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From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Sun Nov 11 2001 - 10:20:02 EST

Children and young women are being kidnapped in large numbers in China. One
father's reaction is helping to push the police into doing something about

Children and young women are being kidnapped in large numbers in China. One
father's reaction is helping to push the police into doing something about
GUIZHOU province, in China's south-west, is a stunning high country of
improbable karst formations, improbably poor. The patches of soil between
the mountains are fertile enough, but the province's land has to support
some 37m people, a mixture of the Han Chinese majority and the various
peoples that lived here long before Chinese encroachment began in the 16th
century: the Miao, Yi, Dong, Bouyei, Bai, Shui and the rest. Other of
China's inland provinces have their share of poor, and these leave in
droves to seek work on China's thriving eastern seaboard. In Guizhou, the
mountains seem to block the exits. You are lucky if you can make it as far
as the provincial capital, Guiyang.
One of those who did so was Wang Wanjun, who came to the city nine years
ago. Guiyang is nothing to shout about. The capital it may be, but it too
has its desperately poor. The hawkers who go from door to door selling coal
from baskets on their backs look shockingly small and aged, thanks to a
life of hard toil and inadequate food. But Mr Wang and his wife fared
tolerably well. They opened a stall in the Red Side vegetable market,
rented a single room with one stone bed and a stove, and raised a son, whom
they nicknamed Xiao Guiyang, "Little Guiyang", in honour of the town that
had given them a break.
Two years ago Mr Wang was caught outside the market sprinkling water over
his vegetables to make them look fresher. To do this on the street is
against municipal rules, just one of the many ways in which China's
migrants, in particular, daily face petty harassment, and often worse, from
the authorities. Mr Wang went off to the police station to pay his fine,
leaving five-year-old Xiao Guiyang to play in the street. That was the last
he has seen of his boy.
Neighbours had seen the boy being carried off in the arms of a stranger. He
was almost certainly kidnapped by a criminal gang, one of several that prey
on the children of migrant workers in Guiyang. He is now probably in some
well-off coastal province such as Guangdong or Fujian, the "son" maybe of
prosperous farmers who had money but lacked an heir. Guizhou was never
well-known for exporting anything. It has now earned a name for itself as
the centre of China's kidnapping industry.
The Economist's reporter first met Mr Wang a year ago. As he fingered the
only photographs he has of his son, dressed on his third birthday as a
soldier of the People's Liberation Army, the unhappy father quietly
recounted what he was doing to try to find Xiao Guiyang. The task was
daunting. He started by searching high and low in Guiyang. He begged the
police to initiate a hunt, but they pleaded poverty and brushed him off by
saying that, anyway, the lad was probably out of the province already. Mr
Wang then made the long trek to Beijing, a supplicant before the central
authorities, who received his petition.
On top of that, on his own initiative, this soft-spoken man with cropped
hair and a blue canvas jacket, who writes out Chinese characters painfully
slowly, started a campaign in newspapers along the country's eastern
seaboard against the kidnapping of children. His efforts, from his single
room with no telephone, have had a remarkable impact. In 1999 the police in
China are said to have rescued and returned 1,800 children to their true
homes. What a difference a campaign makes: last April the central
government launched a six-month crusade against kidnapping, and claims
thereby to have returned 13,000 kidnapped children-seven times as many as
in all 1999-across the country. Now that he has made a mark, Mr Wang has
been promised a real audience in Beijing with government leaders. He talks
about the possibilities of the Internet, and hopes that China's ten-yearly
census, which has just ended, will bring thousands more kidnapped children
to light.
Yet Mr Wang's life is no easier. He is embarrassed that he hasn't enough
money to feed his visitors. He has recently lost both his parents. His wife
is ill; in large measure, he reckons, from a broken heart. He despairs of
the local police in Guiyang, who have not nabbed the kidnapping kingpins.
And there is still no sign of his son.
It is impossible to know how much kidnapping is going on in China; the
number of rescues is only the tip of the problem. But certainly the numbers
have risen, both of children, mostly boys, and of young women, mostly for
wives. As well as the 13,000 rescued children, the authorities' crackdown
on kidnapping this year is said to have found 110,000 women, most of whom
had been sold as brides, though many will have been put to domestic service
or prostitution. Yet in Guizhou, the biggest catch that the police have
made-ironically, in the town of Zunyi, where Mao Zedong established his
grip on the Communist Party in the 1930s-was that of a gang which had
abducted a mere 84 women and children. The leaders were quickly executed.
Others, plainly, are undeterred.
The reasons for the rise in kidnapping are clear enough: an unhappy
resurgence of old social habits mixed with new economic incentives. Mao
Zedong wanted to forge a new national Chinese identity, free of what he
called the "four olds"-habits, ideas, customs and beliefs. Mao's Red Guards
during the cultural revolution certainly gave a fair appearance of having
eradicated such "olds". Supposedly, prostitution, concubinage,
bride-selling, slavery and drug addiction were abolished. Whether or not
they ever went away, in one form or another these evils are all back now.
In Guizhou you can see why.
In poor, overpopulated regions such as it, children are often sold: having
cash and one less mouth to feed is a tempting inducement to sell one's
daughter as a bride, or one's second son for adoption. In such places,
particularly where migrants make up the greater part of a roaming
population, kidnapping gangs find vulnerable prey. The community's guard,
as it were, is down.
And kidnapped victims fetch good money. Maybe not for a teenage bride, who
rarely sells for more than 8,000 yuan ($965). But Xiao Guiyang may have
fetched 20,000-30,000 yuan from a childless couple in Guangdong, says Wang
Daming, at Unicef in Beijing. Again, social custom has a part to play in
protecting the buyers. It is seen as a traditional Chinese right to have a
son, and neighbours will probably not begrudge parents who suddenly adopt,
or the man who buys a bride.
Just rescuing kidnapped children is by no means the end of the story.
Earlier this year, when a handful of Guizhou children were brought back,
several hundred people claimed to be their parents; DNA tests are now being
conducted. Yet rightful parents often do not learn that their child has
been returned. Or they may be too poor to come and pick him up. So there
are little children who have been rescued from what were to them at least
real homes, quite possibly very loving ones, and who now languish in the
state's truly awful orphanages. Tang Fujing, a journalist who follows
kidnapping cases for the Guizhou Dushi Bao newspaper, points out how family
reunions can be bitter-sweet. One child was sold to a rich family in
Singapore, where he was nicknamed xiao shao ye (little master) and had
nurses and maids to dote on him. When he was brought back to his parents in
Guizhou, he tried several times to escape.
Interestingly, sometimes the real parents have warm feelings towards the
adoptive ones: some express sympathy for a family that has paid good money
to a kidnap gang, and is now deprived of the object of affection whom it
has bought. One father in Guiyang considers himself now to be a relative of
the family that bought his son, and has changed the name of the boy, now
back with him, to include the adoptive family's name. The father says he
wants his son to remember the experience. Other parents, though, think
adoptive parents should be prosecuted along with the kidnappers.
The hitherto undemonstrative authorities now consider kidnapping to be a
serious enough problem to warrant asking for outside help-not something
that comes naturally to Chinese officialdom. Save the Children, an
international charity, is active in Yunnan province, west of Guizhou. It
says the police are happy to work with it, so long as it doesn't press them
for hard statistics on the number of children kidnapped-a sensitive issue
for the police, because the figures are embarrassingly high. Edwin Judd,
who runs Unicef in China, says that the authorities want to learn more
about how police overseas tackle similar problems, and have asked Unicef
for help. They also want to learn about trauma counselling for the victims,
something hitherto unheard of. And, says Mr Judd, they are even starting to
speak the language of children's-and women's-rights.
The jobs of Guizhou police chiefs are on the line, now that they have
promised on television to find the missing children. "I must find my
child," says Wang Wanjun, "even if it bankrupts me."
(c) The Economist Newspaper Limited, London 2000. All rights reserved.
ECONOMIST 23/12/2000
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