Guo Gangtang sells dried pumpkin gourds in Beijing's Yiwu City shopping center. The yellow containers are imprinted with historic figures, fairies or aphorisms -- designs his wife finds on the Internet.
Business isn't going particularly well, partly because his stand is tucked away in a back corner, where the rent is cheaper. Guo rarely earns more than 1000 yuan (about €120 or $149) a month.
Out of pity, the landlord recently waived his rent. Fate has not treated Guo kindly. His child was stolen 13 years ago, and since then he has been motivated by only one desire: to find his son.
Whenever Guo, who is in his 40s, has saved enough money, he attaches two flags to the back seat of his moped and drives out into the countryside. The flags show a picture of a small boy, his son Xinzhen.
The day the world fell apart for Guo and his wife began like any other. He was living in a village in coastal Shandong Province, where he worked as a driver, transporting building materials on a tractor. It was Sept. 21, 1997. His little son Xinzhen, who was two-and-a-half years old, was playing with a girl from the neighborhood in front of the house door when a woman approached the children. The woman, a stranger, stroked the boy's face with a piece of cloth, eyewitnesses later reported. Then she turned slowly toward the street, which was about 100 meters (328 feet) away.
'I Immediately Sensed that Something Had Happened to Xinzhen'
The little boy must have followed her. It was as if he had vanished into thin air. "When I came home, there was a crowd in front of my house," Guo recalls. "I immediately suspected that something had happened to Xinzhen."
Guo ran to the police station. Neighbors helped him to look for his little boy. He and his wife spent a lot of money during the next few weeks. They posted placards on lampposts, had flyers printed and paid helpers the equivalent of about one euro a day to search for the child in the surrounding towns.
Guo soon began searching farther afield. "I was in every province, except Tibet, Taiwan, Qinghai and Inner Mongolia," he says. Newspapers and television stations picked up the story and reported on his misfortune.
Stealing children is a common problem in the People's Republic, which explains why grandparents or parents pick up children from school throughout the country. They are determined not to make it any easier for the human traffickers.
It's one of the saddest aspects of modern China. Experts estimate that between 30,000 and 60,000 babies, children and adolescents disappear each year. They are kidnapped and then sold, often ending up as slaves in workshops and brickworks, or being forced to work in brothels.
'They Asked Me Whether I Had a Child for Sale '
On the way to the buyer, the human traffickers often sedate the kidnapped children to prevent them from screaming. Sometimes they don't survive their ordeal, as evidenced by periodic media reports of dead children found on buses or trains.
On Nov. 30, 2008, 11 years after the disappearance of Xinzhen, two-year-old Baotong was playing in an alley in front of his parents' building in the coastal city of Lianyungang. His father, Li Shouquan, made athletic shoes in his small factory and sold them in the hallway of his apartment building.
There was a crowd of customers in the courtyard that day. A man who had been lurking unnoticed near the wall suddenly grabbed the little boy and left, leaving behind nothing but a few cigarette butts under a tiny tree.
Li suspected that his son was somewhere in neighboring Shandong Province. "There is a children's market in the town of Tanshan," a policeman told him. When he began looking around in one of the nearby villages, residents mistook him for a human trafficker. "They asked me whether I had a child to sell and how much I wanted for it," he reports. "In their eyes, human trafficking is not criminal, but is in fact part of a tradition in China."
'Bearing Children instead of Raising Pigs'
Sons are particularly important in the villages. It has long been a tradition in rural areas for male offspring and daughters-in-law to care for elderly parents.
But buyers for stolen children can also be found in cities like Beijing or Shanghai. Many Chinese desperately want a baby but are unable to conceive a child of their own. Adoptions are complicated, and most of the children now being handed over to orphanages are disabled.
Beijing's one-child policy doesn't impede the business. On the contrary, families that already have one child sometimes buy another son or daughter. It is lucrative business for the kidnappers, who can charge up to €4,000 for a boy and usually about half as much for a girl. They sometimes even offer special deals to less affluent customers, selling babies for as little as €80.
The police have created a special force to combat the kidnapping of children and women, and the unit breaks up human trafficking rings every year. But according to official statistics, in 2009 the police only managed to rescue 3,400 children from the clutches of dealers and buyers. In many places, a child is only considered missing after 24 hours. By then, the kidnappers are usually long gone.
'No One Asks Any Questions'
Desperate parents repeatedly stage protests against police passivity. One such protest was held in the southern migrant worker city of Dongguan, where about 1,000 children disappeared between 2008 and 2009. The local police only listed 200 victims in their files. They rejected the remaining cases, claiming that there was no proof that a crime had been committed.
The chances of tracking down an abducted child are miniscule. Family clans often control things in the villages, and "they are as thick as thieves," says shoemaker Li. Local officials are part of the system, including the representatives of women's organizations, party leaders and local police officers. "Everyone knows when a new child has suddenly arrived in the village," says Li, "and no one asks any questions."
And then there is the corruption, China's fundamental flaw, without which human trafficking on such a large scale would not be possible. When things are done according to the rules, every child has to be registered with the relevant authorities, something which should not in fact be possible without a birth certificate and other documents. But with the right connections and a handsome bribe for officials, this hurdle is easily surmounted.
It is not just unscrupulous gangs that engage in human trafficking, as one might expect, but sometimes the parents themselves. Some farmers are so poor that they cannot or are unwilling to feed another mouth, and so they sell their newborns instead. Others view giving birth to and selling additional children as a source of income -- and more lucrative than toiling in the fields. There is a saying among farmers in the southwestern province of Yunnan: "If you want to make money, you should bear children instead of raising pigs."
'The Opportunity Presented Itself'
In Lushan, 300 kilometers (188 miles) west of Lianyungang, Mr. Wang is sitting on an imitation leather sofa. An attractive young man, he works as a middle-school mathematics teacher. He is currently assigned to a village school in the mountains. He and his wife, who is also a teacher, admit that they bought a child.
The teacher doesn't want to provide his real name. His family, which is gathered around him, is suspicious of journalists. Under Chinese law, however, what Mr. Wang has done is not a crime. Only those who sell people can be charged with a crime, but not those who buy them.
Nevertheless, the case casts him in a bad light, as an educator who is supposed to serve as a role model for society. Mr. Wang decides to speak. He wants to demonstrate that he too is a victim. "After we had our boy, we wanted a second child," he says. "We love children. And when the opportunity presented itself, we seized it."
That opportunity arose at the People's Hospital across the main street. A relative had heard that a mother wanted to sell her newborn, because she was too poor to feed the child. At the appointed time, Mr. Wang met a man on the steps of the hospital who the teacher believed was the father. The man was holding the baby in his arms. "We gave him more than 10,000 yuan (around €1,200)," says Wang.
The baby was tiny and scrawny, but the new parents used powdered milk to help the child put on weight. "There were times when we thought the baby wouldn't make it," says the teacher's mother.
'She Doesn't Recognize Me Anymore'
An album of pictures from the baby's first birthday party is on the coffee table. She looks like a happy little girl, wearing a little sun hat in one photo and sunglasses in another, or holding a mobile phone in her hand.
But the family's newfound happiness was short-lived. One day, officers turned up at the door. They were railroad police from the southwestern province of Guizhou. A few days earlier, they had noticed two suspicious-looking men traveling with three tiny children on a train to Beijing. One of them confessed to having sold a baby to Wang, the teacher. The wife of the baby dealer apparently worked as a nurse in the Lushan hospital and set up the deal.
The railroad police officers took the baby girl away from the Wangs and took her to an orphanage in Guizhou. Because there was no information on the identity and whereabouts of the little girl's birth mother, she has been living in the orphanage since last September.
The teacher calls it scandalous, saying that he would like to keep the girl until the real parents can be found. "I once visited the child in the orphanage. It was terrible. She didn't recognize me anymore. She has regressed, and now she no longer speaks."
Most kidnapped children who are found -- or who set out to find their real parents -- suffer fates similar to that of the Wang's purchased daughter. Rarely do the police manage to find the real parents. Last year, when the police published photos of 60 rescued children on a website, only seven of their relatives came forward.
Meanwhile, more than 230 laboratories throughout the country have analyzed the DNA of parents and rescued children. The government pays the cost of the testing, about €200 per test. More than 20,000 samples have already been collected -- too few to be able to effectively reunite families in such an enormous country.
As a result, many people never learn that the people who raised them are not their biological parents. To improve the chances of mothers and fathers finding their children, private groups have now set up websites that allow parents to search for the missing children.
Playing Cards with Photos of the Missing
The sound of Kenny G playing the Frank Sinatra classic "I Did it My Way" on the clarinet emerges from the loudspeakers in the main train station of Chongqing, a city on the Yangtze River in central China. A dozen people, most of them young, are holding up a banner for travelers to see. It reads: "Joint Campaign of Volunteers from Chongqing to Find Family Members."
Shen Hao, 41, a computer specialist from Anhui Province, initiated the campaign. Nine years ago, he decided to dedicate himself to the plight of the missing, when he read a newspaper story about three girls who had disappeared. Since then, he has been traveling through China's big cities, handing out playing cards with photos of the missing to passersby.
The Queen of Hearts card, for example, depicts Wang Yafeng, born April 20, 1987 in Inner Mongolia. She has been missing since Oct. 7, 2008. According to the tiny Chinese characters on the card, she has a "large nose" and "a scar on the index finger of the right hand," and "she speaks dialect-free Chinese."
The Nine of Spades features a blurred image of a young man who was born "around 1984." He is searching for his biological parents. "Kidnapped between May and September 1990," he writes. He describes himself as a child with "large eyes and a small nose," and notes that he is now 1.76 meters (5'9") tall and wears a size 41 shoe.
He writes that, as far as he can remember, he is from a city, perhaps in Hunan Province, or possibly Chongqing. "There were markets on both sides of the street. My parents wore uniforms." He remembers that strangers took him to the coastal province of Fujian on a bus.
The cards also offer tips on how to make it more difficult for traffickers to steal children. One of the recommendations is to "always keep the children in your sight." Another one is to have one's children tattooed so that they can be identified more easily later on.
"About 800 people were able to find their relatives with the help of our website and the cards," activist Shen says proudly. He has already printed 16,000 of the playing cards. He is wearing a green parka and has spiky hair. A woman who has just approached him says that she has been missing her 13-year-old son for several days. Unless he turns up soon, the boy will appear in the next batch of Shen's cards.
'I Wouldn't Force Him to Come Back to Us'
Shen, who receives no money from the government, pays for his campaign with his own funds, contributions from the families and company donations. Official China mistrusts non-profit organizations like his. Nevertheless, it does provide him with assistants during his trips around the country. "Child abduction," says Shen, "is a worldwide problem. It's an extremely profitable business, like the drug trade."
It is early May, and gourd seller Guo is driving his red "Haojue" motorcycle along Highway 106 in Hubei Province, heading for Wuhan, a major city on the Yangtze River. His silver helmet, jeans, cloth shoes and knee pads are enveloped in the clouds of dust stirred up by trucks, and his chin is covered with stubble. He has covered 4,000 kilometers within the last two weeks. "I want to go to towns where I haven't been yet," he says.
When he stops to take a break at a small roadside restaurant, a few local residents stare at the flags on his moped. "My child was kidnapped," Guo explains. When he meets people with the same fate, he tells them about his experiences. "There is a police website," he says, "and you can take a DNA test."
He recently saw a picture of a ragged street urchin in a newspaper. The boy seemed to resemble his son. He quickly drove to the town, but the boy wasn't his. Guo and his wife now have two other sons, who are 12 and three years old.
What if he were to find Xinzhen after these years, possible in an intact family? "I wouldn't force him to come back to us," says Guo. "I would just want to know that he's doing well."