SHENZHEN, China — The thieves often strike at dusk, when children are playing outside and their parents are distracted by exhaustion.
Deng Huidong lost her 9-month-old son in the blink of an eye as a man yanked him from the grip of his 7-year-old sister near the doorway of their home. The car did not even stop as a pair of arms reached out the window and grabbed the boy.
Sun Zuo, a gregarious 3 1/2-year-old, was lured off by someone with a slice of mango and a toy car, an abduction that was captured by police surveillance cameras.
Peng Gaofeng was busy with customers when a man snatched his 4-year-old son from the plaza in front of his shop as throngs of factory workers enjoyed a spring evening. “I turned away for a minute, and when I called out for him he was gone,” Mr. Peng said.
These and thousands of other children stolen from the teeming industrial hubs of China’s Pearl River Delta have never been recovered by their parents or by the police. But anecdotal evidence suggests the children do not travel far. Although some are sold to buyers in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, most of the boys are purchased domestically by families desperate for a male heir, parents of abducted children and some law enforcement officials who have investigated the matter say.
The demand is especially strong in rural areas of south China, where a tradition of favoring boys over girls and the country’s strict family planning policies have turned the sale of stolen children into a thriving business.
Su Qingcai, a tea farmer from the mountainous coast of Fujian Province, explained why he spent $3,500 last year on a 5-year-old boy. “A girl is just not as good as a son,” said Mr. Su, 38, who has a 14-year-old daughter but whose biological son died at 3 months. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have. If you don’t have a son, you are not as good as other people who have one.”
The centuries-old tradition of cherishing boys — and a custom that dictates that a married woman moves in with her husband’s family — is reinforced by a modern reality: Without a real social safety net in China, many parents fear they will be left to fend for themselves in old age.
The extent of the problem is a matter of dispute. The Chinese government insists there are fewer than 2,500 cases of human trafficking each year, a figure that includes both women and children. But advocates for abducted children say there may be hundreds of thousands.
Sun Haiyang, whose son disappeared in 2007, has collected a list of 2,000 children in and around Shenzhen who have disappeared in the past two years. He said none of the children in his database had been recovered. “It’s like fishing a needle out of the sea,” he said.
Mr. Peng, who started an ad hoc group for parents of stolen children, said some of the girls were sold to orphanages. They are the lucky ones who often end up in the United States or Europe after adoptive parents pay fees to orphanages that average $5,000.
The unlucky ones, especially older children, who are not in demand by families, can end up as prostitutes or indentured laborers. Some of the children begging or hawking flowers in major Chinese cities are in the employ of criminal gangs that abducted them. “I don’t even want to talk about what happens to these children,” Mr. Peng said, choking up.
Here in Shenzhen and the constellation of manufacturing towns packed with migrant workers, desperate families say they get almost no help from the local police. In case after case, they said, the police insisted on waiting 24 hours before taking action, and then claimed that too much time had passed to mount an effective investigation.
Several parents, through their own guile and persistence, have tracked down surveillance video images that clearly show the kidnappings in progress. Yet even that can fail to move the police, they say. “They told me a face isn’t enough, that they need a name,” said Cai Xinqian, who obtained tape from a store camera that showed a woman leading his 4-year-old away. “If I had a name, I could find him myself.”
Chen Fengyi, whose 5-year-old son was snatched from outside her apartment building in Huizhou, said she called the police the moment she realized he was missing. “They told me they would come right over,” she said. “I went outside to wait for them and they never came.”
When she is not scouring the streets at night for her son, Ms. Chen and her husband go to the local police station and fall to their knees. “We cry and beg them to help,” she said, “and every time they say, ‘Why are you so hung up on this one thing?’ ”
Many parents take matters into their own hands. They post fliers in places where children are often sold and travel the country to stand in front of kindergartens as they let out. A few who run shops have turned their storefronts into missing person displays. “We spend our life savings, we borrow money, we will do anything to find our children,” said Mr. Peng, who owns a long-distance phone call business in Gongming, not far from Shenzhen. “There is a hole in our hearts that will never heal.”
The reluctance of the police to investigate such cases has a variety of explanations. Kidnappers often single out the children of migrant workers because they are transients who may fear the local police and whose grievances are not treated as high priorities.
Moreover, the police in China’s authoritarian bureaucracy are rarely rewarded for responding to crimes affecting people who do not have much political clout. Mr. Peng said the police preferred not to even open a missing person’s inquiry because unsolved cases made them appear inefficient, reducing their annual bonuses.
There are exceptions. In a number of high-profile cases, the police have cracked down on trafficking rings and publicized the results. But such help remains rare, parents say.
Turning to Beijing