On a late December afternoon, a four-year old boy with a Superman tracksuit and cherubic cheeks plopped down in front of a TV here. Nearby, his grandfather dozed off after a late lunch. An hour later, he woke up to find his grandson, Liu Si Rui, had gone. He rushed out to scour the dirt roads and knock on neighbors’ doors, to no avail.
Over three years later, the boy is still missing.
Young Liu’s suspected kidnapping is a common tale in parts of China. His parents are among an estimated 250 million workers who have moved in recent decades to cities, part of a labor force that underlies China’s increased prosperity. Liu’s father, a driver, and his mother, a factory worker, live 200 miles away in Shenzhen, a booming city of 10 million studded with bustling factories.
Young Liu joined the ranks of China's so-called “left-behind children,” raised by grandparents or other relatives. A recent study by the All-China Women’s Federation, an official body, estimated that 61 million children who have not seen their parents in at least three months.
One reason why so many are left behind is that China's forbidding official household registration policy, or hukou system, makes it near-impossible for migrants to raise their children where they work. Coupled with a one-child policy that stokes demand for male heirs, this lack of parental supervision increases the risk of exploitation, sexual assaults, kidnapping and trafficking of kids — especially the children of migrants.
As many as 200,000 abductions
Since the 1980s, the child trafficking industry in China has skyrocketed. China's official estimate is that 10,000 children are abducted each year; Beijing-based NGO Xunzi Zhijia puts the figure closer to 200,000.
There are a number of possible outcomes for abducted children, depending on their age. According to Xunzi Zhijia, adoption is the most common result for a child up to five years old.
Abducted children are sold to couples who are unable to conceive, or want to ensure that their only child is a boy so that he can carry on the family name. According to a recent BBC report, a male baby can be sold in adoption for as much as $16,000, double the going rate for a female infant. They are typically abducted before they have a clear memory of their birth family.
Those from five to eight years old are often sold into labor, prostitution or marriage. Some criminal gangs force children into begging or even harvest their organs.
The high rate of child trafficking partly stems from the one-child policy, which has led to an influx in the prostitution of girls and the abduction of boys for adoption, analysts say. China has now relaxed many of the conditions of the policy.
But most analysts also attribute the trafficking scourge to the pressure put by the hukou system on migrating parents who might otherwise bring their children with them.
The hukou system began in the 1950s as a form of social control, a way for officials to keep track of the population. One’s hukou is designated at birth and is usually connected to the place of origin. Social services such as subsidized housing, free health care and education only apply in that location; migrants and their children are routinely denied such services.
'Hukou system' a major problem
Liu Junming, father of the missing boy from Mi village, says he and his wife left their son due to Shenzhen’s high cost of living, and the hukou system.
Since Liu and his wife didn’t have hukou status in Shenzhen, their son didn't qualify for a reputable public school. The only option was to enroll in a private, fee-paying school specifically for migrant children.
“If there’s no such limitation imposed by hukou, I would have definitely brought my kids; but we have other concerns as well, because I have a huge economic burden in the city and we are not from a rich family,” he says.
Unlike most migrant workers, Liu would travel to see his children every month, but now his spare time is dedicated to finding his son. Over the past three years, he has traveled around the country distributing flyers that show a smiling Sirui and detail his disappearance. The caption reads: “The parents are devastated.”
Over the past decade, China has ramped up efforts to thwart the human trafficking industry by creating hotlines to report trafficking and increasing prosecutions for offenders, but child abductions have continued. In 2014, the US State Department upgraded China on its annual trafficking watch list – one rank below the bottom – citing its efforts to combat trafficking. Its 2015 ranking, released Monday, is unchanged.
With no real state effort, many parents like Liu have made it their life mission to find their missing children. Families from different parts of the country and socio-economic backgrounds, report a common theme: China's police seem unable to help. So parents have banded together to create online campaigns and volunteer organizations like Xunzi Zhijia.
Xunzi Zhijia, located in a run-down Beijing suburb, is tucked inside a traditional brick courtyard surrounded by frozen wheat fields. It claims 700 parents as members. Newspaper clippings and photos of hundreds of children plastered haphazardly on the walls resemble a grade school collage.
Police don't find missing kids
Xiao Chaohua, the main organizer, is the only parent who remains at Xunzi Zhijia when he’s not searching for his son. With a slight hop in his step, Mr. Xiao walks through the dismal courtyard to an office with an unmade twin bed, which doubles as his bedroom.
The office’s only source of heat in winter is a small, coal fire stove in the center of the room that Xiao stokes from time to time. As he does, he points to a portrait of China's late leader, Mao Zedong that is flanked by the photos of missing children.
“Not even Mao could protect them,” Xiao mumbles. He chokes back tears as he shares the details of his five-year-old son Xiao Song’s abduction in 2007.
Most of the parents who belong to Xunzi Zhijia are low-income workers from Henan and Guangdong Provinces, where, says Xiao, the majority of children are abducted. He stresses that the organization is the parents’ only hope of finding their children. He believes that police are less motivated to solve child abduction cases because there is no financial incentive.
“They are really aggressive when investigating gambling and prostitution because it gets them money," he says. "But finding a kid means spending money.”
Xiao has spent everyday for nearly a decade looking for Xiao Song, although it seems the chances of finding him are slim. Over the past four years, his group has tried to find 2,700 missing kids. So far, only three children have been located.
In July 2014, China announced a minor reform that abolished the distinction between an urban and rural hukou, allowing rural dwellers to access housing and social benefits when they move to cities. But the reform does not apply to Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, or Shenzhen—the largest cities. That means workers who move there for jobs still lack the crucial residency permit.