BEIJING — On April 10, 2010, the Liu family was living the Chinese dream. The couple had moved to the city, rented an apartment, and were blessed with two beautiful children. They weren't rich, but they were getting by. Like many Chinese people, they felt their lives were getting better.
The next morning, strange men came to their house, grabbed their son Liu Jingjun, dragged him into a white van, and drove off. Since then, the Lius have been looking for him. They haven't found him, but they have discovered that there are an awful lot of people just like themselves.
Since at least the 1980s, kidnapping and human trafficking have become a problem in China, and most often, the victims are children. Estimates vary on just how bad things have gotten. The Chinese government reports that fewer than 10,000 children are kidnapped each year, but the U.S. State Department says it's closer to 20,000. Some independent estimates put the number as high as 70,000 (compared with 100 to 200 children kidnapped per year in the United States, for example).
The vast majority of kidnapped children will never see their families again. In China, kids are abducted not for ransom but for sale. Often, they come from poor and rural families -- the families least likely to be capable of tracking their kids down or fighting back. Some children are then sold to new "adoptive" families looking for children. Others are sold into slave labor, prostitution, or a life on the streets. In some cases, healthy children are brutally crippled by handlers on the theory that a child with broken legs or horrific boils looks sadder and can earn more money begging on the street.
Some children are even sold into adoption overseas. Chinese adoption agencies seeking the substantial donations foreign parents make when they adopt -- in some cases, as much as $5,000 -- have been known to purchase children from human traffickers, though these cases appear to be relatively rare.
Most instances of kidnapping are perpetrated by gangs that are large, national, and highly organized. Based on cases solved by Chinese police, it's not uncommon for some kidnapping rings to have dozens or even hundreds of members, and to be responsible for the kidnappings of hundreds of children.