Some have placed the blame for China's child-trafficking problem squarely at the feet of the one-child policy, but that's an oversimplification according to Pi Yijun, of the Institute for Criminal Justice. Part of the problem is that compared with other things one might steal, such as cars or computers, children are easy to get ahold of and difficult to track, he says. "Additionally, if [the kidnapper] has got a buyer already, they can reap the rewards quickly, and I think that's an important reason" that kidnapping is so common in China.
Of course, without buyers there would be no sellers, and there are still buyers aplenty in China. True, the one-child policy has made children scarcer, but because families with more than one child -- regardless of whether the children are adopted or birthed -- must pay fines, there's no real reason for healthy parents to choose to purchase a kidnapped child rather than just having another one of their own. Often, the buyers of kidnapped kids are married couples who can't conceive or who have given birth to only daughters and want to be sure their next child is a son. Some families also buy older girls as brides for their sons if the son can't attract a wife through traditional means (often because of some mental or physical disability).
China's culture of silence also plays a role. "My son will never know he was kidnapped and purchased," Mr. Liu says. "In our hometown, when people buy wives, no one says anything. No one talks. Our child was too young to understand what happened to him; when he grows up he won't understand that it's all fake."
This is not an uncommon phenomenon. After Li Yong was kidnapped and sold to his new family in Jiangsu, he walked around telling neighbors his original name and asking to go home, speaking in a dialect foreign to that province. But no one reported anything to the authorities until more than a decade later, and by then, it was way too late. Many Chinese believe that getting involved in someone else's business is asking for trouble, and in some rural areas where education levels remain low, purchasing children is still considered an acceptable alternative for couples who are infertile or too old to conceive safely.
For his part, Mr. Liu doesn't blame the men who kidnapped his son. "We parents, the parents of lost children, hate these people, and society hates them too, but sometimes you can't blame human traffickers. Sometimes you have to blame our society. What I mean is, [in China] we still don't have a strong rule of law. If it were stronger, could this kind of thing happen?"
Mr. Liu and his wife are still searching for their son. Mrs. Zhu and her husband are still searching for their daughter. They work when they need to, but their lives are on hold until they get some news, just like the tens of thousands of other parents nationwide who are searching. "It's like we're living with dead hearts," Mrs. Zhu told me between sobs. "If we can't find our child, life is meaningless."