The search for China's stolen children

Government estimates that between 30,000 and 60,000 children are abducted every year by child-smuggling rings

By: Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail
December 25, 2009

Shenzhen, China — On a commercial street in the west end of this bustling border city, Sun Haiyang's dumpling stand silently cries out a father's grief.

“On Oct. 9, 2007, my 31/2-year-old son Zhou was stolen from the front of this store,” reads a yellow sign that hangs over pots of meat dumplings and steamed buns. “Anyone who gives me any information, even [if they are] a trafficker of children, I won't hold them responsible. I will pay the 200,000 yuan reward for any news. I just want to know where my son is.”

The tiny shop – renamed the “200,000 Yuan Reward For Finding My Son Store” – is plastered with tattered photographs. Most show a chubby-cheeked Zhou grinning for the camera or riding his tricycle. Others are fuzzy screen captures from closed-circuit television showing the man Mr. Sun believes kidnapped his son. The middle-aged man is holding out a toy car that he used to lure Zhou away from the shop while his father worked just a few metres away.

Mr. Sun believes Zhou is among the tens of thousands of Chinese children who disappear each year into the human-trafficking trade.

“We didn't pay attention to [Zhou] while we were busy cleaning. We had just arrived [in Shenzhen] and didn't know that some people were stealing children,” Mr. Sun recounted, his voice flat and emotionless. “My neighbour saw a fortyish man give a toy truck to my son. They were happily talking together and then he took my child walking north. My neighbour thought [the man] was my relative because my son seemed very happy with him.”

Such cases are astonishingly common in China, where the government estimates that between 30,000 and 60,000 children are abducted every year by child-smuggling rings. Many are sold onwards to mines and factories looking for cheap labour or families who, partly because of China's one-child policy, are desperate for a male heir.

Most of those who go missing are boys, who reportedly can fetch upwards of $5,000 on the black market, while girls are said to sometimes sell for as little as $500. While most of those kidnapped are trafficked within China, some are sold abroad to Southeast Asia and occasionally onwards to North America.

Public anger in China at the trade is such that an innocent bookseller was recently lynched, and four of his companions were badly injured, when a mob in eastern Zhejiang province attacked them after rumours spread that the men had come to kidnap children from the village.

Parents of the missing have received a charge of hope this year from a government campaign that has resulted in the rescue of 2,169 kidnapped children, some only a few months in age, others now as old as 25. Many were so young when they were kidnapped that they have few memories of their real families, forcing the government to post their pictures on a reunion website titled “Babies looking for home.”

In a further sign of Beijing's determination to crack down on the child-trafficking trade, the Supreme People's Court last month sentenced two men to death for their role in the kidnapping and trafficking of 15 children.

But in southern Guangdong province, where China's child-snatching problem is at its most rampant, Mr. Sun and other parents believe the local police are as much a part of the problem as the solution. Children in the factory towns of China's Pearl River Delta are seen as easier prey because their parents often work long hours, and are too poor to afford child care, forcing them to leave their children to play outside by themselves.

The situation in Shenzhen is so tense following a spate of recent kidnappings in the city that many young parents have taken to leaving work early so they can pick their children up directly from school. At least 23 children have been kidnapped in the city so far this year, three of whom were killed, leading even some government officials to slam police for their inaction.

Mr. Sun said Shenzhen police have seemed disinterested in his case since the beginning and only came to examine the evidence, including the CCTV video he obtained from a neighbour's store, seven days after his son was abducted. “For the last two years, they haven't provided any useful information or a clue [about the man seen kidnapping his son in the video]. They said if I knew the name of the man, it would be helpful. Ha! If I knew it, what would I need policemen to do?”

Indeed, local police seem more interested in covering up Guangdong's human-trafficking problem than in trying to find the missing. Mr. Sun and other parents were physically prevented from meeting with The Globe and Mail in person by police officers who placed them under effective house arrest on the day they were scheduled to be interviewed. Speaking later by telephone, a defiant Mr. Sun said he had been warned not to “wash dirty linen in public.”

“I think the reason why so many kids were trafficked is the poor work of the police. Their inattention indulges the abuses of the traffickers,” said Deng Huidong, a mother in the nearby city of Dongguan whose nine-month-old son, Ye Ruicong, was stolen right before her eyes two years ago and bundled into a white van that sped away. Ms. Deng pursued the van herself on motorbike for several blocks before spotting a police car she decided to ask for help. After briefly giving chase, the officer pulled over and told her it was the end of his shift, she said. She was dropped at the police station, where she was told to go home and wait in case the kidnappers contacted her with a ransom demand. They never did.

Since then, she said, the police have done little to help her, but prevented her from placing a missing-child advertisement on television because they told her it would “have a very bad impact on society.” Police in both Shenzhen and neighbouring Guangzhou refused to meet with The Globe or answer faxed questions about the issue.

Mr. Sun, who is part of and ad-hoc group for parents of missing children, said other Guangdong parents tried going to Beijing to petition the central government, only to be lured back by police claiming to have found new clues. He recounted the story of one parent who was told to travel to Anhui province to help with a new lead in his son's case, only to discover there was no new evidence and that he had fallen for a ruse designed to keep him from reaching Beijing.

“In the past, the authorities' work against trafficking was not strong enough,” said a Guangzhou volunteer who helps police track down missing children, often by posing on the Internet as an interested buyer. Speaking on the condition that his name not be used, he said the government's efforts have improved since the crackdown was launched in the spring, but said the problem persists because there are many parties interested in buying children.

“The source of the problem is there is a market for kids. There are people buying hence there are people trying to sell. Some regions have local customs that make parents prefer boys. Some families that have an ‘extra' girl may try to sell the girl and get a boy through illegal ways. Other kids are sold to be professional beggars in street,” the volunteer said.

With or without police help, Mr. Sun says he intends to devote all his time to looking for his son. His wife says neither of them have had much interest in running their dumpling business since Zhou disappeared.

“I would sell all of my property – even the house in my home village – for a clue about where he is,” Mr. Sun said. “I have a hundred questions in my mind about what happened to him. Even if I could find out where he is and if he's being treated well, I would give up trying to bring him back to my side. But right now I don't even know if he's in China or somewhere else.”

With a report from Yu Mei in Beijing


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