IT was Aug. 16, 1989, and a scorching sun had beat down on Beijing all day, turning the city's squat, gray-brick homes into ovens. South of the train station, residents of Flower Market Lane languished on stools and in worn, stone doorways, cooling off in an evening breeze.
At about 9 p.m., a ragged peasant came up the narrow street. Squirming in his arms was a pale baby boy in patched shorts and a grimy blue shirt.
``How much will you sell him for?'' a woman called out from the crowd.
``Eight thousand yuan [$2,150],'' said the man with a Sichuan twang, showing off the boy of about seven months as people milled around. As the two haggled over his price, the baby wailed.
Snatched from a migrant couple at the Beijing Railway Station earlier that day, the dirty, barefoot child joined tens of thousands of abduction victims in China today. (See story, Page 1.)
Children are the most pitiful prey of China's ``people mongers,'' or ren fanzi, who trade in youths and women for huge profits. Sold in remote villages hundreds of miles from home, some change hands repeatedly over months or years.
Offspring of peasant migrants are especially at risk. Often born on the road, the children are trundled from town to town as their parents chase jobs. Of these, a million so-called ``black'' children, born in violation of China's one-child policy, are hidden from authorities by parents who fear fines.
Sleeping in train stations and bus depots, wayfaring children are more easily snared by ``people mongers.'' Some, mainly girls, are sold as slave labor to households or rural sweatshops, where they are subject to beatings and abuse.
Youngsters who are tracked down and rejoin their families may bear deep mental scars from the experience. Others may never know the loving embrace of their real parents.
The barefoot baby on Flower Lane was found by Beijing police before he was sold. But at this writing his parents have still not been located.
Zhao Xiting, a middle-aged officer at Beijing's Chongwenmen police station, was among those who rescued the baby.
``When the masses reported the situation on Flower Lane, we decided we'd better check it out,'' Mr. Zhao said in an interview. ``We wanted to get the whole story, so we brought them in for questioning.''
At first, the Sichuan peasant, Wang Chuanzhong, claimed to be the boy's father. But police grew suspicious when the howling baby quieted after a neighborhood woman took him from Wang's coarse hands.
Soon, Wang confessed to befriending the baby's parents, fellow Sichuanese, that morning. When the parents left to buy food, Wang grabbed their son and hustled off.
Hearing this, Zhao and a dozen other policeman combed the cavernous railway station but failed to find the parents. Witnesses said the couple had searched for their son, but apparently gave up and continued on what Wang said was a journey to mine coal in Shanxi Province.
Back at the police station, officers had a different problem: what to do with a screaming baby in the middle of the night.
``He was filthy, so I cut up a pair of my wife's long underwear to make a diaper,'' said Hao Zhiquan, a police officer who lives with his wife in a tiny, 10-square-yard room off the station's cobblestone courtyard.
Wailing with hunger, the baby rejected a bottle of milk offered by the couple. He had been breast-fed. Finally, he took a few sips from a teaspoon.
`ALL night, nobody here slept,'' recalled Mr. Hao. ``I wrapped the baby in a towel and walked around the courtyard. He would cry, sleep for a half hour, then wake up and cry again.''
The next morning, a female attendant from a small hotel nearby offered to nurse the abducted child. Neighbors came by with armfuls of second-hand clothes and toys.
As days passed with no success in finding his real parents, the nameless baby adjusted to his police station ``home.'' He learned to take milk from a bottle, grew stronger, and smiled. Hao and his wife came to love him as an adopted son.
``A lot of feeling has grown between us,'' said Hao in a recent interview, as the 15-month-old toddler played around his knees.
``The baby lost the love of his mother at only seven months old,'' said Liu Fengling, Hao's wife and a nurse at a nearby hospital. ``We are determined to try to give him that love.''
Rearing the stray boy has been full of challenges, rewards, and, at times, levity. One day when the couple took the baby for a check-up, a doctor asked his name.
``I just blurted out `Pai Chusuo' [police station],'' Hao said. His wife didn't like that idea, and proposed ``Chong Wenmen,'' for the district of Beijing where the baby was discovered.
Other police and neighbors nicknamed the boy Ba Qian, or ``8,000,'' the price asked for the child. Some called him shitou, or ``stone,'' which suggests strength but also sounds like the Chinese for ``picked up.''
``None of these names were very nice,'' said Hao. So he gave the boy his own surname and the given name Yiyuan, meaning ``eternal comfort.''
Caring for the baby has been easier. Hao and his wife work shifts and take turns watching Yiyuan. If they both go out, the station's police take over in rounds.
Whenever Yiyuan sees a man in uniform in the courtyard, he cries out ``Baba!'' (Daddy). ``But he's best with me,'' boasted Hao, accepting a pat on the cheek from Yiyuan.
Every night, Yiyuan sleeps next to Hao and Liu in their narrow bed, which nearly fills their crammed room. To fit on the mattress, Hao lies with his feet at the heads of his wife and foster son.
Old black-and-white execution posters serve as wallpaper. Wedding photos, a wind-up clock, and a few toys are the only other adornments of the musty abode. A single-burner gas stove in a closet-sized room off the courtyard serves as a makeshift, outdoor kitchen.
But little Yiyuan is warm, well-fed, and loved.
``He eats the rice and wears the clothes of 100 families,'' says Chen Liyuan, a Beijing police spokesman, referring to the communal effort to nurture the abducted boy.
Police expect someday to track down Yiyuan's migrant parents and send him back to an itinerant life with them. The thought saddens Hao and his wife, who have offered to formally adopt the boy.
``We feel like we are his parents,'' Hao says. But, as if recalling his line of duty, he adds: ``We must understand the feelings of those who lost their son.''