DONGGUAN (Reuters) - In the quiet village of Shang Di, wedged among factory towns in southern China, Deng Huidong wheels out a dusty two-seater tricycle that her 9-month-old son rode the day he was abducted outside her family house in 2007.
Little Ruicong, who was snatched by men in a white van as he played in an alleyway, hasn’t been seen since.
He is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of children who go missing in China each year, victims of roving criminal gangs preying on vulnerable areas.
“My heart is bleeding,” said Deng as she cried beside a framed photograph of her son splashing in a bath tub.
“I just want to find my son. Every time I see a child, it reminds me of my son and I wonder whether I will see him again.”
While China has made giant economic and social strides over the past few decades, the number of abducted children remains alarmingly high in a nation whose wrenching one-child policy and yawning income disparities have fueled demand for children particularly male heirs, trafficked by underground syndicates.
Human trafficking is widespread across China with kidnapping cases reported in numerous provinces across the country, according to witnesses and postings on missing child websites. Some children are abducted to serve as props for beggars and women are also kidnapped and sold into prostitution or as forced labor in factories.
While many parents are aware of the problem and have bolstered supervision of their kids in known blackspots, elsewhere, particularly in rural areas, a lack of publicity and media exposure means parents are unaware of the problem and often let their children play outdoors unsupervised.
Estimates are difficult to come by, though the China Ministry of Public Security reported investigating 2,566 potential trafficking cases in 2008.
“Due to lack of information and the difficulty of tracing children in a vast country such as China, very few children have actually been found,” Kirsten Di Martino, UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection in China told Reuters in a written response to questions.
The plight of such torn families is often made worse by indifferent, sometimes callous treatment by local police, lax child trafficking laws and poor enforcement.
“In one case, the traffickers even dared to abduct a child right inside a police station ... this shows how rampant they are,” Zheng Chunzhong, a bakery owner in Dongguan whose son was kidnapped in 2003, told Reuters.
Since then, the slim, softly-spoken Zheng has pressured Dongguan authorities to do more to fight the problem, forming a local alliance of some 200 parents who held a recent protest march outside local government offices.
“There are too many cases of missing children. They (the police) are too embarrassed to let higher-level officials know,” he said during a lunch that was interrupted by a public security officer, a reminder of the police surveillance he says he’s long endured due to his outspokenness on the issue.
China’s relatively soft anti-trafficking laws have made it difficult to locate missing children.
In its 2009 report on human trafficking, the U.S. State Department said China’s trafficking laws “do not conform to international standards.” It urged China to “significantly improve efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses and convict and punish trafficking offenders, including public officials complicit in trafficking.”
Not only have current laws failed to deter the buying of children, traditional patriarchal values remain deeply engrained in places such as Chaozhou and in poor, rural communities where families still see nothing wrong in buying a kidnapped boy.
“Further policy action particularly in the area of social protection is required to reduce the dependence of rural parents on their sons for support in old age, sickness and other difficulties,” said UNICEF’s Di Martino.
Boys, particularly toddlers, can fetch 30,000 yuan ($4,390) on the black market, whereas girls fetch much less, around $500, according to media reports, making it a lucrative illicit trade.
Parents like Deng have transformed their grief to activism, traveling across China with banners and leaflets of their missing children, while networking by phone and the Internet to lobby authorities for tougher laws and effective enforcement.
“Until now there are no real laws punishing buyers ... if there is no one buying the children, they wouldn’t snatch the children in the first place,” said Deng.
But Fu Hualing, a legal expert at the University of Hong Kong said cracking down more on buyers could bring social strain.
While the current laws fail to deter the buying of children, amending the laws alone cannot solve the root of the problem, according to Fu, a legal academic at the Hong Kong University.
“It has to do with one-child policy. Unless you change that particular policy, there are lots of social consequences which are very much foreseeable,” Fu said.
In recent years, websites like "Baby Come Home" (www.baobeihuijia) have cropped up, providing a powerful forum for posting missing child notices, while a groundswell of volunteers nationwide have emerged, striving to fill the void of poorly regarded police enforcement and investigative work.
One volunteer said he’s helped rescue dozens of abducted children in recent years by posing as an online buyer to lure traffickers and their go-betweens and then calling in the police.
“When I succeed, my conscience feels gratified ... I mostly use the Internet, it has transformed how I find these kids,” said the 27-year-old who is a martial arts instructor in Guangzhou.
Increased pressure from broken families, the media, Internet bloggers and activists has led to some hopeful policy shifts.
Around 20 Chinese provinces have now established anti-trafficking strategies and increased budgets for such enforcement work, according to UNICEF, while the first National Plan of Action on Anti-trafficking was published in 2007 to boost co-ordination among public security agencies spread across China’s vast territories.
While the percentage of solved cases remains low, there have been isolated breakthroughs often trumpeted by state media.
In early June, police across China rescued 23 children in a nationwide crackdown on child trafficking from poor regions including the less developed southwestern province of Yunnan and the coal-mining province of Shanxi.
Parental groups are also petitioning Beijing directly for help, calls to further expand a DNA database of missing kids that was set up in May this year.
“It all depends on the central government’s actions. You cannot rely on the local government,” said Zheng.
“Even if there is only one percent hope, we will still spend 100 percent of our efforts to find our children,” he added.
Reporting by James Pomfret and Venus Wu; Editing by Megan Goldin