It's a busy day in the Dongguan suburb of Wanjiang. Three- wheeled motorcycle taxis jostle for space with market barrows along a narrow road packed with eateries selling cold noodles and steamed dumplings. Next to a counter stacked with wicker steaming cages a narrow stairway leads up to the 10-square-metre room that is home to Xu Jiancheng and his wife. Xu is dressed in shorts and a cap-sleeved T-shirt. He and his pale, slight wife are sitting on a thin, metal-framed bed surrounded by their possessions; a cheap wardrobe of clothes, a blue plastic chair, an electric fan and a bookcase that was part of a shop display and now houses a dozen-odd volumes of popular fiction. An old laptop rests on a scuffed chipboard desk. Above it there is a photograph of Xu and his wife in their wedding costumes, taken in September last year. Those were happier days for the Xu family. A month later, the Xus' four-year-old daughter, Xu Qian, went out to buy breakfast and didn't came back. The chances are she was abducted; seized and carried away by someone who then sold her on in the mainland's underground market for babies and young children. The Xu family's story is far from unusual in Dongguan. Located where Guangzhou sprawls into Shenzhen, on the east bank of the Pearl River estuary, the city is famous for its shoe industry, karaoke bars and sex trade. Official police figures published in state media show there have been 243 cases of child abduction in Dongguan since 2000. The Xus and most other affected families believe the real number is much higher. The anguish over their lost children is accompanied by another emotion: anger, aimed at the local police. At best, says Xu, police officers were unco-operative when he first asked them for help. Other families say they have been obstructed when going after the people who took their children. The abduction and selling of infants has a long history in the mainland. The words for the trade - guaimai and its practitioners ren fanzi (people peddlers) - are well established. The ultimate buyers are mostly couples who are desperate for a child and plan to raise the stolen infant as their own. Chinese culture places a great deal of importance on a male heir to provide for his parents in their old age and continue the family line. This is why most abducted infants are male. In a minority of cases a snatched child will be sold on to a gang of beggars or thieves similar to that managed by the character Fagin in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. Yin Yin Nwe, the United Nations Children's Fund mainland representative, makes a distinction between the snatching of infants and the human trafficking that Unicef works with Beijing to counter. 'I take human trafficking to refer to when victims - normally aged 10 or over - are lured away with promises of work. Parents can be persuaded because of their poverty to give their children to gangs of traffickers and may not know they will end up as prostitutes or in forced labour,' she says. 'Deception is involved. That's the difference between human trafficking and abducting young children to sell.' Whatever the terminology, experts agree that huge internal migration within the mainland is stimulating the market for stolen infants. When parents travel to work in the industrialised coastal regions, they leave behind extended families and tight-knit village communities that would have protected their children. Neighbourhoods where the population is on the move are harder to police. Qian had been living with her grandparents in Xu's home village, in the inland province of Hubei, and had only been with her parents in Dongguan for two months when she disappeared. As was his habit, on October 18, last year, Xu let his daughter go out alone because 'she knew the area well and there were many people around that we knew'. From under his bed, Xu pulls out a heavy box of the missing-child notices he has had printed; common practice for parents of abducted infants in Dongguan. Xu says he has pasted up more than 50,000 of these in various stations, boarding houses and orphanages in provinces from Guangdong to Shandong. Underneath the heading 'Searching for our beloved Xu Qian' there is a photo of a little girl in a fluffy white jumper with her hair in pig-tails. Below are details of the orange dress and pink flip-flops she was wearing when she disappeared. Then there is Xu's phone number and details of a 100,000 yuan (HK$113,600) reward. The Xus have spent their entire savings of 300,000 yuan on these flyers and newspaper and television notices. Xu has given up work to look for his daughter. The couple fund their search with wages earned by Xu's wife, Lianghong, who works in a shoe factory, along with funds borrowed or donated by friends. Xu says he is giving up hope of finding his daughter. 'Now I think there are only two places she might be,' he says. 'One is that she's dead; killed by abuse from her abductors. The other is she's on the street begging or selling flowers. 'Xu Qian was nearly five [years old] and in China people usually want boys. The only reason somebody would buy a girl that age would be to use her to beg or steal,' he says. Rather than talk about his daughter's kidnappers, Xu vents his anger towards the police. 'I went to them many times to plead for them to help me' in the crucial first months after Qian's disappearance, Xu says. 'I said, 'My little baby is lost. The pain in my heart cannot be expressed. This young life affects our whole family. Now we cannot go on. You have to help me.' But the most they did was write something down and say they'd keep an eye out for me. I didn't know if they had even filed a case. 'I know what's real police work and what's a sham,' he says. 'My only request is that they properly undertake the case and not play tricks; go through the motions to cheat me.' In April, media interest in the goings-on in Dongguan spurred the police into action. For the first time, says Xu, they visited him at home. 'It was then that I found out they had not filed any of the information I originally gave them. They hadn't followed any of my leads.' Xu says that on the same day Qian went missing, another Dongguan girl disappeared. Her parents were more fortunate, though. She had been picked up in the town centre by police and taken to a children's home. Although the home's chief matron, looking at the child's smart and cared-for appearance, said she could not possibly have been abandoned and must be missing, the police told her that no children had been reported as such. The child was only taken home after the policeman who found her saw the television advertisement her parents had placed. He recognised the child and called them. 'The point is that my family and friends dialled [the emergency number] 110 at least 40 times that day. I know that girl's family did too,' says Xu. 'I also went to the police station several times. But the police told the home no children had been reported missing that day. Dongguan is one of the most developed places in China; how can there be so little sharing of information among police stations and children's homes?' Xu says he has visited many state-run orphanages and children's homes looking for Qian but he is rarely allowed to enter. 'If the policeman had not seen her parents' notice on television, that little girl could have been adopted by another family. Or she would still be in the home today,' he says. Neither the Dongguan police department nor the Guangdong provincial police bureau responded to fax and telephone requests for information or interviews about the cases. Zeng Yonghong had a similar experience after her daughter went missing in July 2006. Seven-year-old Huangyuan went out to play one evening, on wasteland close to her home, with her brother, who is one year older. At some point, the boy lost sight of his sister among the bushes and tall weeds. Later, he found her shoes on the grass. The family has not seen Huangyuan since. The police refused to file a case - their excuse: she had wandered off and not been snatched. 'I said to them, 'How can you say she wandered away'? She didn't have any shoes on because they were left on the grass. One minute she was with her brother and the next she was gone,' Zeng says. Outrageous as this treatment may seem, Deng Huidong's experience is worse still. DENG LIVES IN the village of Shangdi, in the Liaobu administrative area, a 30-minute ride through industrial developments towards the east of the city. Shangdi's centre is made up of closely spaced traditional two-storied houses. To one side there is a section that has been half-built then abandoned. Fingers of concrete and steel jut up through the tangled vegetation, corroding quickly in the humid Guangdong climate. Inside her cement-floored house, Deng greets visitors with lychees and oolong tea. A small maroon-tiled shrine to the kitchen god Zaowangye sits at the base of the food counter, which divides the main living area in two. On the wall to one side, there is a picture of her beloved Ye Ruicong; a laughing baby with a small jade buddha on a red thread around his neck. 'His coming was a treasure for our family. With him our whole house was happy,' says Deng, a woman whose small stature belies the determined battle she has waged since November 10, 2007. That evening, Deng was making dinner and preparing a bath for her son. A white minivan reversed down the lane outside Deng's house, towards her eight-year-old daughter, who was holding the baby in the doorway. Deng says she didn't see the face of the man who snatched her child. Her only memory is of a door sliding open then two big hands seizing the infant from his sister's arms. Deng and several neighbours gave chase. One of them started up a motorbike, which she rode pillion, at the same time calling 110. 'The first time I called the police a man answered and said, 'There are already many people who have helped you by calling in,'' she recalls. 'I thought that was strange. He said many people had called. But he never said anybody was coming to help.' Following the van as it sped along the road, Deng eventually came across a policeman standing by his car. When she frantically explained her situation to him, he told her to climb in. 'After a few minutes he turned off the road. Initially I thought he was making a diversion, to head off the van somewhere up ahead,' Deng says. 'But then I realised he was taking me to the local police station. He said; 'Don't make a commotion. I'm going to transfer you to another car to continue the chase.' 'Then I felt as if the sky were falling in. The man in the second car asked me where the van was. But of course I didn't know where the child snatcher was by then,' Deng says. While in the second car, Deng again dialled the police. 'The man who took the call said, 'You are from Liaobu and this is Dalingshan. You need to call your own police bureau,' before hanging up' she says. 'I called again and said; 'But we're in Dalingshan now and in any case, shouldn't there be the same 110 for the whole of China?' He said, 'I will transfer you,' and then hung up again.' Deng was eventually driven back to the police station and, after an hour of fruitless demands for action, taken home. More frustration awaited her the next day, when she went to her local television station to place a missing child notice. She was told she would first need to prove the police had filed a case. When she went to get this proof, the police refused. 'They said, 'Child snatching is a very serious crime. If it gets out that this has happened here, there will be many repercussions,'' she recalls. Despairing of the police, Deng launched her own campaign. Over the past year she has done much to organise parents of abducted children in Dongguan. Some she has run into while pasting her missing child notices in the city's public areas; others she has telephoned after seeing their desperate pleas on television. More have contacted her via internet chat rooms. On April 15, more than 100 parents, including Deng, took to the streets of Dongguan to call on the government to do more to help. The demonstration received local and national media coverage. Police visited affected families and promised to set up a task force to crack down on child peddlers and recover lost children. Deng says she thinks there is a gang at work. At the beginning of last month, the Southern Metropolitan News published an article claiming that elsewhere in the mainland, something more sinister is happening. After an investigation in the province, the newspaper claimed that police in Guizhou had been seizing the children of families who broke the mainland's one-child law and were unable to pay the subsequent fine. The babies were placed in a children's home and put up for adoption by couples from the United States and Europe. Once the adoption process was complete, the police split the fee with the children's home. At Zhongshan University, sociology professor Zhang Yonggong attempts to explain the lack of assistance from police. 'Under the market economy everybody wants a piece of the action,' he says. 'Dongguan is a place full of the stink of money and the priorities of the police have been perverted by this. I don't have specific proof but to tell me the police are doing nothing is not news.' Zhang, however, acknowledges the police are woefully undermanned and without an effective organisational structure. Dongguan was elevated from a county to a prefectural level city administrative division in 1988 because of its burgeoning population but it was never given the county-level policing divisions it needs. Consequently, Dongguan has police departments with town-level powers and resources, trying to manage urban areas with populations much larger than many counties elsewhere in the country. These urban areas also have high numbers of internal migrants, which makes them especially hard to police. In addition to calling for a restructuring of the police force, Zhang says more needs to be spent on child care for migrant workers. He also says migrant workers themselves need to be vigilant. 'Dongguan is not a country village where you can just leave your kids in the square and neighbours will look out for them,' he says. 'If people still behave as if they're in a village after coming here, of course they're inviting trouble.' Unicef's Yin repeats an oft-used argument that the trade in snatched babies will decline once the mainland puts in place a good system of pensions, which should reduce the reliance on children as an alternative form of old-age insurance. 'In some more progressive parts of China, richer villages have organised allowances for the elderly,' she says. BACK IN WANJIANG, Xu pulls out an album of photos. They're all of Qian and she's dressed to the nines, in the way children surrounded by an adoring extended family often are. In one picture, Xu is holding his daughter in a park. In another, she's posing with her parents, who are in their wedding outfits. In others there are cartoon backdrops, from a photographer's studio. Lianghong's eyebrows arch up, her lips pucker and she starts to cry. She's not making a sound but her shoulders are shaking. The tears are pouring down her face and dripping off her chin. 'I had so much hope for her,' says Xu. 'We only had one child and that's all we wanted. We wanted to give her the best education. We didn't want her to end up in a factory like us.'