China suspends officials for 'ignoring' alleged baby abduction

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China has suspended two health officials in a southern county for "ignoring" the case of a baby boy who was allegedly abducted from his parents by local officials in the 1990s.

His parents recently petitioned police in Guangxi province to investigate.

But a local health bureau refused to look into the case, saying he'd been taken away due to "social reallocation" under China's former one-child policy.

The case has sparked outrage against the authorities on social media.

Many online were critical of the strict rules under the one-child policy at the time, calling the incident a "blatant case of human trafficking".

It also comes after recent news of a Chinese mother who was filmed locked up in a village hut, which sparked discussion about human trafficking in China's rural areas.

Earlier this week, a letter from the local health bureau in Quanzhou county went viral on Chinese social media. The letter was written in response to a couple's request for an investigation to be opened into the case of their seventh child, whom they suspected had been abducted in the 1990s.

The couple - surnamed Tang and Deng - had called for police to look into a group of local former officials.

According to local news outlets, the parents said they had never stopped looking for their child, and had sent numerous complaints to various government departments.

On 1 July, the local health bureau replied and said an investigation would not be conducted, as the child had not been abducted, but taken away by the then authorities for "social reallocation".

The authority also added there was no record of the "whereabouts of children who were reallocated for the convenience of family planning work rolled out across the country", according to state media outlet the Global Times.

The letter quickly went viral, as many condemned the policy and others highlighted the use of the term "social reallocation".

"What do they mean social reallocation? Isn't this human trafficking?" one person asked. Others shared personal stories of how their families had been affected over the decades by the now-abandoned one-child policy which was introduced in 1979 to slow China's booming population growth.

Former editor in chief of the Global Times Hu Xijin was among those who weighed in on the matter, calling out the "indifferent" language used in the government statement and how the incident had gone on to stir a "public crisis".

In an interview with news site Caixin, the child's mother claimed that the family had already paid some fines to their local official for having more than one child. Yet her child was taken away despite this, she alleges.

The hashtag #QuanzhouOverBornKidCaseBeenReportedtoGovernment gained almost 60 million views as millions online began discussing the case and backlash ensued.

On 5 July, the Guilin People's Government - the administration which Quanzhou falls under - put out a letter saying the Quanzhou health bureau had "improperly handled a petition that aroused social concern".

They added that an investigation into the case would be opened, and that the director and deputy director of the health bureau would be suspended for ignoring the petition and for "administrative inaction".

Under the one-child policy imposed in 1979, and later the two-child policy, families faced hefty fines and other punishments for having more children.

The government generally enforced it by providing financial and employment incentives to those who complied, making contraceptives widely available and fining those who violated the rules.

More coercive measures such as forced abortions and mass sterilizations were also used at times.

According to a New York Times report in 2011, at least 16 children were seized by family planning officials between 1999 and late 2006. The report alleges that local government officials used the babies as a "source of revenue", often putting them up for adoption if their families could not pay the fines. How widespread this kind of behaviour by officials was is not clear.

To try to arrest a steep decline in birth rates, on 1 January 2016 China scrapped its one-child policy for a two-child policy. That was scrapped in 2021, allowing couples to have up to three children but these moves have failed to arrest the slowdown in births.