Zhang Shuxia
Zhang Shuxia, an obstetrician involved in baby trafficking REUTERS/China Daily

Police in China have rescued 382 babies from the clutches of four separate baby trafficking rings which each utilised the internet. The rings operated under apparently innocent names such as "Dream Adoption Home" and "China's Orphan Network". 1,094 people were arrested in operations in 27 cities nationwide.

Security ministry criminal investigation bureau deputy director Liu Ancheng told reporters: "The criminals build up their platforms through the internet, and engage in trafficking activities under the veil of baby adoption. They are operating in secrecy. They have no boundaries and their networks are spreading."

Parents found guilty of either buying or selling children face more severe penalties, but despite the recent relaxation of the state's "one-child policy" there remains a serious shortage of girls, who for many years have been more likely to be sold, aborted or abandoned. There is increasing demand for girls to be taken and eventually become brides in order to attract rich dowries.

The problem of child trafficking was highlighted by the case of 55-year-old Zhang Shuxia, who earlier this year was found guilty of selling seven newborn babies for up to £2,200. An obstetrician at a hospital in Shaanxi, Shuxia told parents their babies had congenital problems and asked them to give them up.

Weinan Intermediate People's Court said on its website: "Zhang used her position as medical personnel to fabricate reports about the infants, saying they suffered from birth defects or diseases that were hard to cure. She abducted and sold several new-born infants, violating professional and social ethics."

Zhang was given a death sentence suspended for two years. This usually means her sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment.

Although many babies are sold by desperate parents facing extreme poverty, parents have also been warned of the dangers of kidnappers posing as hospital nurses or even waiting outside schools in vans or on motorbikes waiting to flee with snatched children.