Abduction of Women, Children Rises in China Kidnappings Seen as Consequence of Economic and Social Reform; Police Complicity Suspected

Article excerpt

UNTIL early last year, Gong Hao was just another pampered only child in China.

Then, on the morning of Feb. 25, on his way to school, the roly-poly 12-year-old was grabbed by a man asking directions, bundled into a waiting taxi, blindfolded, and hustled away - a new statistic in the mounting incidents of kidnapping in China.

Thousands of kidnappings have taken place amid the upheaval of economic and social change and mounting lawlessness. As economic reforms have unhinged the government's tight social grip in recent years, harsh birth-control restrictions have created a desperate demand for children, and social vices such as prostitution have resurfaced; trafficking in women and children, increasingly in complicity with police, has become a scourge in cities and the countryside.

The boy, who is endearingly nicknamed Pangzi, or Fatty, retells the experience only with prompting from his father. During his 105-day captivity, which took him from this central Chinese city across four provinces, Pangzi was beaten, burned with cigarettes, and forced to work in the fields. Often resorting to begging, the boy lost almost half of his 120-pound weight.

Sitting in his family's cluttered, two-room home, he is once again his old chubby self, his parents say. Yet he never goes out unaccompanied nor do the couple let down their guard. Receiving virtually no help from the police, the family exhausted its $700 in savings searching for their son. Now, they have taken out a $450 insurance policy on him, in case he ever disappears again.

"We had heard about women and children being kidnapped, but we never thought it would happen to our son," says Gong Ping, an electrician at a Wuhan appliance factory. "I think the root cause of this is the corruption in our society."

In recent months, the Chinese press has reported that the kidnapping outbreak is spreading: Nannies in Beijing are selling children; a gang of Sichuan farmers sold more than 80 children and five women in a six-year-period; children in Shanghai have been kidnapped after their parents were drugged; two old women in Zhejiang Province traded off 36 children; and rural women in Guangxi Province, lured to cities with promises of jobs, have been raped and then sold for prostitution.

According to the official Legal Daily, more than 50,000 abductions of women and children were reported in 1991-1992. The newspaper claimed that almost 90 percent were rescued and that 75,000 kidnappers were arrested.

Chinese observers blame the outbreak on the rise in prostitution and on the harsh one-child family planning policy. With only one child allowed per family and sons preferred over daughters, child abandonment is on the rise, and farmers are often willing to pay large sums to buy a desperately wanted son.

Chinese authorities quoted in the press estimate that three-quarters of the kidnappings are rooted in economic disputes and inadequate legal protections. …