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China's Stolen Sons

An age-old preference for sons is fueling the kidnapping of young boys, who are sold to families desperate for sons of their own

By Andrew Jacobs in Shenzhen, China

The thieves often strike at dusk, when children are playing outside and their parents are distracted. Deng Huidong lost her 9-month-old son in the blink of an eye as a man driving by yanked him from the grip of his 7-year-old sister near the doorway of their home. The car didn't even stop as a pair of arms reached out and grabbed the boy.

He is one of thousands of Chinese boys who have been stolen from their families. Although some are sold to buyers in Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam, most are bought in China by families desperate for a male heir. Demand is especially strong in rural areas of south China, where the sale of stolen children has become big business.

Su Qingcai, a tea farmer from Fujian Province with a 14-year-old daughter, explains why he spent $3,500 last year on a 5-year-old boy.

"A girl is just not as good as a son," he says. "It doesn't matter how much money you have. If you don't have a son, you are not as good as other people who have one."

The centuries-old Chinese preference for boys—and the custom that a woman leaves her family when she gets married and moves in with her husband's family—is reinforced by a modern reality: Without a real social-safety net like that in the U.S. and other countries, many Chinese parents fear that without a son, they'll be left to fend for themselves in old age. With daughters, there's also the issue of a dowry, a financial burden which falls to the family of the bride.

In a number of Asian and third-world countries, there has long been a cultural preference for boys. In China, the situation has been aggravated by the country's strict one-child policy, which is designed to control the growth of its population of 1.3 billion.

The extent of the kidnapping problem in China is a matter of dispute. The Chinese government insists there are fewer than 2,500 cases of human trafficking each year, including both women and children. But advocates for abducted children say there may be hundreds of thousands.

Sun Haiyang, whose son disappeared in 2007, has collected a list of 2,000 children in and around Shenzhen who have disappeared in the past two years. He says none have been recovered. "It's like fishing a needle out of the sea," he says.

Desperate families say they get almost no help from the local police. They say the police insist on waiting 24 hours before taking action and then claim that too much time has passed to mount an effective investigation. Many parents take matters into their own hands. They post flyers in places where children are known to be sold, and travel the country to stand in front of kindergartens as they let out. A few shop owners have turned their storefronts into missing person displays.

"We spend our life savings, we borrow money, we will do anything to find our children," says Peng Gaofeng, who formed a group for parents of stolen children after his 4-year-old son was kidnapped. "There is a hole in our hearts that will never heal."

Peng and others have been agitating for the establishment of a DNA database for children and for stronger anti-trafficking laws that would penalize people who buy stolen children, as well as the kidnappers. "If the government can launch satellites and catch spies, they can figure out how to find stolen children," he says.

Age-Old Attitudes

About 300 miles away in Anxi, a county in Fujian Province where some of Shenzhen's stolen boys are thought to have been sold, people focus more on the pain of the families without sons.

Zhen Zibao, a shopkeeper, says buying a son is widely accepted and that stolen children could be found in most towns and villages. "If you have only girls, you don't feel right inside," says Zhen, who has one child, an 11-year-old son. "You feel your status is lower than everyone else."

China's government has worked hard to ease age-old attitudes about gender, and in major cities—where one-child families have become the norm and many parents say they are happy to have a daughter or a son—it seems to have succeeded.

But in many rural areas, the preference for boys remains strong. In Anxi County, a resident whose first child is a daughter is allowed to have a second child. Having a third, however, can mean fines as high as $5,800 and other penalties that include the loss of a breadwinner's job.

A boy, by contrast, can often be bought for half that amount, and authorities sometimes turn a blind eye if the child does not need to be registered as a new birth for that region.

For the parents of missing children, the heartbreak and frustration with the authorities have turned into anger. Last September, about 40 families traveled to Beijing to call attention to the problem. They staged a protest at the headquarters of the national television network, but within minutes, dozens of police officers arrived to haul them away.

"They dragged us by our hair and said, 'How dare you question the government,' " says Peng Dongying, who lost her 4-year-old son. "I hate myself for my child's disappearance, but I hate society more for not caring. All of us have this pain in common, and we will do anything to get back our children."