CHANGNING, China — The telephones kept ringing with more orders, and although Duan Yuelin kept raising his prices, the demand was inexhaustible. Customers were so eager to buy more that they would ply him with expensive gifts and dinners in fancy restaurants.
His family-run business was racking up sales of as much as $3,000 a month, unimaginable riches for uneducated rice farmers from the southern Chinese province of Hunan.
What merchandise was he selling? Babies. And the customers were government-run orphanages that paid up to $600 each for newborn girls for adoption in the United States and other Western countries.
"They couldn't get enough babies. The demand kept going up and up, and so did the prices," recalled Duan, who was released from prison last month after serving about four years of a six-year sentence for child trafficking.
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Hunched over a gas stove that barely took the chill out of the ground-floor apartment where he lives with his parents, Duan offered a rare window on the inner workings of a "mom-and-pop" baby-trafficking ring run by members of his family and an illiterate garbage collector with a habit of picking up abandoned babies.
From 2001 to 2005, the ring sold 85 baby girls to six orphanages in Hunan.
His story, which is backed up by hundreds of pages of documents gathered in his 2006 court case, shed light on the secretive process that has seen tens of thousands of girls born dirt-poor and unwanted in the Chinese countryside growing up in America with names like Kelly and Emily.
"Definitely, all the orphanages gave money for babies," said the 38-year-old Duan.
At first, Duan said, his family members assumed they weren't breaking the law because the babies were going to a government-run orphanage. It had been an accepted practice among peasant families to sell unwanted children to other families.
But the police didn't see it that way. Chinese law had been strengthened in 1991 to clearly prohibit the "buying, selling, transfer and transit of children for the purpose to sell."
Duan and five members of his family — two younger sisters, his wife, sister-in-law and brother-in-law — were all convicted in 2006 of child trafficking. The others remain in prison. Only Duan was released, on the grounds that he needed to support his aging parents.
It began in 1993 when Chen Zhejin, Duan's mother, and the two sisters who remain in jail were hired for $1 a day to take care of babies for the orphanage in Changning, a town adjacent to the larger city of Hengyang.
At the time, the Communist Party's campaign to limit population size was running strong, and overly zealous cadres would sometimes demolish the houses of families that had more than one child (two for peasants if the first was a girl, because rural families wanted boys to carry on the family name).
It is illegal in China to abandon a baby, even at an orphanage, so people would discard their unwanted daughters in the dark of night in cardboard boxes or bamboo baskets. If the baby was left near an orphanage, they would often light a firecracker as a signal for the staff to find the baby and bring her inside to safety.
Because Chen worked for the orphanage, rural people sometimes asked her to take their unwanted babies to the orphanage. The orphanage would accept some, not all; they didn't have the caretakers or formula for all the babies.
Then, in 1996 and 1997, the orphanages around Hunan began to participate in a fast-growing program that was sending thousands of baby girls abroad for adoption. For each baby adopted, the orphanage would receive a donation from the adoptive parents of $3,000.
Now, instead of rejecting the babies, the orphanage director was begging Chen to bring in as many as she could, even offering to pay her expenses and then some.
"Do us a favor, auntie," she says the director told her. "Bring us all the abandoned babies you can find."
Five other orphanages opened nearby and were making the same request. By 2000, however, the supply of babies was drying up.
Rising incomes, changing attitudes toward girls and weaker enforcement of the one-child policy had combined to stem the widespread dumping of baby girls.
But foreign adoptions were in full swing, with more than 5,000 babies heading to the United States in 2000 alone.
"It used to be that you'd get 50 or 100 yuan ($6 or $12) per baby, then 700 or 800, but there was more demand and fees kept rising and they'd bring in babies from other provinces," Duan said.
One such place was neighboring Guangdong, the manufacturing hub of China, with a large population of migrant workers who often couldn't keep their babies.
The Duan family saw opportunity. They started buying up the babies to sell to the orphanages back in Hunan.
The family insists that even if they broke the law, the babies have had a better life as a result.
"Many of those babies would have died if nobody took them in. I took good care of the babies," said the mother, Chen. "You can be the judge — am I a bad person for what I did?"