Child trafficking has become big business in China. Malcolm Moore meets the parents of victims, and talks to campaigners using the internet to reunite families.
It was midnight when Wu Xinghu and his wife finally persuaded their one-year-old son to go to sleep, tucking him carefully into the corner of their bed, against the wall so that he would not roll out.
Two hours later, Mr Wu woke up feeling groggy and uneasy. He looked to the other side of the bed for his son, but it was empty. He got up to check on the floor, but the boy was not there either. At the far end of the room, the door was wide open.
“I rushed out without even thinking to put any clothes on,” he said. “But when I saw the main gate of our house was also open, I felt sick. I knew Jiacheng, our son, had been stolen.”
Two years on, as he recalled that night in December, his wife Yan Nana sat next to their bed, inconsolable.
“You can see that our bed is flush against the corner of the room,” said Mr Wu. “And along the bottom, we put boxes and chairs to make sure that the baby would not crawl out and fall. Whoever stole him must have stepped across our bodies as we slept.”
There are no statistics for the black industry of child-trafficking in China. But it has been estimated that as many as 70,000 children are sold by gangs each year. Police confirmed that they saved 6,000 of them in 2010.
China’s traditions, particularly in the South, place huge pressure on families to have a son, and heir, and there are families who are willing to pay up to £10,000 for a baby boy they can raise as their own. The authorities are often complicit: it usually only costs a few hundred pounds to register a new identity for a stolen child.
In recent years, according to the Chinese media, child abduction has become “industrialised”, with entire villages serving as hubs through which children are “processed”, most being sold to families, but some ending up on the street as beggars.
Mr Wu’s home county, on the dusty yellow plains of Shaanxi not far from Chairman Mao’s revolutionary base of Yan’an, has become an easy source for the traffickers. On Valentine’s Day, a two-year-old boy was stolen from the next-door town. On the street, parents now keep a tight hold of their kids.
“Our village is poor,” said Mr Wu. “If you left a car outside, it would be stripped of wheels, petrol and its battery by the morning.” He said that tighter policing in the South over the past few years had driven the child-snatching gangs North and inland.
“Everyone in the village is terrified. We have all put bars on all the windows and installed burglar alarms. Unfortunately, we did not have them earlier. That is how the thief got in,” he said, pointing to a set of rubber shoe marks on a window at the front of his house.
A few days before his son was snatched, a black four-wheel drive had parked on the other side of the dusty street from the house, next to the village’s communal toilet. “A man got out and asked my neighbour whether our baby was a boy or girl,” said Mr Wu, handing over a composite image of the man that the villagers had drawn up.
However, when the Mr Wu’s went to the local police station, they were told there was little that could be done.
“The police actually laughed at us,” said Mr Wu. “They said: ‘You and your wife are ugly, why would anyone want to steal your child?’ They blamed us for not looking after him better.”
For the police, and for the victims, it seems an impossible task to sift through China’s 1.3 billion people, spread out across a country that spans more than 3,000 miles, to find a single child.
“From the beginning, I was determined to find my boy,” said Mr Wu. “I knew I would be able to recognise him from his eyes. But at times I did not know what to do. My wife and I even resorted to selling toys outside the gates of a kindergarten in Fujian province, one of the most likely destinations for stolen kids, just in the hope that fate would reunite us.”
To carry on his search, he quit his job as a coal miner and borrowed more than £11,000 from his relatives, a sum he admitted he will find almost impossible to pay back.
For years, there has been not only inertia from the authorities, but an active attempt to play down the problem. The local police, fearful of criticism, chased away television reporters when they first came to interview Mr Wu.
In Shenzhen, a southern city of more than 10 million people, the police told him they only had three missing children cases on their books, before detaining him and forcing him to leave. He faced similar harassment in Dongguan, another notorious destination for traffickers.
Now, however, technology is making a difference. Since the beginning of the month there has been a new blaze of interest in the issue, thanks to the Sina Weibo website, China’s homegrown version of Twitter.
Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, set up a site on Weibo at the end of January asking the public to send in photographs of child beggars, in the hope that their parents would recognise them. More than 2,700 pictures have been posted since and the site has a readership of more than 240,000.
The enormous public response has spurred the Chinese media to focus on the issue, although the government has now ordered newspapers to reduce their coverage.
“After we set up the site, several hundred abducted children have been rescued by police, and three have been reunited with their families,” said Hou Zhihui, a volunteer. “We are now going to make it a long term project and build a database.”
Another website, simply named Baby Come Home, now has 300,000 readers a day, according to its founder, Zhang Baoyan, a 48-year-old married businesswoman who has become a focal point for parents and is now advising the government on how to tackle the problem.
“In the past, the police had to have firm evidence of abduction before they could file a case, otherwise they were labelled as missing persons,” she said. “Now the police have to investigate as soon as they receive a report, and many kidnappers have been caught early in the process.”
In addition, the government has pledged to build a national DNA database, which has already helped 900 families find their children.
Peng Gaofeng, 32, is one of the lucky ones. His three-year-old son, Wenle, was snatched on the street in March 2008 in the southern city of Shenzhen, but was spotted and reunited with his parents earlier this month. Images of Peng weeping with joy have been broadcast across China, and he has promised not to prosecute the couple who bought the boy and even to allow them visiting rights.
“I cannot describe how I felt when we found him,” he said. “After years of pain, I suddenly felt an extreme happiness. It just hit me suddenly. However, I am going to keep helping other parents search for their children. I am convinced things are getting better.”
“The media coverage has been a good thing,” said Sun Haiyang, 34, whose three-and-a-half year-old son Sun Zhuo was snatched in 2007 while he was working at a stall selling steamed buns in Shenzhen.
“It used to be that parents could only post small notes in public places to search for their child, and often gave up looking. Now the newspapers, the television and the internet are all focusing on the missing children. I heard the issue will also be raised at the National People’s Congress in Beijing next month. I believe I will one day find my child.”
Since he began searching for his son, Mr Sun has amassed a contact list of more than 3,000 other parents, all of whom help each other to look.
Another victim, Guo Gangtang, has helped to bring seven children back to their families on his seven-year journey across China to find his own son.
“In the beginning, we went to the fortune teller for help. We live in the countryside and there are still superstitious beliefs here. But I quickly found out that was total nonsense and after that I have been more systematic,” said Mr Guo.
“I began asking relatives and friends in other provinces to spread the word and to send me information. I trawled through local newspapers to learn about other abduction cases, and to find the names of the criminals. I then started going to the provinces where the cases had happened and meeting the anti-abduction teams in the police.”
Mr Wu also has a small notebook bulging with the phone numbers of other parents, and a folder of photographs that he carries with him whenever he gets a tip-off. “I show everyone I meet all the photos in the hope I can help others,” he said.
During our interview, his phone rang repeatedly. One family wanted him to help them get on television to plead for their child. Another man said he had spotted a child who looked like Mr Wu’s son in Guizhou province.
Mr Wu, however, was cautious of the tip. “We will only go once we have checked it out with other sources,” he said. “We cannot afford to travel on every tip-off only to be disappointed.”
In past, he and other parents have been tricked by conmen who claim to have found their children. “One man sent me what I now see is a doctored photograph and said he would return my son for £1,000. I managed to wire him £300 but I never heard from him again,” said Mr Wu.
After two years of searching, the 31-year-old has deep worry lines etched into his forehead and a generous smattering of prematurely white hair. His 50-year-old father had suffered a stroke, he said, because of the shock of the abduction. Meanwhile his wife, 27-year-old Yan Nana, has had another child, a four-month old girl named Jiaqi, or Good Miracle, whose birth has helped to hold the couple together.
“After our son was taken, I asked my wife for a divorce,” he said. “I knew I would be away searching for my boy and she was young, she could find happiness with someone else.”
In the weeks after the abduction, his wife took to stuffing their son’s clothes and placing a ball on top of them to look like a head. “She would hold the bundle like a doll, pretending it was him,” he said.
“In the end, our parents persuaded us to have another child, to help her take her mind off what had happened. Even now, we do not dare to talk about what may have happened to Jiacheng. We barely talk at all.”
By Malcolm Moore, Taochi village, Shaanxi province 6:00AM GMT 20 Feb 2011
Source: The Telegraph