Parents left bereft by curse of China's child snatchers

Thousands of children are kidnapped each year in China by traffickers who sell them on - a phenomenon that until recently has been ignored by the government.

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Sun Hai Yang's son has been missing for two years, taken from outside the shop he owns in the southern Chinese industrial town of Shenzhen.

"A man around 40 years old gave my son a toy car and then took him away. Witnesses saw this and thought he was a relative so did not bother to tell us," Mr Sun said. Cai Xing Quan still thinks about the day a year and a half ago when his four-year-old daughter disappeared from outside his home in Shenzhen. It was a rainy day and she was playing on the doorstep. When he went to call her inside, she was gone.

Mr Cai went immediately to the police, but was told he would have to wait 24 hours before a missing person's report could be filed. When he supplied the police with a CCTV tape showing a woman luring his daughter into a shop, they claimed it would be impossible to find her in a country of 1.1 billion people. "The police are doing nothing. Sometimes they come to my house to tell me there is no progress on the case. And that's it," Mr Cai said.

Incidents of child trafficking have become increasingly common in China, fuelled in part by the government's one-child policy and the premium put on having a male heir. Children disappear as their parents are busy with the evening chores or as they walk to school. Some are simply snatched out of their parent's arms by someone riding a motorbike. The government says about 2,500 children are kidnapped each year and sold to childless couples, men looking for wives or into the sex trade, but anecdotal evidence from parents and reports by outside groups suggest the total could be much higher. The US state department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons estimates that there are 20,000 to 70,000 victims of child trafficking each year in China.

While the government has been slow to respond to the growing phenomenon - it only recognised trafficking as an issue last April - it has introduced a string of strict measures to address the problem. Some provinces, where the problem is especially acute, have deployed police to guard schools. Websites have been set up to collect data and trace missing children. And convicted traffickers are now either sentenced to death or given life sentences.

Last week, the government put on trial 23 people accused of trafficking nearly 50 babies. A verdict has still not been delivered. Yet, despite the high-profile arrests and trials, the number of children being stolen is increasing, with few ever found and parents complaining that they still find it hard to get any help from police. After his son went missing, Mr Sun transformed his small shop selling stuffed buns into a forum for other parents whose children had been stolen.

In the first year, he was contacted by more than 2,000 parents. But for the past couple of months, he said, there have been few new cases. "I suspect the police ask the parents not to speak out any more," he said. "Either that or abductions have stopped, which I doubt very much." Other parents have similar stories of police requesting that they do not go public with the kidnapping, either by talking to the press or going to Beijing to protest. Authorities argue the province will "lose face" if the matter reaches the capital or the media.

Over the past few months, protests by parents have been forcibly broken up, while those who try to take their grievances to officials in the capital are followed and then forced to return home. "Of course I am happy with the central government's efforts. But we are still not allowed to talk," Mr Cai said. "For one child found there are thousands still missing. And these parents have no voice." But there are reasons for the lack of progress on many missing cases. China is an immense country, and while it is growing in economic power, it still fearful of an independent media that could harm its image with "negative" stories.

There are also administrative reasons. Cases often take days to file - if they ever get that far. The law requires that a child be missing for 24 hours before an official complaint can be filed. That leaves plenty of time for the kidnapper and child to leave the city. Child trafficking has now become an industry and the practice is often embedded in the local culture: buying and selling children dates back to the time of Confucius when purchasing a child was considered good luck.

Girls are sold for up to 35,000 yuan (Dh18,000) and prices for boys can reach 100,000 yuan, according to parents. Most boys are sold to childless couples or those who already have a girl, and are not, under the strict population control policy, allowed to try for another child. "In that case the parents don't register the girl when she is born. They wait to buy a boy and then register them both as twins," said Mr Sun, who has visited villages where "twins" outnumber single children.

"The local police turn a blind. They just don't seem to care the son was bought," he said. "Other times they even comfort the family who has just had a girl and encourage them to buy a boy." Boys are normally sold in rural and more conservative provinces - Fujian, Shangdong, Henan - where having a boy is a question of face. Girls are usually sold to poor farmers who cannot afford to pay the dowry for a wife, to orphanages or local gangsters in big cities who use them to beg, sell flowers or as prostitutes. "There is a big market there," said Mr Cai.

"Even around here we can see girls begging the whole time. I am sure they are stolen." With little help from the police, parents such as Mr Cai and Mr Hun continue to gather in their ad hoc groups, making their own efforts to track down their missing children. "As long as the woman on the tapes is alive I will look for my daughter. There is a still be a big question mark in my heart. Where is our child? What is she doing? Is she alive? The kidnappers kill a whole family each time they take a child."

* The National