Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

Bloggers Track Down China’s Lost Boys

Gordon Ross

BEIJING, Mar 10 2011 (IPS) - Peng Gaofeng spent three years looking for his abducted son, launching an Internet campaign that eventually drew 300,000 followers. Last month, Peng was reunited with his son, and the 34-year-old has vowed to help the thousands of Chinese parents who are still trying to find their missing children.

“I’ve found my son, but I’ll never stop helping parents who have lost theirs,” says Peng, who was reunited with his son, Wenle, after one of his followers reported sighting the boy begging on the streets of Pizhou, Jiangsu province, more than 800 miles away from his family home in Shenzhen. “I know how much they are grieving. They lost track of their children for one tiny moment, and they are now missing. Probably forever.”

Thousands of children of migrant workers are missing in China, many snatched from Shenzhen and other coastal boomtowns with massive floating populations. Due to a historical Chinese preference for males, most of China’s stolen children are boys, who are sold by traffickers for as much as 10,000 dollars.

Although some children are sold to buyers in Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia, most are ‘purchased’ domestically by families, primarily in rural areas in the south of China, by people who are either childless or without a male heir. Some of these children are forced by their captors to work as beggars.

According to the All-China Women’s Federation, the largest women’s NGO in China, cases of abduction and trafficking of women and children have been rising in recent years. Between January and July 2010, Chinese courts of all levels handled over 1,200 cases of abducted women and children, a 45 percent increase from the same period a year earlier.

Chinese censors rarely allow news of child abductions, and published reports are often upbeat stories of police breaking child trafficking rings. The case of Peng Wenle, however, became a nationwide sensation, covered by state media and repeated widely online.

The boy’s high-profile reunion with his family coincides with another nationwide child-find campaign launched by Yu Jianrong, professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The campaign began when Yu received a letter from a distraught mother whose child had been kidnapped. The letter told the story of Yang Weixin, a six-year-old boy from Quanzhou, Fujian province, who disappeared in 2009 and was forced to beg on the streets by his captors.

Yu called on Chinese Internet users to submit photos of child beggars to microblog forums belonging to QQ and Sina, popular Chinese news portals. Once posted, the photos could be compared with police records or recognised by parents. As the movement gathered steam, QQ launched a page called “Baby Return Home” linked to the microblog group.

Within three weeks of Yu’s initial call to action, more than 1,800 photographs had been shared through the microblog groups and four children had been identified, according to Information Times, a spin-off of Guangzhou Daily. One volunteer developed an application that allowed people to upload photos directly from their mobile phones to a database.

Chen Shiqu, head of the China Public Security Bureau’s Child Abduction Office, voiced his support for the campaign on his own microblog. A number of delegates at the National People’s Congress, which began last week in Beijing, said they were planning to submit a proposal on the issue of child abduction.

Chen also noted that the central government launched its own national initiative to fight abduction and human trafficking in April 2009, according to China Youth Daily. So far, 6,785 children and 11,839 women have been rescued, the newspaper said.

Government critics say punishments for kidnapping and human trafficking are too weak. Anyone caught forcing disabled people or children to beg in China can be fined and sentenced to no more than three years in prison. If the circumstances are considered “serious”, the violator can be put up in jail for no more than seven years.

Kidnappers and human traffickers can receive between five and ten years in prison, plus a fine. Leaders of gangs engaged in the abduction and trafficking of women and children can be sentenced to death, as can people who abduct or traffic three or more women and children.

Hu Xingdou, professor of economics and Chinese society at the Beijing Institute of Technology, says that while the microblogs can be useful in finding missing children, they are not the whole solution. He says the government should strengthen laws that prohibit children from panhandling and take a more active role in tracking missing children.

“The government’s own campaign is just taking on a passive role,” Hu tells IPS. “If someone reports (a missing child), the government will take some action. If no one reports a kid is missing, they won’t do anything. The government launches a new campaign against abducting and trafficking women and children every year, but if the government was really doing an excellent job, there would be no need for a new campaign every year.”

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