FUPING, China — Dong Genlao, a 24-year-old new father, was giddy over the birth of his child, a robust 8-pounder, until the obstetrician beckoned him into the hallway and lowered her voice.
The newborn had a serious genital deformity and could never lead a normal life, she explained.
“He is not completely male, but not female. It will bring shame on the family,” whispered the doctor, Zhang Shuxia, a trusted family friend whom they affectionately called “Auntie.” “Don’t worry,” Dong recalled Zhang telling him. “Auntie can help you.”
She advised that Dong and his mother give up the baby, euphemistically, to let him be euthanized, a hidden but widely acknowledged practice in rural China.
In fact, Chinese police believe that Zhang tricked Dong into abandoning the baby so she could sell it. The 55-year-old obstetrician at Fuping County Maternal and Child Healthcare Hospital was arrested last month and charged Aug. 9 with trafficking newborns as far back as 2006, when Dong’s baby was born.
As many as 55 possible baby thefts from the hospital are under investigation, with Zhang a principal suspect in half of them, according to police statements.
Child trafficking is a huge problem in rural China, where babies are sometimes snatched from their parents’ arms and sold to couples unable to conceive or who desperately want a boy. In December, the Public Security Ministry said it had rescued 54,000 children since April 2009, when a nationwide campaign against trafficking began.
Zhang’s arrest has devastated families in villages near Fuping, a county of 800,000 in northern China’s Shaanxi province, famous for its apple orchards. The doctor, who grew up nearby, has delivered many babies in the area, as did her mother, also an obstetrician.
Her method, authorities and victims say, was cruel and effective: convincing families that their babies were dead or dying, or afflicted with incurable diseases or congenital deformities. She allegedly played off attitudes toward the disabled in rural China, where a lack of support and restrictions on the size of families can make people reluctant to raise a child with disabilities.
Police say the doctor’s victims were often friends and neighbors, forced to make heart-wrenching decisions about whether their babies should live or die, thus becoming complicit in their purported deaths. Zhang, the families say, even charged them a fee of about $10 to dispose of the corpses.
Zhang is believed to have frequently preyed on the fears of the grandparents, who in the Chinese countryside are desperate for healthy grandchildren to carry on the family line. The mothers were frequently left out of the loop.
The doctor was detained after one young couple, whose son was born July 16, contacted police.
They said they had been told by Zhang that their baby had hepatitis B and syphilis transmitted through the mother. The husband and wife initially accused each other of infidelity, then went to another doctor, who examined them and found them free of the diseases.
Police recently raided a home 300 miles away in adjacent Henan province where a family is believed to have purchased the baby from traffickers for nearly $10,000. Zhang’s cut was reported to be $3,500, according to police reports in the official press. The baby was reunited with his parents two weekends ago.
Police have also recovered twin girls born at the hospital in May, saying they were sold, separately, at slightly lower prices — girls being the less favored gender in China.
Dong, a polite man, sounds more incredulous than angry when speaking about Zhang.
His family knew the doctor through her younger sister, who lived a block away. Zhang would give free prenatal exams for villagers who didn’t want to travel to the county seat 25 miles away. Dong’s family liked her so much they would take a gift of steamed bread when they had their checkups.
“She seemed like a very warm person. Tall, strong, smart, but down to earth,” he said. “We absolutely trusted her and she tricked us.”
Five people have been arrested on suspicion of being accomplices to Zhang, and families think others may also have been involved. Zhang was well-connected in local government: Her husband is a recently retired county official and the couple’s son works in the county’s legal affairs department.
The maternity hospital, which opened in 1996, has a staff of 120 doctors and treats 20,000 patients a year, according to its website.
The allegations are particularly embarrassing from a symbolic standpoint because Fuping is best known as the ancestral home of President Xi Jinping, whose father, Xi Zhongxun, an early Communist Party revolutionary, was born here.
“It is a disgrace for the hometown of our president that they could not protect us,” raged Luo Sanliang, a 57-year-old carpenter, who believes his granddaughter was sold by Zhang. “This was a government-run hospital, directly under the control of the county. … Zhang was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but I blame authorities too.”
Zhang was a high school classmate of Luo’s wife and used their friendship, he says, to persuade the family in 2006 to give up their granddaughter, born just two weeks premature, saying she would be severely disabled.
“After four days, she saw us at the hospital and said, ‘Why haven’t you given up on that baby yet?’ ” recalled Luo. “She brainwashed us. We took the baby out of the incubator and left her on the bed.”
The decision to let the baby die devastated the family. “I’m a criminal. I looked into that baby’s eyes,” he said. His daughter-in-law didn’t agree with the decision and barely speaks to him now.
Fan Ningning, 30, who works in a small grocery store, says the entire maternity hospital was under Zhang’s control and that other doctors dared not disagree with her. Fan gave birth to two premature infants that Zhang told her to abandon in 2008 and 2009. Both were about eight weeks premature and weighed about 4 pounds.
“I thought she was big enough and I begged Dr. Zhang to put her in the incubator,” Fan said of the girl born in 2008. “But she said the baby couldn’t survive.”
After a similar experience the next year with a boy of the same size, she switched hospitals. She gave birth to a son in 2011, about seven weeks early.
“He was just about the same size, maybe a little bigger, but nobody at the hospital suggested I abandon him. They put him in the incubator for two weeks and he was fine,” Fan said.
A generation ago, unwanted babies in rural China were dumped in a well or smothered. Zhang Wei of the Enable Disability Studies Institute, a Beijing-based advocate for the disabled, said a disabled child still makes life very difficult for rural families.
“The whole burden comes down on the family. There is nobody to help them, no money and no education about what they can do, so they abandon the baby,” Zhang Wei said.
Dong, the young father, said the doctor kept up a drumbeat, recounting terrifying stories of families that were ruined financially looking for a cure for the child’s condition.
Many families say they simply left their babies behind with the doctor. Dong, though, said he carried the baby out of the hospital himself at 8 p.m., after night had fallen, and followed Zhang’s instructions to leave him in a box set outside.
“I was worried that the baby would get cold and I kept coming back to look. After 30 minutes, I saw the baby was gone,” he recalled. “I wanted to find out later where he was buried so I could go to the grave, but they wouldn’t tell me.”
Until a few weeks ago, Dong hadn’t told his wife, Wang Xiaojuan, what had happened. “She’s too weak from childbirth. Just tell her the baby stopped breathing,” he says Zhang instructed him.
With Zhang’s arrest, Dong was forced to tell his wife what he had done. The couple, who now work in southern China, he in a building management office and she in a garment factory, rushed back to Fuping to give a statement to police. They’ve also given blood samples in the hope that DNA testing can someday identify their boy. Police have promised to look for him, although they say that babies stolen years ago are harder to track down.
“My eyes are swollen crying every day when I think about what happened,” Wang said. She said she had forgiven her husband and now wants to move forward.
“Now it is too late to be angry. We just have to find our baby,” she said softly.