“It’s just like a dream now,” says Wang Qingshun, sitting in an overstuffed hotel room armchair in Hangzhou. “I remember my home like it was a painting. I remember my father’s face. The rest of it, I don’t remember much at all.” He says it matter-of-factly, as though we all have these issues when trying to remember our childhoods. But Wang’s childhood has not faded from his memory. Rather, it was stolen by the kidnappers who snatched him from his home when he was just four or five years old.
“I think my father was chasing me to spank me,” he says, “and I was hiding somewhere. Then it gets blurry; I remember being in a car, driving past fields of rapeseed flowers, crossing mountains, and then getting onto a train. How I got here, I have no idea.”
Even the basic details of Wang’s life—the things we all take for granted—are unclear. He does not know his birthday or his actual age, though he believes he was kidnapped in 1988. He does not know where he’s from, though based on his accent as a child, and some other factors, he believes he may be from Sichuan Province. Even his name is unclear. Wang Qingshun is the name he was given by his “adoptive” parents, the people who bought him from the kidnappers. He remembers his original name was Li Yong. But which Li and which Yong? He can’t be truly sure.
Wang’s fate was not uncommon for children from his area at the time. “I remember that kids were often kidnapped and sold away from my original home,” says Wang. “It felt like when the Japanese devils invaded China; whenever someone mentioned the news [about kidnappings] people would get scared.”
But this is no scare story from Chinese history, and the problem remains as prevalent today as it was when Wang was kidnapped back in 1988. As Wang sits in the hotel room trying to remember more of his early childhood, parents all across China are experiencing the same horror that Wang’s birth parents must have experienced the day he disappeared. Decades after Wang’s kidnapping, children are still being taken and sold by traffickers at an alarming rate.
Putting a precise number to the problem is difficult, and estimates range wildly. The Chinese government doesn’t release statistics on the number of children kidnapped, although in the past it has pegged the number at around 10,000 per year. The U.S. State Department, in its annual report on human rights, pegs the number at around 20,000. Independent estimates range as high as 70,000.
The reason for the discrepancy is that the only real numbers to work with are the number of children rescued from trafficking gangs each year. “If we use this data to guess at the hidden data of how many children are kidnapped each year, and assume for example that one in three or one in fi ve are rescued, that will give you an approximate number,” says Pi Yijun, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law. “There’s really no more reliable method than that.”
In 2011, Chinese police rescued 8,660 kidnapped children. Using Pi’s examples as a range, we might roughly guess that in that same year, between 25,980 and 43,300 children were kidnapped. But there’s simply no way to be sure. What is clear is that kidnapping is a serious problem. “You can see that there has not been any major drop in this kind of crime,” Pi Yijun says.
Although decades have gone by, the business of trafficking in stolen children hasn’t changed much; what happened to Wang Qingshun is still typical of what happens to young boys who are taken by traffickers. Wang was sold to a new family. His new “adoptive” parents had given birth to only daughters, and as they were ageing they felt that they might not be able to conceive a son, but they wanted one. A relative had a line on a child they could buy, and they jumped at the chance. It’s not clear whether they knew that Wang had been kidnapped when they chose to purchase him, but they certainly knew he wasn’t being adopted through official channels.
Wang’s origins became clear when he arrived at his new home, though, because he made them clear himself. He told neighbors he was called Li Yong, not Wang Qingshun. He spoke with an accent so thick practically no one in his new Zhejiang home could understand him. In kindergarten, he says he got suspended repeatedly for getting in fights because he hit other boys who teased him for having “been purchased” (he claims he once even smashed something over another kid’s head in response to the teasing).
“Everyone knew,” he says, “everyone knew I wasn’t from there. Adults generally didn’t talk about it, but the other kids would make fun of me.” Despite the fact that his having been purchased was common knowledge, it took over a decade before somebody finally picked up the phone and called the police.
To understand why, you’ve got to understand that in traditional Chinese society, having sons was of paramount importance. Because daughters, when married, generally moved in with their husband’s family, a set of parents without a son would have no one to care for them in old age. Thus, in traditional society it was not uncommon for neighbors, friends, or family members to, essentially, give children to each other if one family had a surplus of sons but another had a deficit. If you already had four sons but your brother in the next village had none, for example, you might send your fifth son to be raised in his home. This was considered normal, and in the modern area, it’s still common in some areas for families to raise children that aren’t theirs. And although Wang’s case clearly involved some lawbreaking, many people are hesitant to get involved in other people’s business. The fear of reshi (惹事)—trouble for oneself—may help to explain why no one called the police on Wang Qingshun’s adoptive parents for such a long time.
When the police finally did get involved, there wasn’t much they could do. Wang’s adoptive father and his uncle were arrested and ultimately fined for having been involved in child trafficking, but after that the case went cold. Wang had been passed from handler to handler along his journey to his new parents, and although the police found the first of these men, they never got further than that.
This is typical of trafficking cases, which have proven notoriously difficult to crack. China has a national-level anti-kidnapping task force that oversees large-scale operations to take down trafficking rings and criminal gangs, and traffickers are punished severely—convicted child traffickers are often sentenced to death and executed. But solving individual cases often requires tracing back through numerous handlers and intermediaries, securing cooperation from local police forces in a variety of locations to attempt to ascertain the child’s point of origin, and collecting information from victims who are often too young or too traumatized to be fully aware of what happened to them. Even when a case is solved and a child is rescued, this doesn’t mean the police will be able to find the child’s original family.
Another problem is that it isn’t always clear whether or not a child has been kidnapped. In the absence of concrete proof like a video recording of the kidnapping, police will be inclined to treat the case as a missing persons issue, at least initially, and since uncovering clues in a kidnapping case can be extremely difficult, many cases are confirmed as kidnappings only after the child has been rescued. Police and parents must struggle with the knowledge that a missing child could have been kidnapped, but he or she also could have run away, or even somehow have been killed.
And the situation is further complicated by the fact that when children are rescued, what seems to be morally right isn’t always what’s best for the child. In Wang’s case, for example, though he was kidnapped and sold, he was also treated well and raised as a son by his adoptive family, who he now considers to be his parents. Were he to have been ripped away from them, years after his kidnapping, and returned to his original family, it might have caused more psychological damage.
Wang’s situation is comparatively lucky, though. Not all kidnapped kids are sold to new families. While sale into adoption (both domestically and abroad) is the most common motivation for the kidnappings of infants and toddlers in China, there are cases of children being kidnapped right up through their teens.
Older children may be taken by traffickers for use in street gangs. Sometimes they are made to beg on the street. Sometimes they are made to perform street theater, contortions, and acrobatics for change. And, like something out of a Dickensian nightmare, some are forced to become pickpockets.
Du Chengfei, the director at the Xinxing Aid Center for Street Children in Baoji, Sichuan Province, says that the street children he sees who’ve been pickpockets are nearly always Uyghur kids, and “probably almost 100 percent of the time, they have been kidnapped and are being controlled by adults.”
In the cases of Uyghurs and other older street children, the kidnapping often works something like this: first, the child is approached by a trafficker or someone affiliated with the traffickers. This person maybe someone the child knows, like an extended family member or acquaintance. This person convinces the child to come with them and get a job in a city on China’s east coast. The child is told that their parents know about this arrangement, and that they’ll be helping their family—kidnapped children almost always come from poor families—by earning money that will be sent home to their parents (this, of course, is a lie). When the child accepts the offer, they’re taken to a new city and integrated into a street gang that likely includes other children but is overseen by adults who control what the children do, watch them when they’re on the street and take the money that they’ve earned.