The authorities urged the kingpins behind a child-begging ring to turn themselves in. Media reports revealed that possibly thousands of children kidnapped or lured to villages in Fuyang, Anhui , were deliberately disfigured and disabled, then forced to beg in big cities.
A directive issued by the Gongji township government on Tuesday asked ringleaders from Gongxiao and nearby villages believed to shelter many child beggars to surrender at police stations, warning they would face severe punishment if they refused.
China National Radio reported early this week that begging had been treated as a profitable business in Gongxiao and nearby villages for decades, and that farmers had begun to seek healthy young children in other areas as potential beggars from 1993.
Elderly villagers told the radio network that children either kidnapped or deceived away from their parents would be abused and disabled before being taken to big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to beg.
The children would be maltreated during a fortnight to a month's training at ringleaders' homes.
'Kids will be locked in cages like animals at night, in order to make them obey their ringleaders. They will be beaten cruelly if they resist,' the report said, citing villagers.
'To make these child beggars look more pitiful so they'll be able to beg for more money, kids will be forced to hang their legs around their necks. Many children couldn't do that, and ringleaders will pull and twist kids' legs to their necks, making them disabled.'
Villagers said many ringleaders cut the children's faces and limbs, or used sulphuric acid to disfigure their faces and make them look more pitiful.
'Child beggars will be fed in the morning and left on streets to beg, while ringleaders will wait and watch secretly nearby. Child beggars will be beaten up and not given any food if they cannot beg enough to satisfy their ringleaders, who can make good money by controlling several child beggars,' villagers said.
Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post cited the village's former party boss that a ringleader could earn up to 200,000 yuan (HK$236,000) a year by forcing disabled children to beg, and some village cadres were also involved. A farmer in Fuyang, by contrast, earns about 1,500 yuan a year.
Gong Chuanwen , Gongxiao village's party secretary from 1983 to last year, said the authorities had long turned a blind eye to village cadres who worked as ringleaders of child beggars.
'Many cadres earned only 800 to 1,000 yuan a year at that time ... they regarded child begging as a good business and worked as ringleaders too ... there are so many ringleaders and everyone just tried to get involved.'
In 2004, a ringleader from the village was jailed for eight years in Guangzhou for kidnapping and abusing disabled children, becoming the country's first child beggar ringleader to be punished. A crackdown following that case did not last long.