The Searchers

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Michael Christopher Brown for TIME

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

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Chinese authorities have launched multiple crackdowns on kidnapping, but it remains a scourge. In the first seven months of last year there were 2,093 cases reported, although the total number of disappeared could easily be five times that, experts say. In September, says China's Public Security Ministry, more than 10,000 women and nearly 6,000 children had been rescued in a crackdown that began in April 2009. If a case is broken immediately after the crime, police can easily reunite children with their families. The longer the time lag, however, the more difficult the task; also, many victims are often too young to provide useful information.

Even arrested kidnappers are of limited value in tracing the victims' origins, as such details are intentionally obscured as children are channeled through kidnapping networks. "Children are often sold several times during the crime," says Chen Shiqu, who heads the Ministry of Public Security's anti-human-trafficking office. "If we missed one of the suspects, or if any of the suspects died, we wouldn't be able to find out where he got or sold the child." As part of last year's crackdown, the police launched a website called "Baby Searching for Home," which publicizes the details of rescued children whose parents haven't been identified. The authorities confirm any possible matches through DNA tests. So far 813 children have been reunited with their families through the program.

Litany of Sorrow
For every successful reunion, however, there are hundreds, possibly thousands of unresolved kidnappings. In recent years volunteer organizations have emerged to help pick up the slack. In April 2007, Zhang Baoyan, a 49-year-old former bank employee in Tonghua, a city in northeastern Jilin province, started a website called "Baby Come Home" that has since become a clearinghouse for information about missing children. Zhang says she was moved after losing her own 4-year-old son in a market for a brief but horrifying few hours. "Even though I managed to find him after a couple of hours, I still felt the fear," she says. "Then I started to pay attention to parents who lost their children."

Most post flyers with photos and terse stories of their children's disappearance. Zhang's husband Qin Yanyou, who runs the computer center at Tonghua Normal University, said that organizing them online would improve their effectiveness, so he helped her set up the website. So far, they have successfully reunited 155 families. But they still have over 5,000 unsolved cases. Each notice of a missing child is a condensed portrait of pure grief. "Baby, where are you? Have you eaten? Mother misses you; you have to wait for her," begins one with a photo of a toddler staring quizzically at the camera, a single lock of hair pulled up in a red ribbon. "Pan Hong, female, born Feb. 4, 2007; went missing Feb. 8, 2010, from the Jianshe Road vegetable market in Dengbu village, Yujiang county, Jiangxi. She has short, soft but thin hair, a round face with single-fold eyelids and a birthmark 10 cm below her left knee."

A Quest in Vain
Zhou turned to the internet because he feared that attempts to find his parents via official channels in his new family's hometown of Putian, a midsize manufacturing center along the Taiwan Strait, would go nowhere. "Before, I thought the easiest way to find them was to go through the police. But Putian is a very unenlightened place," he says. "It's all about power, money and connections." Any vigorous effort to investigate his case could uncover official corruption, as the arrival of a child should have raised questions when his new family applied for his residence permit and sent him to school. While the police do crack down on kidnapping, from Zhou's perspective, "it is mostly just for show." So he began posting his own story online, plus a photo of himself as an adult — his sharply angled face with high cheekbones staring down at the camera — in whatever forums he could find. In April he told his story on Zhang's "Baby Come Home" website. He received more than 200 replies from volunteers who forwarded his story to other forums, searched public records for matching names and suggested other lines of inquiry based on the faintest of clues. His recollection of eating dried-beef snacks led some to suggest looking in Shandong, Henan or Anhui provinces, where such food is common. Since he speaks Mandarin without a distinct accent, others volunteers concluded he was from north China.

One volunteer, a 38-year-old woman surnamed He (she would not give her full name), took up the case in Guizhou, a poor province in southern China where kidnappings are common. He, a Guizhou native, learned of the antikidnapping group through her work with another charity that improves access to education for children in impoverished areas. Zhou's was the first kidnapping case she worked on.

After volunteers for "Baby Come Home" found 30 possible matches for the family names that Zhou recalled, He agreed to help track down a Zhou Chengjiang — the name he remembered as his older brother's — who was listed in the town of Liupanshui. On a hot day in late May she went with another volunteer to the police station in a mining village, where they learned that a coal miner matching that name had moved away two years ago. The police furnished them with a new address, so they went to another village, only to learn the address didn't exist. They went back to the first village, hoping to find more clues.

Most of the residents, however, were miners who traveled from all over the country to work temporarily, then head elsewhere. Many locals were suspicious of their questioning, says He, but a local newspaper reporter had tagged along, and after he showed his credentials some people opened up. Finally someone came up with a phone number for Zhou Chengjiang. He called, and the man said he did have a brother with the name Zhou Chengliang, but he had never been kidnapped. "I should have been happy for that family," she says. "But I thought about all the hard work in that heat, and I burst into tears." Later, a volunteer told her that the other leads for names matching Zhou's had been tracked down; none was a match.

Zhou is stoic about the disappointments. Being taken from his family at such a young age has left him with a hard-earned resilience. He relishes raising his own 3-year-old daughter, even when it reminds him of what his life is missing. "This experience taught me to cherish happiness," he says. "I worked hard to have what I have now. I learned to do everything the best I could. I often rethink what I did at the end of the day, to see how I can improve tomorrow." Like the booming, striving nation he lives in, Zhou's future appears bright. It's the past he is trying to figure out.

with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Shanghai

This article originally appeared in the November 22, 2010 issue of TIME Asia.

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