BEIJING // An internet campaign to help parents in China find their missing children has become a sensation, shining a light on child abductions and the growing power of the country's Twitter-like web services.
A microblog account on the portal Sina.com swept into the national spotlight this week when it was used to help reunite a young father with his six-year-old son, who had been missing for three years after being kidnapped.
The emotional reunion of Peng Gaofeng, 30, with his son Peng Wenle was captured on video, and the footage quickly went viral. The boy's identity was still to be confirmed by DNA tests.
Since then, hopeful parents of missing children have seized on the microblog, which had 180,000 followers as of yesterday. Six children have been found so far, according to reports.
The account was set up last month by Yu Jianrong, a professor of rural development who has gained a reputation for activism on behalf of China's downtrodden classes.
It encourages people to snap pictures of child beggars and orphans and upload them in the hope that parents may see their missing child and track them down. Users have since uploaded a stream of poignant photos of street children.
Abductions and human trafficking have become serious public concerns after a string of revelations, including a shocking scandal in 2007 in which thousands were forced into slave labour in brick yards and mines across the nation.
Mounting outrage spurred a government crackdown, which according to state media resulted in thousands of adult and child victims being rescued.
In one recent case, the operator of an unlicensed shelter for disabled people in south-western China sold at least 70 mentally ill workers to work as slaves in factories across the country.
Despite the government actions, there is a widespread public lack of confidence - often expressed online - in authorities' willingness to address the problem fully.
Some parents searching for children have told state media that their attempts had been thwarted by indifferent officials and police.
One follower of the missing-child account posted a comment saying it was up to citizens to look out for their own rights, as the government could not be counted on to do so.
"Our government has so many failures. But activities like this provide hope," it said.
Mr Yu, an expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, said on his blog that he had launched the campaign after a desperate parent sought his help in finding an abducted child.
China's government blocked Twitter in 2009 after authorities alleged social-networking services were being used to fan ethnic violence in traditionally Muslim north-western China.
A range of high-profile foreign internet services and websites including YouTube, Facebook and others are also blocked.
However, since the ban on Twitter, several Chinese clone sites have sprung up, drawing an enthusiastic following from China's 457 million web users, who have seized on microblogging as a new avenue for mass expression in a country whose media are tightly controlled by the Communist Party.
Controversial public issues are often aired on microblogs, but experts say the discussion is kept from boiling over by government censors who delete content or lean on providers to do so.