Zhaoyuan was playing by the village store when he disappeared. His worried grandparents found the toddler’s footprints in the path by the local temple. And then, nothing.

The villagers waded through ponds and probed wells. They combed through abandoned houses and sugar cane fields. After a few hours, they called the boy’s father home from his factory job in the nearby city. He called the police.

That was January. Nearly a year later, there are no clues. Every morning before his factory shift begins, Zhaoyuan’s father Chen Shengkuan searches preschools and parks in Zhanjiang, a small city in southern China. Squatting on the kerb he scans passing children.

“I can only relax if I’ve tired myself out with looking,” says Mr Chen, a 28-year-old whose legs were paralysed by childhood polio. “Every day at work, I am consumed with the thought of him. At night, I lie in bed thinking: ‘How could he have disappeared from the village?’”

Zhaoyuan’s family has come to the grim conclusion that he is one of the thousands of children trafficked in China. The trade ranges from the informal — babies given up by impoverished rural families — to criminal gangs who kidnap children and sell them. The police are treating Zhaoyuan’s disappearance as a kidnapping.

In China, babies and toddlers, especially boys like Zhaoyuan, are in demand for adoption. Girls might be raised as future brides. Teenagers can be tricked into prostitution or work as unpaid labourers in low-margin industries like brickmaking.

For this year’s Seasonal Appeal, the Financial Times is working in partnership with Stop The Traffik, an organisation that raises awareness of this modern-day slave trade, whose victims the UN says have been found in 124 countries. Many cases blur the lines, especially as vulnerable people cross borders to escape conflict or look for work. Forced labour — the main form of trafficking in central and east Asia — accounts for 40 per cent of all cases and, according to the International Labour Organisation, generates $150bn a year in private profits. In China as elsewhere, teenagers lured with the promise of work find themselves uncompensated and unable to escape.

“There are many cases where trafficking isn’t necessarily a helpful term — or where it might not be the most accurate,” says Bridget Anderson, research director at Oxford university’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. “But kidnapping children in China is as clear as it could be.”

Urbanisation drives abductions

Like many children of migrant workers, 20-month-old Zhaoyuan lived with his grandparents in a village with only a few dozen elderly inhabitants, crumbling brick houses and lanes filled with weeds. Mr Chen visited as often as he could. Family photos show him beaming with pride at his son, who shares his long eyelashes and crooked grin.

The country’s rapid economic development has been driven by the flood of young adults like Mr Chen into growing cities. That creates an opening for kidnappers to nab toddlers like Zhaoyuan who play unsupervised in half-abandoned villages or city slums.

By the time Mr Chen joined the search for his son, Zhaoyuan was probably long gone. Traffickers typically pass a drugged, sleeping child to young women who board a long-distance bus. Handed off again at a train station, he could have been whisked anywhere on China’s 120,000km rail network.

“Child abduction ties into more people leaving their hometowns for work,” says Pi Yijun, a criminologist at the China University of Political Science and Law. “When there are more migrant workers there are more left-behind children.”

A van covered with the images of missing children being driven around China

Recent legal cases against traffickers in Mr Chen’s province, Guangdong, have revealed that the price of a trafficked child ranges from Rmb10,000 ($1,500) to Rmb100,000. Boys on average fetch twice the price of girls. Most stay within China but some end up in international adoptions — joining the millions of people forcibly moved across borders in what is a growing global trade.

China’s child trafficking problem is inseparable from its policy on population control. Kidnappers steal from regions where enforcement is lax — like the rural south-west — and sell into regions where tough enforcement of the one-child policy has left a shortage of heirs and brides. In some provinces, it is cheaper to buy a child than pay the fine for having a second or third. Rising infertility in cities creates more demand.

For years, harsh punishment for violating the one-child policy created a supply of healthy and available babies. Boys were quickly placed in China; over the course of two decades about 120,000 children, mostly girls, were adopted overseas. “The one-child policy put a price on healthy children, primarily male children, through creating a shortage. This manifested itself in two ways: through the international adoption market, and likely in domestic cases of missing children,” says Mei Fong, author of One Child, the Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment.

But by the mid 2000s, the one-child policy had eased, more couples could afford fines and birth control was more reliable. Birth rates plummeted. Suddenly, there were fewer babies. International adoptions out of China peaked in 2005. In 2007, Beijing introduced eligibility restrictions on foreign adoptions, indicating there were fewer healthy infants available.

Xiaosong goes missing

That year, a couple from eastern China opened a clothing store in Huizhou, a crowded southern factory town. They sent their 11-year-old daughter and five-year-old son to buy milk at the neighbourhood shop. The girl stopped to play with a friend. When she looked up, her brother Xiaosong was gone.

“We stayed up all night making posters and plastering them around the neighbourhood,” says his mother, Xiong Shuifeng. They only attracted fraudsters. Within 10 days, Xiong and her husband Xiao Chaohua had paid out almost Rmb40,000 to callers claiming to know the boy’s whereabouts.

“When someone says they have your child, your heart leaps,” she recalls. “You don’t think straight.”

Mr Xiao says that “pretty soon we realised there were lots of these cases”. Unable to get help from police in Guangdong he covered a van with photographs of missing children and drove to Beijing to petition the government to act against the trade.

He got little satisfaction but he did find a sociologist named Yu Jianrong, who has turned kidnapping into a national issue by posting photos of missing children on his blog.

In the years since Xiaosong vanished, trafficking stories have shocked China. A father searching for his missing son liberated hundreds of teenagers enslaved at brick kilns. A mother discovered her 11-year-old daughter had been sold into prostitution and was working in a brothel run by police. Doctors tricked parents into giving up newborns, family planning officers seized undocumented children and some orphanages bought babies for placement overseas.

Cards showing the faces of missing children are handed out by desperate parents
© FT montage

Parents like Mr Xiao formed a network of volunteers who fan across the country looking for kidnapped children. “In the cities where we’ve been, there’s a lot of publicity around this,” Ms Xiong says. “But in the countryside, they still don’t know to guard against it.”

The lost children strike a national chord. Decades of turmoil, migration and the one-child policy have fractured many Chinese families. The website, Baobeihuijia.com or “Baby Come Home”, carries 15,000 listings and co-ordinates 20,000 volunteers. Postings include parents looking for children they were forced to give up long ago, adoptees hoping to find biological parents, and even missing adults. It is a tapestry of grief and hope.

In the face of public outrage, China revised its criminal law last month to punish people who buy children. Earlier laws forbidding the abandonment, stealing or selling of children were only enforced in the past few years, as the one-child policy eased and kidnapping cases grew more prominent.

Activists hope China’s recent relaxation of the one-child policy will reduce kidnapping but they also fear it could reduce the number of babies available for adoption, thus creating an even stronger incentive to steal.

Public anger

In 2009 — as fears over kidnapping became a public obsession — police set up a national anti-trafficking task force and a DNA database to match parents with missing children. The task force concentrates on retrieving babies or toddlers passed through trafficking rings. “Police are under pressure to perform well in cracking cases, so it’s unavoidable that they want to see a higher number of rescued children,” Mr Pi says. “However, when people try to assess the abduction situation, they are reluctant to talk about it.”

Reported trafficking cases and the number of children rescued have both climbed steeply since 2009. While the Baby Come Home site receives about 1,000 appeals for help a year — probably a good proxy for the number of kidnappings — official statistics for trafficked women and children have soared, from 6,513 in 2009 to 20,735 in 2013. Media reports say 13,000 women or children were rescued in 2014, and 24,000 in 2013. The police declined interview requests.

Advocates argue that criminalising the buying of children will stop kidnapping but the new law is surprisingly divisive. Buying or selling children through informal brokers is a long tradition in the countryside. Only a minority of trafficked children are kidnapped.

Southern Metropolis Daily, a Guangdong newspaper, analysed 380 trafficking cases tried in provincial courts over the past two years. About two-thirds of the children had been sold by their birth parents or close relations, due to poverty, to avoid fines or because the parents were unmarried.

Some kidnapped children have been returned to their birth parents after traffickers were arrested. Other purchased children — who were not kidnapped — have been torn from the only families they have ever known and deposited, unclaimed, in orphanages.

Ms Xiong scoffs at the idea that parents might not realise they bought a stolen child, especially an older one like Xiaosong. “Adoptive parents might think it’s an extra child that’s been brokered. But no one would sell a boy!”

Xiaosong would be 14 now. He might not look much like the wide-eyed boy plastered on his father’s van, wearing a sweater knitted by his mother. “I just want a glimpse of him, to know how he’s doing,” says Mr Xiao.

Mr Chen faces a similar agonising wait. As a teenager, he joined the flow of migrants out of China’s villages. He found work in Zhanjiang at a factory employing disabled workers. He also found love with Zeng Huarong. Their second son was born in October.

But having spent Rmb30,000 in his search for Zhaoyuan, Mr Chen worries that the arrival of his second son leaves him even fewer resources to find his first. “I’m happy, but I am also sad. One child is at home and the other missing. Sometimes I don’t know what to do.”

In the 11 months he has been gone, Zhaoyuan will have grown several inches; he may no longer understand his grandparents’ Leizhou dialect, or remember his own name. The odds on Mr Chen noticing him outside a pre-school are small, but the alternative is giving up altogether.

“I believe I will find him, if I just keep looking,” he says. “I hope he remembers me, remembers that I am his father.”

Additional reporting by Luna Lin, Wan Li and Anna Hsieh

To find out more about FT’s Seasonal Appeal partner, visit STOP THE TRAFFIK.

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