up in his eyes. "So as long as I'm alive, I'll continue trying to bring my daughter home."