The Searchers

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Michael Christopher Brown for TIME

Family man Zhou with his 3-year-old daughter in Lanzhou

He remembers playing in the countryside — a place where farmers grew wheat and snow fell in the winter. There was a house filled with many families who would wash clothes together outside or sit and gossip in their shared courtyard. Someone may have even had a television, though that bit is hazy. His parents ran a noodle stall, and his father would give him dried beef to eat on the walk to school. He wasn't a great student, and the teacher would criticize his classwork. He remembers an older brother who looked out for him until, in the end, he couldn't. And he even recalls his former name, Zhou Chengliang, though he still can't figure out who he is, or where in the vast nation of China he is from.

Today, Zhou is about 27 years old (he doesn't know for sure), goes by the name Huang Jie, and is an entrepreneur based in the western Chinese city of Lanzhou, where he buys building materials such as granite and marble from mines on the Tibetan Plateau. He spends part of each year in Shanghai, selling the materials for construction projects along China's central east coast. Zhou has made a life for himself feeding China's voracious economic engine, but he suffers from memories of a lost past: he was one of countless young Chinese children kidnapped and sold to strangers to be raised as their own. Zhou's story is a human tragedy, but it's also emblematic of a country in the throes of rapid change, torn between tradition and modernity, challenge and opportunity, morality and corruption.

Zhou's nightmare began when he was 6. He and his older brother — Zhou thinks his name was Chengjiang — were leaving school when they met a couple who claimed to be friends of their parents. The man and the woman said they were there to take them home. They asked Zhou what he wanted to eat and treated him to a bowl of his favorite cold noodles. But Chengjiang was wary and stood watching from outside the shop. When they boarded a bus, his older brother refused to go along. As the bus went past his stop, Zhou sensed something was wrong. "I remember thinking, 'These people are so cold,'" Zhou says. They boarded a train, and there was nowhere to sit. So he lay down on the floor and cried. No one paid him any notice.

The journey, which lasted at least two days, continued by another bus and then by boat. The couple transferred Zhou to an older woman in the countryside. "We went to a house. I remember it was along a road," he says. "And that didn't work out. Maybe it was an issue of price? So we took a three-wheeled cart to another place. And then we went to another place. In the end she took me to my new family."

The late 1980s were an unsettling period for China. The economic reforms that had begun a decade earlier had opened up huge opportunities — and not just for law-abiding citizens. Corruption also began to rise, and organized crime, beaten back by relentless social controls during the Maoist era, grew once again. Because of new freedom of movement, gangs found it easier to take children from one place and sell them in another. The authorities are slowly coming to terms with the extent of the problem; last year they launched their biggest crackdown ever, with more than 15,000 people arrested over 17 months. In September, a court in Quanzhou city in southeastern Fujian province sentenced to death the two ringleaders of a gang that had sold 46 children for up to $6,000 each.

Tackling the aftermath, however, can be even harder than cracking the trafficking gangs. In the Quanzhou case, many of the stolen children were left with the people who bought them even as the authorities tried to track down their real families, according to a report in the state-run Legal Daily. Despite a new official effort to reunite families with their lost children, volunteers shoulder much of the work. And while the public is increasingly aware of the extent of the human trafficking, the implications of having tens of thousands of children wrenched from their families are only now emerging as those who went missing in the 1980s reach adulthood. Some were kidnapped at such a young age that they will never have any recollection of their birth family.

A Pained Beginning
Zhou was repeatedly told by his new family, a large farming clan in Fujian, that his life would have been much worse had he never been sold to them. During his first several years in his new home, that seemed hardly the case. While the family was relatively prosperous by local standards, Zhou says he was given less food than the others, and he had to do more work around the farm to earn his keep. He constantly fought with his new parents, and would escape several times a year in hopes of returning home. But he had no idea where home was.

By his midteens, Zhou had learned to grudgingly get along in his new surroundings. The family paid for a better school for him, and he stopped running away so often. They began to treat him more like one of their own. In 1997, he left home and moved to Shanghai. He married, had a daughter and started his building-materials-supply company. Despite the painful circumstances of his upbringing, he still considers the people who raised him as family. "My feeling is, no matter how you treated me, you raised me to this point, so I should thank you," he says. But Zhou still feels the undeniable pull of kinship, and over the past several years has struggled to find his brother and his birth parents. "Seeing my own daughter's infant gurgling slowly turn into speech has made me think of how my own parents must have once raised me," he wrote in an online plea. "I can't help but long for them."

Profit and Loss
To control population growth, in 1979 the central government launched the one-child policy, which prevented most families from having multiple offspring. A traditional preference for male children, meanwhile, persisted in many parts of the country. These factors contributed to the development in the late 1980s of syndicates that traded not only in children but also in young women, who were then sold into marriage in rural areas short on eligible brides. "Things that you used to not be able to sell, you could sell again," says Pi Yijun, an expert on juvenile justice at China University of Political Science and Law. "People's lives, sex — these all became things you could sell. So it was natural that this would become much more hot than under the planned economy."

The trafficking routes follow China's geographic divides between rich and poor. Children are kidnapped from poor interior provinces like Yunnan or Guizhou in the south or the anonymous migrant-worker districts of bustling manufacturing cities. They are then sold in relatively prosperous smaller towns in places like coastal Fujian. Generally the buyers aren't wealthy but are rural or suburban residents who have achieved moderate prosperity, says Pi. For them, buying a child is an investment to ensure they are taken care of in old age. "Older people worry about this," he says. "So they are willing to spend money, or even borrow money, to buy a child who will take care of them." Zhou's Fujian parents, for instance, have their own children but wanted more for precisely the reason Pi gives. While China has a one-child policy, it is unevenly implemented and sometimes loosely enforced, particularly in rural areas. Violators can pay a fine — or circumvent the rule by bribing local officials.

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