UNTIL early last year, Gong Hao was just another pampered only child in China.
Then, on the morning of Feb. 25, on his way to school, the roly-poly 12-year-old was grabbed by a man asking directions, bundled into a waiting taxi, blindfolded, and hustled away - a new statistic in the mounting incidents of kidnapping in China.
Thousands of kidnappings have taken place amid the upheaval of economic and social change and mounting lawlessness. As economic reforms have unhinged the government's tight social grip in recent years, harsh birth-control restrictions have created a desperate demand for children, and social vices such as prostitution have resurfaced; trafficking in women and children, increasingly in complicity with police, has become a scourge in cities and the countryside.
The boy, who is endearingly nicknamed Pangzi, or Fatty, retells the experience only with prompting from his father. During his 105-day captivity, which took him from this central Chinese city across four provinces, Pangzi was beaten, burned with cigarettes, and forced to work in the fields. Often resorting to begging, the boy lost almost half of his 120-pound weight.
Sitting in his family's cluttered, two-room home, he is once again his old chubby self, his parents say. Yet he never goes out unaccompanied nor do the couple let down their guard. Receiving virtually no help from the police, the family exhausted its $700 in savings searching for their son. Now, they have taken out a $450 insurance policy on him, in case he ever disappears again.
``We had heard about women and children being kidnapped, but we never thought it would happen to our son,'' says Gong Ping, an electrician at a Wuhan appliance factory. ``I think the root cause of this is the corruption in our society.''
In recent months, the Chinese press has reported that the kidnapping outbreak is spreading: Nannies in Beijing are selling children; a gang of Sichuan farmers sold more than 80 children and five women in a six-year-period; children in Shanghai have been kidnapped after their parents were drugged; two old women in Zhejiang Province traded off 36 children; and rural women in Guangxi Province, lured to cities with promises of jobs, have been raped and then sold for prostitution.
According to the official Legal Daily, more than 50,000 abductions of women and children were reported in 1991-1992. The newspaper claimed that almost 90 percent were rescued and that 75,000 kidnappers were arrested.
Chinese observers blame the outbreak on the rise in prostitution and on the harsh one-child family planning policy. With only one child allowed per family and sons preferred over daughters, child abandonment is on the rise, and farmers are often willing to pay large sums to buy a desperately wanted son.
Chinese authorities quoted in the press estimate that three-quarters of the kidnappings are rooted in economic disputes and inadequate legal protections.
When creditors are unable to secure their rights legally, they often resort to taking children and wives of rich farmers and businessmen as hostages to ensure repayment of debts. In Guangdong Province in 1993, more than 400 abductions were reported, and that number is increasing more than 50 percent yearly, Legal Daily says.
Hostage-taking is spreading under the patronage of corrupt police officials, especially in the fast-growing coastal provinces. ``The government knows this is a serious problem,'' a Chinese journalist says. ``The economy has been growing very quickly, but regulations and law enforcement have failed to keep pace.''
Pangzi's parents say the corruption and indifference of the police forced them to take matters into their own hands.
They combed Wuhan streets on bicycle, posting handbills and interviewing residents. They planned a public appeal for donations to continue their search. Every day, Wang Jinju, Pangzi's mother, went to the police station to beg for help. ``They told me that such things frequently happen, or it is impossible to look for the boy.... One official told me if I gave him 5,000 yuan [$575], he would look for my son,'' she recalls.
Pangzi was taken by train, with a knife at his side to keep him from squealing, to neighboring Henan Province. There he was sold to a farmer who beat him and pressed burning cigarettes against his arms when the boy fumbled at the rigorous, unfamiliar farm work, he recalls. At night, the farmer locked the child in the kitchen, where he slept on a straw mat.
``The farmer told me to call him Daddy, but I missed my mother and father,'' Pangzi says, displaying burn marks on his arms. ``Because he refused to call the farmer Daddy and disobeyed him, the farmer decided to resell him,'' the youth's father adds.
Next, Pangzi lived with a farmer in Hebei Province, tending cows and looking after the family's three-year-old daughter. He was given warm clothes and better food, but whenever the little girl cried, the farmer hit Pangzi and demanded he entertain her. The boy once sought help from a policeman, but was told he could not do anything for him.
Pangzi escaped during a trip to town. He clambered aboard a railroad car, went to Shanxi Province and then to Xian in Shaanxi, where he lived for two months in abandoned rail cars, begging and fighting to stay alive. By June, more than three months after his kidnapping, the boy made it by freight car back to Wuhan, where a friend brought him home.
``I was so excited,'' says the boy's mother. ``At first, I could not believe this was my boy. His features had changed, he spoke with a different accent, and he was very, very skinny.''