Sun, Sep 30, 2007 - Page 17 News List

Where's our child?

In China, 190 children are stolen every day to full the demand for sons. Brokenhearted parents trying to find their loved ones face retaliation from traffickers and government intransigence

By Clare Dwyer Hogg  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A baby is carried in a basket on his mothers' back on a street in Beijing. China's One Child policy has been blamed for fueling a black market for babies.

PHOTOS: EPA

In China, around 190 children are snatched every day - stolen from their beds and the streets. This is more than double the average number of abductions recorded in England and Wales over a whole year. If 190 people were dying every day from the same illness, you'd call it an epidemic. And that's exactly what it is, except nobody really wants to talk about it. Especially the Chinese government.

The government doesn't want to talk about it because it's a short step from fully acknowledging the kidnappings to having to address why they're happening. Which means entering dangerous territory - a root cause of such large numbers of children being snatched is the fact that having a son in China is a necessity. He carries the family name, he is the child who will provide for his parents as they age. The One Child Policy has resulted in prohibitive family-planning laws in China: prospective parents must have a birth permit before conceiving and urban families must pay a fine for flouting the one-child rule. If you haven't had an abortion to get rid of your female child (although it is now illegal), how can you be sure to get a son? Sometimes the only choice seems to be to buy a stolen child, gender already determined.

"I did think about suicide," says Li, a woman in her early twenties. "I missed my child so much." It has been a year and a half since her little boy, Chen Jie, was taken. He was five years old, playing at his grandmother's vegetable stall in Sichuan, when Zhang, a trusted neighbor, passed by. Offering to bring Chen Jie back to his mother, Zhang left, taking the child with him. This was the last time Chen Jie was seen by his family. Later, when parents and grandmother realized that neither had the little boy, they ran to Zhang's door, desperately hoping he was there. Calmly, Zhang said that, after giving him money for sweets, he'd left Chen Jie at the apartment block.

"Sometimes I don't want to carry on my life," Li continued. She has come close to killing herself many times, she said, but is always stopped by the thought of how disappointed her family would be. Culturally, the responsibility for the family weighs heavily: Li and her husband, Lung, already feel they have let their parents down by depriving them of the grandson who would carry on the family name. Once, Li admits, she was ready to jump from the top of a public washroom, but the owner of the building dragged her home. "She tried to prevent me from thinking that way," Li says. "She knew a story in which a mother who lost her child killed herself by jumping off a building. After her death, the father sold the house and lost contact with everyone. Never came back. Later, their friend found the child and brought him home, but the whole family was gone." Li has thought about this tragic twist many times. "If you die, and your child comes back one day, he loses his mother forever."

Li and Lung Chen are determined to do anything to get their son back, but their options are severely limited. The media is too close to the government to be used as a tool, and even joining a parents' support group must be done in secret. They saved up US$80 to put Chen Jie's picture on a poker set that features missing children on every card; in their desperation, they're gambling on gamblers. Putting up missing posters of Chen Jie, his eyes staring out brightly even from a photocopy, was risky because it's forbidden (the authorities aren't keen to have reminders of missing children on show), but they did it. Hiring a private detective cost money, but they did that, because the detective has a reputation for successful rescue missions. Speaking to Westerners about their plight was downright dangerous, but they've done that, too.

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