Protests by grieving parents grow over child trafficking
The country's one-child policy keeps the population down and families small. Now imagine what it's like for parents, whose one child is the centre of their world, to see that child suddenly vanish.
Trafficking in children has grown on the mainland, and the public has been shocked recently by how serious the situation has become. Thousands of parents across the country have teamed up in cyberspace and staged protests since last year to urge the authorities to address the issue.
In September, about 40 parents from Shenzhen appealed to the central government in front of the 'Bird's Nest' National Stadium in Beijing, each carrying a large poster with a photograph of their missing child.
In November in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, more than 3,000 people gathered for a television programme about looking for children.
On April 15, more than 100 parents in Dongguan, Guangdong province, took to the streets, protesting about the more than 1,000 children who have been abducted there since 2007.
Child trafficking has been an age-old problem in the country and a taboo in the mainland media. The introduction of the strict one-child policy in 1979 led many families to want to buy a child, especially a boy, because of the traditionally male-dominated society.
No official statistics could show clearly the scale of child trafficking, and few independent researchers were encouraged to study the subject. So for years, parents licked their wounds while sporadic reports tended to indicate that the problem was not a serious one.
But in the past couple of years, public concern has grown, with several websites launched in Shanghai and the provinces of Jilin , Guangdong and Hubei featuring long lists of children who have been abducted or are missing.
As a result, heartbroken parents meeting on the internet began to realise that they were not alone but, rather, a big group nationwide and that their children were among thousands who go missing on the mainland every year.
Sun Haiyang, whose three-year-old son was abducted in October 2007, has become a sort of unofficial chief among Shenzhen families who have lost children. He even changed the sign at the small booth where he sells meat buns to 'missing son wanted' and promised a 200,000 yuan (HK$227,000) reward.
Mr Sun said he had been surprised by the response since he changed the sign and sent out thousands of notices across the city.
'I have received innumerable calls and online messages, but most of them were from parents who have also had their children abducted,' he said.
Mr Sun has now compiled a list of nearly 2,000 children in and around Shenzhen and Dongguan who have disappeared in the past two years, and as more and more people join their group online, he knows it will grow even larger.
Liu Kaiming, head of the Shenzhen-based Institute for Contemporary Observation, said children of migrant workers employed in larger manufacturing towns were the most at risk of being targeted by traffickers, who had turned the sale of stolen children into a business.
'Many of these children were abducted while playing on the street,' Mr Liu said. 'Their parents were usually working to exhaustion in factories or booths. The parents have no money to send children to kindergarten. They can only let the kids play outside at home. That made the kids easy targets.'
And the local police were neither helpful nor even particularly sympathetic, angry parents complain.
Zheng Shaolong , one of parents at the Dongguan protest, said that in many cases the police insisted on waiting 24 hours after the children were reported missing to start investigating.
Even when they did come to talk with parents, he said 'as far as we know, more than 80 per cent of our cases are never filed by local police under the excuse of inadequate evidence. They show up only one time and never come again.
'A migrant worker losing a son means nothing to them. A warm-hearted passer-by helped a couple once by saying he had sent their son to the local police station. But when the parents rushed to the station, their son had been falsely claimed by the traffickers. Can you believe it?
'We get no help from local authorities. We have spent our life savings trying to find our children. We took to the street not because we want to fight against the government, but because we are helpless and hopeless.
'We're just begging for attention from the central government over what's happening in Dongguan.'
The online and street campaigns are starting to have an impact.
'The famous movie star, also a legislator, Pu Cunxi, handed in a motion to the National People's Congress on child trafficking after seeing our website,' said Zhang Baoyan , who runs a non-profit website called Sending the Missing Children Home.
And earlier this month, the Ministry of Public Security announced a nationwide programme dealing with the trafficking of women and children. The programme will last until December, according to the ministry.
'The authorities have promised to step up measures, like the establishment of a DNA database, for children and stronger anti-trafficking laws that penalise people who buy stolen children,' Ms Zhang said.
'We hope this year will be a turning point for this issue.'