A BBC report this week exposed China’s child trafficking problem to a global audience through the touching tale of Xiao Chaohua, a father whose five-year-old son was kidnapped by traffickers in 2007. It’s a story I am intimately familiar with. Although I have never met Xiao, I met dozens of parents in the same situation, while making a film on the same subject.
Kidnapping and child trafficking have been a problem in modern China since at least the 1980s. This is often presented as an unintended consequence of the one-child policy, but although that policy has been a factor, the truth is more complicated. The fact that there are many parents willing to sell their offspring to avoid being fined for having too many children has helped perpetuate the trafficking industry, which also trades in kidnapped kids. Additionally, the domestic “adoption” market for kidnapped children is bolstered by the fact that some parents would rather buy a son than pay the fines required to continue having children until they produce one.
But traditional attitudes are a significant part of the problem too. At the forefront, of course, is China’s traditional preference for sons (who traditionally stayed and supported parents into their old age) over daughters (who were traditionally married off into other families and were not a source of support). But in some parts of China, there is also a perception that children can be moved to new families based on supply and demand. If you had five children but your cousin had none, for example, it would not have been uncommon for you to give one of your kids to him to raise as his own. This helps explain why in some areas of China even today, a family can appear with a child who clearly isn’t biologically theirs without raising suspicions or inspiring anyone to call the police.
Not all kidnapping is related to domestic adoption, though. Children are also kidnapped or lured away from home to be sold into a life on the streets, begging for change or pickpocketing strangers while under the control of adult criminals. The kids are often told that their parents know what’s happening and are getting a cut of the money that they earn (though that’s never the case). Teenage boys are sometimes kidnapped and sold into forced labour, teenage girls can be kidnapped and forced into prostitution. And in at least a few cases, kidnapped children have been sold to Chinese orphanages and subsequently adopted by foreign couples. Because foreign adoptive parents must give orphanages a $5,000 donation when they take home their child and because children are often sold by traffickers for less than that, buying trafficked children can be a profitable enterprise for orphanages if it places them quickly enough.
Of course, kidnapping and child trafficking are illegal in China. And the problem has become widespread enough that the country now has a national anti-kidnapping taskforce. Every year, this taskforce carries out high-profile raids and liberates hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kidnapped children. But it is not able to solve these crimes at the rate they’re being committed. Kidnapping cases are extremely difficult for a number of reasons. Trafficking gangs have developed systems whereby children are passed between numerous people, making it difficult for police to track a missing child to their final destination. These gangs have also sometimes bribed local law enforcement or political authorities. And in the internet era, transactions can be carried out online, leaving no physical evidence that a child was sold if the seller covers his electronic tracks well enough.
Local law enforcement apathy is another problem. Kidnapping cases need to be addressed quickly – the longer the child is missing, the lower the chances they’ll be found again. But in China, many local police stations won’t accept a missing persons case unless the person has been missing for 24 hours – so unless there’s clear evidence of a kidnapping, the traffickers usually have at least a day’s head start. By the time local police even accept the case, the child is likely to be hundreds of miles away. Many parents complain that their local police are uninterested in seriously pursuing missing child cases, which they see as a waste of time and resources since they’re unlikely to be solved.
Because there’s no hard data on just how many children are kidnapped each year, it’s hard to say how many cases are solved. While making my film I met dozens of parents, with missing children both male and female ranging from infants to teenagers. I followed several of them as they scoured the country, pouring their hearts and their life savings into finding their kids. But in the years we spent filming, not a single one of them got their child back
Charlie Custer is an editor at Tech in Asia, and the director of Living with Dead Hearts, a feature-length documentary film about kidnapping and child trafficking in China.