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Agonizing, lonely search for missing kids in China

A van displaying photos of missing children across China is meant to call attention to their plight. As many as 70,000 children are estimated to be kidnapped every year in the country.
A van displaying photos of missing children across China is meant to call attention to their plight. As many as 70,000 children are estimated to be kidnapped every year in the country.
Published Dec. 28, 2014

BEIJING — In the grainy video, Zhang Xiuhong can see her daughter ride her bike down a country road on her way to school one spring afternoon six years ago.

In the next shot, Yao Li rides down a driveway a few moments after her classmates walk by. Then, the pictures stop: The 15-year-old disappeared just minutes after that surveillance footage was taken, leaving only a shoe as a clue in a nearby ditch.

Zhang and her husband have since searched all over China for Yao Li, hoping to rescue her from a child trafficking industry that swallows up thousands of boys and girls every year. Along the way, the couple have also been harassed, arrested and jailed repeatedly by police who accuse them of stirring up trouble by joining with other parents and taking their search to the streets.

"We go out and search, and then all these police surround us," Zhang said. "Nobody's watching for my daughter."

In a tightly monitored society where authorities crack down on any groups they perceive to be organizing without government approval and threatening official authority, Zhang and other parents of missing children have learned that they must fight on two fronts.

First, they're up against a sprawling, opaque network of abductors and illegal buyers and sellers of children. Since police efforts to find children often leave parents unsatisfied, they must negotiate with authorities to hunt for the kids themselves.

As many as 70,000 children are estimated to be kidnapped every year in China for illegal adoption, forced labor or sex trafficking, making it one of the world's biggest markets for abducted children, according to the state-run newspaper China Daily. By comparison, in the United States, about 100 children are abducted annually by people who are strangers to them, said the Polly Klaas Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing crimes against children and assisting in the recovery of missing ones.

Chinese authorities have tried to show they're tackling the problem, including launching a special antikidnapping task force in 2009, which government media say has busted 11,000 trafficking gangs and rescued more than 54,000 children.

Still, many parents say they toil largely on their own.

Xiao Chaohua, whose son was 5 when he disappeared outside his shop in 2007, said appeals to government-run TV to broadcast pictures and names of individual children are largely rejected, as are suggestions to develop a Chinese version of U.S. Amber Alert warning systems.

"They won't broadcast it because if they do, it'll expose one of China's problems — the fact that children go missing here," Xiao said.

The Public Security Ministry, which runs the antikidnapping task force, did not respond to several phone calls and a fax seeking comment.

While China has strengthened laws against trafficking and raised more public awareness of the issue, several parents said they were operating on their own.

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About 1,000 families have formed a Beijing-based support group that shares leads about missing children and negotiates with police to allow parents to search for their children. They often go to cities where child and sex trafficking rings are reported to be operating and try to track down suspected traffickers.

"I've dedicated myself to finding him," Xiao said of his son.

Over the past six years, the group has found two children, both of them abducted from small cities and sold to adoptive families, Xiao said.

Zhang — the woman whose daughter was last seen riding a bicycle — said she felt her "heart run cold" when police stormed a rally of more than a dozen parents she was attending in July in the southern city of Guangzhou, near where the country's biggest trafficking networks are reported to operate.

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