A huge operation involving 10,000 police officers has broken up a child-trafficking ring operating in 15 Chinese provinces, leading to the arrest of 802 people, after babies were being auctioned off to the highest bidder for up to £5,000 each.
Chinese state television showed pictures of a child being taken away from a woman who had allegedly bought it. Suspects and other rescued children were also shown being detained by police.
The ministry said 181 children were freed during the raids, which took place simultaneously in provinces across China, from Yunnan in the south-west to Hebei in the north.
Human trafficking is a major problem in China. There is a traditional preference for boys over girls, especially in rural areas, and there has been a spike in the number of young boys being kidnapped.
And with the country’s one-child policy to control population growth still in effect, there are also reports of families in rural areas selling their baby girls for cash, allowing them to try again for a boy.
According to reports yesterday, one of those arrested was a doctor at a clinic in Hebei who organised a trade in which women sold their children for up to 50,000 yuan (£5,000), with the price dependent on the baby’s gender and health and its parents’ appearance.
An unidentified police officer told the Xinhua news agency that police were managing to contain child trafficking, but the practice was still prominent in some areas, and the police would continue their policy of zero tolerance.
One suspected child trafficker, Shao Zhongyuan, who has been linked to a gang that trafficked more than 100 children, was arrested in Shandong.
Girls who are kidnapped are often sold into prostitution, and in one high-profile case last year, the police broke up a gang that was trafficking women to Angola. In that raid, 19 women were rescued and 16 suspects were apprehended.
Girls and women also are abducted to be used as labourers or as brides for unwed sons, because the one-child policy has seen a massive discrepancy in the ratio between the number of boys and girls.
China started a campaign in 2009 to combat trafficking, and last year, police rescued more than 24,000 kidnapped women and children nationwide.
Abductions and human trafficking have become serious public concerns after a string of revelations in recent years, including a shocking 2007 scandal in which thousands including children as young as eight were forced into slave labour in brickworks and mines across the nation.
Courts usually give out harsh punishments – including the death sentence – to convicted traffickers.