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Chinese tackle child abduction issue with social media

BEIJING – Last week, everyone in China was thrilled by the news that Peng Gaofeng, a young father, had finally found his 6-year-old son who had been kidnapped three years earlier in the southern city of Shenzhen. 
For Peng Gaofeng and his wife, the reunion was a mix of exhilaration and tears when they finally saw their son Peng Wenle. The elder Peng had traveled all over the country looking for his son since March 2008, trying to get help from local police and posting ads online. His efforts had been to no avail, until he received a call at the end of January from someone 800 miles away, along with a photo of his son.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

Peng Wenle, Peng Gaofeng's son, is chased by media after he was reunited with his parents.

Child abduction and smuggling are big problems in China. It’s hard to find official statistics on exactly how many children are missing, the government estimates that up to 20,000 children are trafficked every year, but sociologists believe the number to be around 200,000 every year.

Some abducted children are used by criminal gangs to earn money from begging on the street, others are forced into manual labor, and others are sold for adoption, both domestically and overseas. Particularly in poor rural areas, the demand for a male heir and a culture preference for boys, combined with China’s strict one-child policy, have created an unfortunate market for stolen boys.

Now Chinese activists, with the government’s approval, are using the Internet and social media tools to rescue abducted children.

Social media campaign
Coincidentally, just a few weeks before Peng was reunited with his son, Yu Jianrong, a government critic and professor from the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, started an Internet campaign to try to reunite parents and abducted children, who have been forced to become beggars.  |
Yu Jianrong’s microblog on Sina (a Chinese version of Twitter) urged netizens to upload photos of young beggars they see on the street so that parents who are missing children can look through the images to find their children.

microblog/ Duanzhouguozhengzong

A photo of a woman beggar with a child taken in Zhaoqing, Guangdong province. The photo was sent to the microblog blog page trying to unite parents with their abducted children.

Yu’s appeal, which started around the same time as Peng’s reunion with his son but did not prompt it, has received a massive response. Within three weeks, more than 220,000 followers joined the campaign and more than 1,000 photos from all over China have been posted onto the Internet – six of which were recognized by parents who had lost children. 
In an online survey initiated by ifeng, a Web portal, 70 percent of those surveyed believe that taking photos of child beggars and posting them on the Internet could “rescue a great amount of kidnapped children and crack down on child smuggling." Celebrities including singers, actors, sports commentators, real estate tycoons and children's writers have also started participating.
Even the government has given the campaign a thumbs up, instead of resorting to its usual agitated stance toward mass campaigns involving too many followers.

On Feb. 11, the Ministry of Public Security asked the public to call 110 (China's police hotline) if they see any suspicious child beggars and promised that they will relentlessly punish any individuals or organizations who abuse children or force them into begging. They said DNA samples will be collected from unidentified young beggars and entered into a national database for future investigations. A phone hotline has also been set up by 1,000 lawyers to provide legal help for kidnapping victims.   The punishment for smuggling children is also severe; kidnappers face the death penalty if they are convicted.
Invasion of privacy?
But Yu’s “rescue child beggar” campaign has not escaped criticism and resistance. Some netizens questioned whether the campaign might amount to image and privacy infringement, if children may be retaliated against or further abused as a result of the campaign, and expressed doubts that the action would really be an effective solution.
Lian Yue, a revered freelance columnist, is among many who believe taking photos of the beggars is actually insulting the disadvantaged. “Yes, in this photo campaign, many people believe as long as they rescue one child, it’s big accomplishment. Accordingly I can say that as long as they hurt one beggar, it’s a big crime. And we all know the latter has happened so many times already," he wrote.
Other critics also cited an example in which police forcefully tested the DNA of a man and a boy begging in the street, only to find out they were actually father and son. “Beggars don’t deserve rights and dignity? Why do we have the privilege to take photos as much as we like?” one Chinese critic tweeted.
In a country where the social security system is still absent or extremely weak in many rural areas, families feel insecure unless they have more than one children to support them in old age, but the one-child policy prevents large families. Many local orphanages make it hard for Chinese parents to adopt, because they prefer Westerners who usually provide a much bigger “service fee” for adoptions. And in some extremely poor places, families buy young girls as future wives for their sons if parents fear the boys will be too poor to marry.
Peng’s case is a typical example – the man who kidnapped his son later abducted another girl to be raised as the boy’s future wife.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs estimates China has 1 to 1.5 million child beggars. It’s hard to say how long the photo campaign will last and how much passion the public will have as time goes by. Their fervor may be crippled after a recent police statement saying that most of the child beggars are forced onto the streets by their own parents or relatives, while a large number of kidnapped children actually end up being bought by families looking to adopt.