Malcolm Moore, Telegraph (London), August 10, 2013
To her patients she was a grandmotherly figure, a kindly 56-year-old doctor who delivered hundreds of children in this corner of the Chinese countryside.
Here in the small villages dotted among corn fields and apple orchards, Zhang Shuxia was family.
Not only had she delivered many of the children playing in the muddy streets and courtyard houses, her mother had delivered many of their parents.
But this week, a dark and terrible secret was finally revealed: Dr Zhang, herself a mother of one, was stealing newborns from the county hospital where she worked and selling them on the flourishing black market.
Each time, her ruse was the same. Reducing parents to tears of grief, she claimed their newborns were terminally ill or congenitally deformed. She chose only families whom she knew well, and whom she knew would trust her without question. Her approach was so callous that she charged the families a fee for her usual service.
“When she came to us, she said our baby was dying,” said Zhou Cun, 56, whose grandson was taken by Dr Zhang on a bitter winter morning in 2009.
“I thought it looked healthy, but I believed her because she was the doctor and we had a good relationship with her. She said normally they would throw the baby in a well but in this case she could arrange an old man to come and collect the baby and we just needed to pay her 50 yuan (£5).”
For at least seven years, Dr Zhang’s trade in infants went unquestioned. But this week, she was arrested together with eight of her accomplices at Fuping’s maternity hospital. Six government officials have been fired.
Dr Zhang’s unmasking began on the night of July 16 when a couple from Dongcheng village, Dong Shanshan and Lai Guofeng, gave birth to a son.
Throughout her pregnancy, Dr Zhang had expressed doubts over the health of the foetus, warning Mrs Dong that she had hepatitis B and syphilis and may pass it to her son.
On the night of the birth, the doctor confirmed her worst suspicions, and whisked the child away before the parents could even properly see him.
But Mr Lai grew suspicious and took his wife to a different hospital for blood tests. When the results confirmed that she was not infected with either hepatitis or syphilis, he went to the police.
Initially, no one wanted to listen to his complaint, his voice too small and unimportant to be heard. But when he and his father stood on the top of his white-tiled house, above a pair of hanging red lanterns, and threatened to jump to their deaths, the police finally paid attention.
Scanning the hospital’s CCTV, investigators saw Dr Zhang bundling the child out of the doors. In custody, she confirmed she had sold the baby for 21,600 yuan (£2,200) to a trafficker.
The police quickly put together the distribution chain. The baby passed through two more middlemen, its price rising each time, until it was sold to a couple who were desperate for a son in Henan province, nearly 300 miles away.
This week, the child was returned to his sobbing parents, in scenes that were televised across the country. The family declined to comment further as the child underwent medical treatment. “They want to carry out tests on the baby [to guarantee its health],” said Mr Lai’s mother.
Child trafficking is a huge business in China, partly because the restrictions of the one child policy has denied many couples the chance to naturally produce the society’s most prized goal: a male heir.
There are no statistics for the black industry of stealing babies, but in recent years the trade has become “industrialised”, according to the Chinese media, with entire villages serving as “hubs” through which children are passed.
“My own guess is that there must be around 20,000 to 40,000 children stolen every year,” said Charles Custer, the co-director of Living With Dead Hearts, a recent documentary on Chinese child trafficking.
“In 2011, the government said it had rescued some 8,000 kids, but none of the dozen or so families we were in contact with for the film found their children.”
The most valuable commodity, a healthy ethnic Han Chinese baby boy, can fetch from 40,000 yuan (£4,200) to 60,000 (£6,100) yuan, Mr Custer said. “That is a lot of money in any country, but especially in China,” he added.
The authorities are often complicit in the trade; it only costs a few hundred pounds to register a new identity for a stolen child. Mr Custer said he had come across a case in which a teenage boy had been sold as a slave to work in a brickmaking kiln.
“He escaped and found a government official whom he explained it all to. But instead of helping him, the official promptly took him and sold him to another kiln,” he said.
While local officials are often heinously corrupt, more senior officials have made headway in tackling the problem. “The central government has set up a special police task force and they seem pretty serious about it,” said Mr Custer.
The police believe there could be at least 10 other cases in Fuping, but the rumour that has spread through the villages is that the number of children stolen from the county hospital could be as high as 55.
For couples whose children were recently snatched, the police have been able to quickly hunt down the middlemen who sold on their cargo. For others, there is less hope. Residents have begun to clamour for answers about the deaths of their own children.