Abandoned children at an orphanage in Shanghai (Reuters)

The Chinese government has banned people from privately adopting babies that have been abandoned.

Beijing has made it illegal for individuals and groups to secretly adopt dumped babies. Would-be adoptive parents must go through official channels and meet a series of government requirements before they would be allowed to adopt.

"Adopting and handling abandoned infants at one's own will is forbidden," a joint circular from multiple Chinese government departments said.

Children found abandoned must be reported tp the police immediately, the circular added.

People found to be using abandoned children for profitable and illegal purposes would be "severely punished", the state-run Xinhua news agency said.

The circular ordered police to make more effort to find the biological parents of dumped children. Children who could not be reunited with their natural parents had to be transferred to government-sanctioned nursing homes.

Propsective adoptive parents must be over 30, childless and healthy.

Hundreds of thousands of girls are abandoned every year with families preferring boys (Reuters)

Child abandonment is a major problem in China. In most urban areas, couples are allowed to have only one baby.

In the countryside, couples can have two children if their firstborn is a girl but boys are preferred in China for cultural and historic reasons. Boys carry on the family name, for example, while girls need a dowry to be married off.

"Raising a daughter is like watering someone else's fields," goes a Chinese saying. Girls are also sometimes referred to as "maggots in the rice".

Tens of thousands of girls are abandoned every year and baby trafficking is a growing problem. Disabled children are also regularly abandoned, while poverty and social stigma can result in neglect.

Zhou Xiaozheng, of Renmin University's School of Society and Population Studies, welcomed the ban but said the government would also expect to profit from the law change.

"It's good for the government to strengthen its management of abandoned children. It will also bring revenue to the government because any potential adopters must pay a handsome adoption fee," said Zhou.