A child going missing is every parent’s worst nightmare, and that is as true in China as it is anywhere else in the world.
China has a huge problem with missing children, a HUGE problem. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 40,000 small children are stolen/kidnapped/trafficked each year and most of them are lost forever.
Searching for a single missing toddler in China is like looking for a needle in a haystack, the country is so big and the population so enormous. Most of these children are taken by organised gangs and are then sold on for adoption, though some may be sold to work as beggars or to work in conditions of semi-slavery in brickyards or similar places. The police will not even take note, let-alone start looking for a child, until it has been missing for at least 24 hours, by which time the infant is probably hundreds of miles from where it was stolen. It is a seemingly hopeless task trying to get your child back.
Because of deep-rooted Confucian beliefs about the family, most Chinese couples desperately want to have a child (preferably a son) to continue the family name, support them in old age, and to be able to conduct the correct rituals for the ancestors after the parents have died. If a couple cannot have a child they want to adopt one. However, for the past 25+ years the national policy of each Chinese family only having a single child (with some exceptions) has meant a dirth of babies available to adopt. So the ‘stolen-to-sell-for-adoption’ market has become enormous. Sometimes an infant will pass through four or five hands before being sold to the final adopter. Some very young infants are sold to orphanages, and many of these orphanages help arrange adoptions with people from outside China.
Several years ago, before I came to live in China, I spent a week in the beautiful southern city of Hangzhou. Staying in the same hotel were 20 American couples who were all there to finalise the adoption of a Chinese baby, and take their new child back to the USA. I remember being told by one couple that these were baby girls who had been abandoned by Chinese parents who only wanted sons. At the time I did not question this, but now I know more and I wonder…
I suspect that some of these conveniently ‘abandoned’ babies were in fact stolen from their parents and ended up at the orphanage. In 2012 alone Americans adopted 3000 babies from China, and it seems probable that a significant proportion of those infants were stolen. I am not pointing a finger at westerners who, having exhausted all other avenues, decide to adopt in China; they believe that these are genuinely abandoned children, because that is what they are told by reputable people.
Any orphanage here which puts children forward for adoption needs a ready-supply, and it seems that they are often prepared to pay about $500 to any ‘finder’ who brings in an infant. American adopters (as well as British and other nationalities) pay their own adoption agencies a substantial fee and then they are also expected to give the orphanage a ‘donation’ in the region of US$5000. You do the maths. It has become big business here. The State is doing its best to uncover these practices and shut down the trade – it has broken up no less than 11,000 child trafficking rings since 2009. I know that at least three traffickers have been executed, but that hasn’t deterred others and new trafficking rings seem to spring up again very quickly. Several orphanages where stolen children were being made available for international adoption have been closed down.
But of course the home market is the biggest market, and here modern technology has been harnessed to help the families who have lost their children.
First off the block was a chap called Yu Jianrong, a well-known social activist who is an academic at the Chinese Academy of Social Science. In 2011 he used his Sina Weibo account (China’s equivalent of Facebook/Twitter) to link parents who were searching for their children and helping them to pass information between one another. This has proved successful, and most importantly has raised public awareness of the problem.
More recently a business woman – Zhang Baoyuan – set up a website called baobeihuijia.com (which translates as ‘Baby come home’) and linked it with a phone app which makes all of its estimated 300,000 readers per day into detectives. If anyone who has the app sees a child that they think might be stolen – because they speak with a different accent from the parent, or look particularly unhappy, or are begging with an adult – all they have to do is use their phone camera to take a picture and send it to the website. The clever face-recognition technology at baobeihuijia.com will do the rest.
The organisation has had professional help from the Chinese branch of international ad agency JWT, who have helped spread the word with clever adverts on social media sites. You can see the English language version if you click here
This organisation of internet linked volunteers has already managed to track almost 700 missing children, including helping one man who was kidnapped when he was 5 yrs old (he is now 23) to find his birth family. I hope they have more and more success stories.
Of course, the best thing of all would be for this horrible trade in children to be stopped completely, but alas I don’t see that happening anytime soon.