Page last updated at 16:39 GMT, Friday, 27 November 2009

On the hunt for China's child snatchers


Chinese children snatched and sold

Over 2,000 trafficked children have been rescued since China's government began a crackdown on the trade in stolen children earlier this year.

But as the BBC's Damian Grammaticas reports from Beijing, many thousands of children are being snatched off the streets to be sold every year and most are never recovered.

The footage from the CCTV security camera is soft and blurred, but a man can be seen walking down a street carrying a child away in the night.

He glances over his shoulder, wary. This is a child kidnapper in the act of committing his crime.

The man has snatched the boy off the street in Dongguan in southern China where he was playing.

Another camera films the abductor as he gets tired, pauses, puts the boy down, then picks him up and sets off again.

His air is unhurried. There are many passersby, but nobody questions him.

There are thousands of cases like this in China every year - children, often boys, stolen to be sold for profit.

Detective work

In another case a camera mounted in a bus station catches a man luring a boy into his trap.

The man is sitting, holding a baby turtle in his hand.

When my son came back, everything suddenly became clear, and it filled my heart with joy
Luo Run's father Luo An Xin

A young boy comes up to him, his sister by his side, to look at the animal. But it is the boy, three-and-a-half-year-old Luo Run, who is the target, not the girl.

He was abducted and spirited hundreds of miles away by a gang of traffickers.

In Luo Run's case the police were able to identify the man who snatched him.

Trailing the gang took them to the mountains of southern Fujian province.

There, posing as buyers looking for a child, detectives arranged a meeting with the so-called snakehead, the gangster who had sold the boy on.

A mother is reunited with her stolen son
More than a dozen children were rescued along with Luo Run

The demand for children is driven by a deep-seated preference in southern China for sons, boys to keep the family name alive who have a duty to care for aged parents.

And some parents are prepared to buy a stolen child if they can not have a boy of their own.

It is thought China's One Child Policy exacerbates the problem. Couples the law applies to who have a girl first cannot then legally have another child, so many turn to the traffickers to procure a boy.

Arresting the snakehead who had sold Luo Run led detectives to trace and free not only him, but also more than a dozen children, all of whom had been stolen and traded to families in the area.

The children were all taken back to Guangdong province where they had come from and were reunited with their parents.

Mothers sobbed as they hugged the children they had lost, the terrible uncertainty of not knowing if they were alive or dead finally at an end.

Abductions rising

Luo Run's parents are poor migrant labourers who live in a tiny flat in a workers' block in Guangzhou.

They say their son ended up with a well-off elderly couple who were desperate for a son of their own and showered the boy with toys. When he was rescued it took him days to accept his real parents again. Now they never let him out of their sight.

Lou Run and his father Luo An Xin
Lou Run's parents do not let him out of their sight now

"When my son went missing, it was like my heart was being cut into pieces. It was the darkest time of my life, words cannot describe it," Luo Run's father Luo An Xin says.

"When my son came back, everything suddenly became clear, and it filled my heart with joy."

Happy as it is, Luo Run's rescue is an exception.

Nobody knows how many children are being kidnapped every year. But parents say it is thousands, and most are never recovered.

Even China's Supreme People's Court has said the numbers of stolen children are rising.

This week it sentenced two men to death for kidnapping and trading 15 children. It may be a sign that China's government wants to send a signal that it is cracking down on the trade.

Desperate search

On the streets of southern China's teeming factory towns the children of migrant labourers, playing unsupervised, are easy prey for the traffickers.

Two thousand stolen children have been recovered by Chinese police in a special operation launched this year, but often China's authorities can be callous in their response to the problem.

Some parents say local officials often do not want to deal with cases of stolen children. They say they have been warned to keep quiet and not campaign publicly to find their children lest they disturb social order.

Le Le's father Peng Gaofeng
Peng Gaofeng has been searching China for his abducted son Le Le

Peng Gaofeng's two-year-old son Le Le was abducted right outside his shop. Le Le was a cheeky, vivacious boy, doted on by his parents.

Security camera footage shows a man walking away holding the boy. But it is too blurred to show the face of the man.

Peng Gaofeng agrees to meet us, but only discreetly in a local restaurant.

He has travelled across southern China looking for his son. He has put up posters and been on television.

But since he began his public campaign to find Le Le and other children, he says he has been monitored by police and warned against making too much fuss.

"If there were just one or two cases it would be a minor thing for the police. But there are thousands of us who've lost our kids. It's a massive issue," Peng Gaofeng says.

"By campaigning openly we undermine the image the government wants to project that this is a harmonious society."

For some officials finding Peng Gaofeng's child appears less important than preserving the facade of order.

So all he has now are some pictures of his son, and the security camera footage showing Le Le, vanishing into the night.

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