Chicken street outlived its name years ago. When dawn lights the weekly market in this dusty hamlet in southwest China, the village buzzes with tribeswomen in technicolor dress peddling cilantro, bananas and wobbly squares of congealed blood used to fortify soup. But there isn't a rooster in sight, and an elderly shopkeeper can't remember when chickens last supported the local economy. The town's most lucrative trade now comes from a man standing under a scraggly palm, whispering, beckoning, pleading, enticing: "Come, come. Cheap, cheap. Baby, baby."
Girls, two-week-old bundles with shocks of black hair, cost $25 each. Boys, traditionally favored, sell for $50. The chicken trade, by contrast, brings in only $2 for the plumpest fowl. In a mountainous region where drought has stymied farmers, the baby trade is feeding citizens in a way that Yunnan province's cracked red earth no longer can. Some mothers, who have no knowledge of birth control, are giving up "extra" children that violate the nation's family-planning policy. Others, from the most desperately poor villages, have turned into full-time baby machines, squeezing out children-for-sale in the shadows of their dirt-floor shacks. "Before, we made money by raising pigs," says a 23-year-old woman who sold two children just days after they were born. "But it takes a year to raise a pig and it's expensive to feed. A baby takes only nine months and doesn't cost any money."
In a country of 1.3 billion people, it might be hard to imagine a demand for extra babies-especially girls. But the nation's family-planning policy has left couples yearning for more children, and China's adoption laws confound those who want to take in kids. In 1999, the minimum age for adoptive parents was lowered from 35 to 30, and families were allowed to adopt more than one child from state orphanages. Adoption advocates hailed the reforms. But legal adoption is still a long and cumbersome process: there are fewer than 100 state orphanages nationwide, and an urban couple can wait five years for the system to spit out a baby. Even then, the child is sometimes malnourished and well past the infant stage when children bond most quickly with adoptive parents.
The secluded highlands near China's border with Vietnam are home to one of the country's largest underground adoption networks. In the past five years, one gang has smuggled out of Yunnan province at least 2,000 babies, who are taken in by wealthy peasants in eastern China looking for extra farmhands or by childless couples unwilling to wait for a legal adoption. Middlemen trawl the countryside looking for pregnant women. It is best, one woman says, when they take the babies quickly. Otherwise mothers get too attached to their children. "I just fed my daughter," says a woman surnamed Zhang, who handed over her child 17 hours after she was born. "I wanted to give her something of me before she went away forever."
The babies spend a few weeks in makeshift foster homes as the smugglers scour the mountains for enough children to take to market. Sometimes the caretakers are barely old enough to look after themselves. One baby, who was discovered after a pack of smugglers was nabbed last May, spent weeks being looked after by a pair of sisters, aged 11 and 9. Neither knew what to do with a baby, so they just shoved cornmeal into his mouth and collected $1 a day to keep the baby out of sight. According to one smuggler's testimony, an estimated 5% of the babies die en route, from malnutrition or simply from the shock of bumping down endless roads to a new home.
After the gangs gather enough babies, they take them to villages like Chicken Street, Cow Street or Pig Street. There, experienced smugglers pick through the day's offerings: babies with high noses and long earlobes are the most prized, while those with small eyes and dark skin sell for less. According to a statement made by an arrested gang member last year, the smugglers pay about $180 for a girl and $290 for a boy. When night falls, the traffickers load up trucks with vegetables, grain and other diversionary produce. The human cargo is swaddled in blankets and paired with a fake mother, who is paid $35 for her services. If the smugglers are lucky, they elude the police roadblocks that have been set up along the rutted roads out of Yunnan province in an effort to stop the baby trade. In one of the biggest crime busts in Yunnan's recent history, police spent nearly $100,000 to smash a baby-smuggling racket. But vehicle spot checks done in the dark of night can only stop so many smugglers. Once the traffickers make it out of Yunnan and through neighboring Guangxi, they speed down highways to waiting families in rich eastern provinces like Fujian and Guangdong. (Although an estimated 4,000 Chinese babies are adopted by American couples each year, there is no evidence that the Yunnan children end up in overseas homes.) New parents spend up to $500 for their illegal child, a markup of at least 900% from the original price.
Many of Yunnan's birth mothers, who get only a fraction of the profits, see no choice but to give up their progeny. Often, parents think their children will fare better in wealthier eastern China. Some sell the firstborn child to pay off hefty wedding debts. Although women in the rural hinterland are allowed to have two children, any more result in fines of up to $400-an astronomical sum in villages where the average yearly income is only $30. So when Wang Lianzuo arrived in Xicheng, the poorest county in Yunnan, villagers were thrilled. Instead of charging them for their extra children, the local family-planning official put them in touch with baby smugglers. She even allowed them to forgo dangerous abortions-often performed in fields by untrained women-for the chance to bring the babies to term and sell them. "Everybody was happy," says one villager. "The women made money, and families who wanted children could have them."
The police weren't amused. Last spring, Wang was arrested, along with nearly half of the 145 residents of Maocaoba village. Today, stillness weighs on the isolated hamlet. Families euphemistically refer to their imprisoned relatives as having "gone out to work." Wives quietly plant rows of cabbage, waiting for their jailed smuggler husbands to return. Among those imprisoned are the Zeng brothers, Guangkun and Guangbing, who joined the people-trafficking business in 1998. Within months they made so much money that they replaced the mud-brick fašade of their house with gleaming white tiles and built their 79-year-old mother a new kitchen. Now the brothers' wives and four children idle in the remodeled house, knowing that the pair could be executed for their role in the baby trade. "My brothers were just helping these women," says the pair's younger brother. "The mothers should be allowed to do what they want with their children. All they want is for them to have a good life."
Despite their parents' best hopes, not all of the children make it to a better life. As soon as they are old enough, some are handed off to work in factories in China's booming south. The prettiest girls can end up in underage brothels, or as child brides for poor farmers who cannot attract more suitable wives. And even if they do find loving homes, these kids are joining the legion of hei haizi, or "black children," who do not have legal residence permits and therefore cannot qualify for government subsidies and schools. Officially, they do not exist-unless a cadre can be persuaded to complete the requisite paperwork needed for university places, jobs and passports. Often the needed enticement is cash. In the end, the Chicken Street babies who sold for cheap, cheap may be burdened with a very expensive legacy.