BEIJING -- Liu Shiming, a 22-year-old unemployed laborer in rural Sichuan province, went to the big city to seek his fortune -- and ended up finding it by selling his wife, daughter and mother into a modern-day form of slavery.
Mr. Liu's story -- recounted in graphic detail last weekend in the state-run Workers' Daily newspaper under the headline "Crime Driven by Money Lust" -- underscores growing official concern about the re-emergence of an age-old problem in China: the abduction and sale of thousands of women and children each year to peasants seeking brides and extra laborers.
In Mr. Liu's case, his trade in human flesh began almost a decade ago when he met a "smartly dressed fellow" in Chungking, the large industrial center in southwestern China. The man gave him about $340 to recruit two unmarried girls from his home village for transport to Shandong province in northeastern China for "factory work."
"How much money can I earn in this world from year to year, under the sun and rain, with hardships?" Mr. Liu reportedly concluded, once his new wealth was in hand. "Why should I not take the shortcut?
"Girls are a special bank. If one is sold, the problem of food is solved. If two are sold, you can build a new house. After selling several girls, I will be well-off," he calculated.
Over the next eight years, according to the newspaper, this logic led Mr. Liu to abduct and sell 18 other Sichuan women and children. They included his own wife, for whom he got about $265 in Shandong province, and his 3-year-old daughter and his mother, both of whom he sold off in Hebei province, just south of Beijing.
Before he was arrested and executed, the paper said, Mr. Liu's slave trade earned him more than $1,600.
These sordid tales are the sort of morality plays that hard-liners within China's divided top leadership tend to trot out when they want to attack what they consider "unhealthy social trends" stemming from Deng Xiaoping's economic and social reforms of the 1980s.
In that vein, the abduction of women and children has been one of "six evils" under almost constant attack in a heavily anti-Western political campaign launched against "bourgeois liberalization" since shortly after the bloody crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement here.
One official report last year estimated that almost 10,000 women and children are sold off each year around the nation. Another report last week in a Hong Kong newspaper put the annual nationwide total of abductions uncovered by Chinese police at 40,000 cases.
The women and children, typically from densely populated, impoverished rural areas in China's south and southwest, are often sold to relatively well-off northern peasants for about $350 to $800 each, Chinese press reports indicate.
In a culture in which parents have traditionally not valued daughters and have sold them into marriage in exchange for goods and money, there is a long-standing basis for this sort of now-illegal activity.
These transactions and big, expensive weddings strongly re-emerged as social customs with China's economic liberalization of the 1980s, so some newly well-off peasants have found that buying a bride can be cheaper than marrying a local woman.
The flesh trade also appears to be fueled by China's one-child-per-family policy. That policy, coupled with the traditional preference for sons, has resulted in an extreme shortage of women in some areas.
According to recent census figures, male births outnumber female births by a suspiciously large margin, giving some credence to allegations that some infant girls are killed shortly after birth or simply kept hidden from officials.
With the trade in women and children driven by such traditional and demographic imperatives as well as large profits, top officials' efforts to crack down have been, by their own admission, inadequate.
Even when apprehended, many flesh traders walk away unpunished.