China is investigating whether hundreds of children, most aged between 9 and 16, were sold to factories in the southern province of Guangdong over the past five years to work as virtual slave laborers, state media said Wednesday.

The probe was launched following the publication Monday of an investigative report by Southern Metropolis, a state-run daily newspaper in Guangdong. The report said the children were "sold like cabbages" by their parents to gangs who then sold them off to employment agencies or directly to factories hundreds of miles from their homes.

Most of the children were from Liangshan, a poor farming town in southwestern Sichuan province, and ended up working in factories in Guangdong's Dongguan city as well as Shenzhen and Huizhou, the report said.

The official China Daily newspaper on Wednesday quoted Dongguan spokesman Wang Yongquan as saying that the city's "labor enforcement and trade union will investigate all companies in the town, the labor market and agencies."

He told the newspaper that police had already rescued more than 100 youngsters from rented houses and arrested several people. He gave no additional details.

The probe comes less than a year after Chinese media uncovered that children as young as 8 were abducted or recruited from bus and train stations with false promises of well-paying jobs and sold to brick kilns in central Shanxi province for about $65.

The victims were forced to work almost around the clock, beaten, and deprived of pay, nourishment and basic medical care.

The Southern Metropolis said the children from Liangshan earned as little as 30 cents per hour and were forced to work long hours.

The Guangzhou Daily described following police Tuesday in Dongguan as they questioned young factory workers. One girl named Luo Siqi from Liangshan said she made 50 cents per hour, and she initially claimed to have come to Dongguan on her own.

When told by police that the money she thought she was sending home could not have reached her family, she broke down in tears, the paper said.

"My father and mother sold me; I don't want to go back," Luo was quoted as saying.