BEIJING -- Chinese police arrested 608 suspects and rescued 178 children in busts of two separate child trafficking networks, authorities said Wednesday.
The Ministry of Public Security said prosecutors were preparing cases against the suspects, suggesting charges have yet to be filed.
Its statement posted online said 5,000 police across 10 provinces cooperated for six months on the investigation and moved in to arrest the suspects last week.
Child trafficking is big problem in China, where traditional preference for male heirs and a strict one-child policy has driven a thriving market in baby boys, who fetch a considerably higher price than girls. Girls and women also are abducted and used as laborers or as brides for unwed sons.
Tens of thousands of children go missing every year, though the exact numbers of victims are difficult to obtain.
The rescued children will be put into orphanages while authorities try to reunite them with their families, the ministry said. It didn't give the age range of the abducted children or other specifics.
State broadcaster CCTV aired footage showing female police officers cradling babies in their arms. The footage also showed more than a dozen suspects handcuffed and escorted by officers, or lined up outside a building in Fujian province.
Families who bought trafficked children would be forbidden from keeping them, a ministry official told CCTV.
"Those who have paid for these children must be punished by losing both the child and the money, so that the market shrinks gradually and eventually, the number of child trafficking cases will be substantially reduced," Chen Shiqu, director of the ministry's human trafficking department, was quoted as saying.
An investigation into a traffic accident in south China's Sichuan province in May led police to the first ring, which was allegedly selling children abducted or bought in Sichuan to buyers in central China's Hebei province and elsewhere. The ring had links to at least 26 gangs nationwide, the ministry said.
The second ring was uncovered in August and was based in southeast China's Fujian province and led by a female suspect identified as Chen Xiumei.
The statement said police have cracked more than 7,000 gangs or rings that sold women or children since a special campaign against human trafficking started in April 2009. It said 18,518 children and 34,813 women have been rescued.