RONGZHUANG, Jiangsu Province, China — It’s the kind of rural village where there are no cars, only small motorbikes or bicycles. The courtyard houses, made of stone blocks and cement, are neatly arranged in grid formation. In front of almost every home, chickens wander around or pigs are crowded into pens.
Most people are farmers — at least the elderly are; the able-bodied young become migrant workers, going to cities to find work. It’s a monochromatic place that feels desolate in the winter; the only flash of color is a woman’s scarf.
In short, it’s a village much like any other in the Chinese countryside.
Except that this one briefly entered the limelight in February when it was discovered that one of the families had abducted a child.
Six-year old Peng Wenle — Le Le as his biological parents call him — was living in one of these homes for half his young life. He spent his days like the other village children: going to school, playing in the narrow dusty lanes, and pursuing his studies diligently.
Life appeared normal. But the little boy never forgot he had been taken from his parents in Shenzhen three years ago. He had been playing outside their apartment building one early evening in March 2008 when a man from Rongzhuang named Han — believed to be a factory worker at the time — picked him up and walked off. The scene was caught on nearby security cameras.
By Adrienne Mong/NBC News
Villagers in Rongzhuang.
We covered the kidnapping two years ago for Nightly News.
Kidnapped for half a lifetime
The details of Le Le’s life under Han’s roof 800 miles away from his real parents are unclear. But one thing seems certain. The boy was well looked after by Han’s wife — the woman who became his adoptive mother— even after the 40-something Han himself died of intestinal cancer last year.
“[Han] told everyone that the boy was his from a relationship with a mistress,” an elderly man who lived down the road from Han’s house told us. He was one of three neighbors who appeared to speak freely with us but did not give their names.
It seemed incredible that the neighbors didn't find it strange that Han appeared suddenly one day with a child.
But another villager piped up, filling in more details. “He told [his wife] that his mistress was going to marry another guy so she didn’t want the boy anymore,” he said. “He said his mistress cried, and the boy cried, too. [Han] completely made up this story as if it were real.”
“The wife didn’t believe him, but what could she do?” the neighbor continued. “He insisted until his death that he had fathered the boy.”
A destroyed life
Han’s wife was nowhere to be found. The home she and Le Le had shared until a few weeks ago was shut up with a lock on the gate. Red Chinese New Year banners wishing 1,000 years of prosperity still fluttered in the wind.
Then we heard she was inside a house around the corner. By the time we’d arrived, she had gone, leaving behind a prayer group of women singing hymns.
It turns out Rongzhuang is unusual for another reason; most of the 200 families populating it are devout Christians. Alongside the new year banners were long red strips of Chinese calligraphy, “The Lord Protects His Believer’s House,” decorating the front gates of many homes.
By Adrienne Mong/NBC News
This was Le Le's home for three years in Jiangsu Province.
“Han is dead now, but he’s completely destroyed her,” said another neighbor. “She can’t eat, she can’t sleep.”
Another stolen child?
No one knows why Han stole Le Le away from his family. But in China, many of the children who go missing are boys. Families, especially those in the countryside, still value boys over girls, because sons are expected to look after the parents in their dotage. Sons also carry on the family line.
Citizens classified by Chinese authorities as “rural” or “peasant” are exempt from the one-child policy. They are permitted to have two if the first-born is a girl. But for many, it’s cheaper just to “buy” a boy. It’s a guarantee that someone will be there to take care of them later in life.
Perhaps Han knew he was sick when he grabbed Le Le off the streets of Shenzhen. He already had a daughter, now a teenager. At the very least, he knew at the time that his wife was unable to have any more children. Years ago, during a procedure to remove her appendix, the doctors cut her tubes by accident.
By Adrienne Mong/NBC News
Christian banners like this decorate many of the front gates of homes in Rongzhuang.
He had also considered Le Le’s future. Not long after the boy joined the household, Han brought home a baby girl. She was to be Le Le’s childhood companion and later his bride.
“She was three months old when she was brought here,” recalled one of the neighbors. “Now she’s almost three.”
Han was believed to have adopted her for $137.
Weibo: the power of the people
It was a fluke that Le Le was found.
A Chinese journalist who had reported extensively on child kidnappings, including that of Le Le, had been posting the boy’s photograph on a Chinese version of Twitter.
“I knew at the time that traditional media couldn’t do much to help [locate missing] children,” said Deng Fei, who writes for Phoenix Weekly. “So I started to use Weibo [China’s most popular microblog] to do this. I first posted a photo of the child with a message: Can the Internet create a miracle and save this abducted child?”
Finally, just as the Chinese New Year festival began on 3 February, someone claiming to be a student spotted Le Le in Rongzhuang and recognized him from Deng’s Weibo post. He contacted the boy’s real father, Peng Gaofeng.
At first, Peng didn’t believe the caller; he’d chased up fruitless leads for three long years. But the student sent him a photograph of Le Le. Peng immediately contacted the police and Deng, who accompanied him to Rongzhuang. Days later, with the help of local authorities in Shenzhen and Rongzhuang, Peng enjoyed a tearful reunion with his son.
He and Deng also met the adoptive mother, Han’s wife.
“I always thought people who buy children should be punished severely,” Deng said later. “Until I saw her. She was such an old woman. No matter what, she tried very hard to take care of the boy. She sent him to school and gave him the name, Wei Cheng, which means ‘Go on to have great achievements.’”
Remembering but moving on
Since we last saw her in the spring of 2009, Xiong Yini — Le Le’s real mother — is still very slight but her face is fuller, less angular. She and Peng had another son, Peng Wenbo, who is just over a year old. She still has the same gentle, warm manner, but it's now tinted with the glow of joy at having Le Le back.
"He does look different now. When I saw him, I felt a bit strange," she said. "But when he moves and smiles, I know for sure, everything is familiar again [although] he still has a little bit of a Jiangsu accent when he speaks."
Adrienne Mong/NBC News
A family reunited: Peng Gaofeng holds Le Le while his wife, Xiong Yini, carries his baby brother.
Standing over Le Le as he watched a Japanese tv show on a computer in the family’s Internet café, Xiong falters once in our conversation.
“We used to comfort ourselves by imagining he was living a good life,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears, as she recalled the pain of losing him and of feeling responsible for his disappearance. “And it looks like those people did take care of him. He looks healthy. He looks well.”
Xiong has not broached with her son the subject of his kidnapping, but she hopes he will forget the experience. “He remembers how he was kidnapped,” she said. “He says he hates the man who took him away.”
Peng said he will not press charges against Han’s wife. “I’m doing this for my son. I don’t want him to hate me later,” he explained to us. “It’s complicated. He’s emotionally connected to that family.”
Both Xiong and Peng say they want to move on. For them, all that matters is that their family is complete again.
Another mother waits
Back in Rongzhuang, Han's wife waits. The little girl who had been her "daughter" is still in official custody.
In March, she sent Peng a text message: I can rest because Le Le is being looked after his real family, but the daughter has still not found her parents.
The woman has asked the police to let her look after the child until the authorities can locate her real parents.
“The police said if they can’t find them, they might return the girl to [Han’s wife],” said a neighbor.
“She’s not an unreasonable woman,” said another.
With additional reporting from Bo Gu.