BEIJING – Last September, less than a month after the end of the Beijing Summer Olympics, about 40 parents materialized in front of the Bird's Nest stadium. Somber and silent, they stood in a row; each one carried a large poster with photographs of their missing young children.
"Doesn't this society have a responsibility? Why let these parents suffer?" a young college student who appeared to be the parents' spokesman shouted out to the gathering crowd of onlookers. "Our Chinese government could do something as big as the Olympics, but they cannot find these kids? Why not?"
|Adrienne Mong/NBC News|
|Parents publicize the plight of their missing children in Beijing.|
One of those parents was Peng Gaofeng, a handsome 30-year-old from originally from Hubei province in central China. His poster bore photographs of his son, Peng Wen Le – nicknamed Le Le.
"My son was taken away by a [child] smuggler so ruthlessly," said Peng. He had come to the Chinese capital with the other parents in the vain hope that they could gain an audience with Premier Wen Jiabao. They had heard that, months earlier, Wen had ordered an investigation into a case of eight children who had disappeared from Henan province, and a week later they were found.
"We thought if [Wen] knew…if we could see him, he would help us and know how much we suffer," Peng recalled.
Instead he and the other parents were rounded up by the authorities, detained for a couple of days, and sent back to their home provinces.
Eight months later, Peng is still searching for his son.
|VIDEO: Buying boys in China
|Photo courtesy of Peng Gaofeng and Xiong Yini|
|Xiong Yini with her son, Le Le, before he disappeared.|
A shattered life
Peng and his wife, Xiong Yini, moved with Le Le to Shenzhen three years ago. Like many migrants, they planned on a better future for themselves and their only child in the booming border city of 14 million people in southern China. Within months they had set up their own phone shop, and Le Le was thriving in his local school.
But their new life came to a standstill when Le Le, then 3-years-old, was taken from the square in front of their home one evening in March of last year. Security cameras from surrounding buildings show an unidentified man picking up the little boy and carrying him off across the street, away from his parents and his home.
Le Le is one of thousands of children who go missing in China every year. Law enforcement authorities say they don't keep track of the numbers, and independent researchers say they can only go by the number of children recovered to guess at the scale of the problem.
"In 2006, 1,500 children were found. The real figure of missing children is unknown," said Professor Pi Yijun, who teaches at the China University of Political Science and Law.
Statistics in local media reports vary wildly, with some estimating as many as a quarter million children disappearing every year in China. But in a country with such a large population, even the most conservative approximation still sounds high – 20,000 children a year.
"Smuggling women and children is a very serious social problem, a problem all of us hate to see," said Wang Dawei, a professor of crime studies at the China People's Public Security University. "But this is not just China's problem."
Wang has a point. Like other countries that have human trafficking, some of the children in China are forced into labor. Two years ago, the country was rocked by a series of scandals involving hundreds of adults and children as young as 8 years old forced into slave labor at mostly illegal brick kilns in the north-central provinces of Shanxi and Henan.
But child smuggling in China does have a unique dimension.
|Adrienne Mong/NBC News|
|Parents try to draw attention to their plight outside the Bird's Nest stadium.|
A preference for boys
"The main reason is gender," said Pi. "In the traditional Chinese mind, only boys carry the bloodline of the family. So if a family only has girls, they will want boys…There is a big market for baby boys.
"So much so that boys sell for twice the price of girls. The average price for boys, said Pi, starts at 500 yuan ($73) but can climb up to several thousand dollars by the time the child has been traded by several tiers of middlemen.
The crimes appear to be confined mostly to the countryside, according to law enforcement officials, where cultural values are still conservative, espousing a preference for males. But the trend of buying boys is also exacerbated by China's strict family planning policy, which limits couples to having only one child in most instances.
"A lot of people can only have one child, but they want to keep the family name going," said Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer. "When they have a girl, they still want a boy. But they can't have another. So they just buy [a boy]."
So authorities have begun cracking down on buyers. "Not only do we strike the smugglers [and the middlemen], now we strike customers," said Pi. "This is a good change, and I think it will help curb the crime."
Officials have also tried to enforce the strict monitoring of children being registered (China has a rigorous household registration system) and urged people to be vigilant. "If someone suddenly gets a new child, neighbors should report it to the police and have it checked out. Did the child come legally?" Liu suggested people ask.
Wang, the crime studies professor, pointed out that there is a lot more information about the issue now. "We do a lot of publicity to educate parents on how to protect their children," he said, "and how to look for them once they are lost."
In fact, the Ministry of Public Security recently announced a national campaign to crack down on human trafficking that would last from April to December. No other details were given.
The search continues
Peng isn't waiting around for changes to the law.
"I've been living this life of looking for my son," he told us during a recent visit to Guangzhou, where he was giving a talk about child smuggling. He has organized an informal group of parents of missing children and helps run a Web site on the subject called "Baby Come Home."
When we last spoke to him, he had just returned from a town in Fujian province, where someone claimed to have seen a little boy that resembled Le Le. "He was very specific about the location," said Peng, who regularly receives tips and has learned to try to distinguish between real and fake leads. "You have to prepare yourself."
Peng is so often on the road, chasing leads on his son that he and his wife have thought about closing up their business and moving home. But "our son has a memory of this place," she said, clutching a photo album full of pictures of Le Le.
"I really liked looking at this album. Now I don't dare," Xiong continued. "The biggest responsibility as a parent is to look after the child, but I failed… I didn't look after my child."