Wu Liping was just a teenager when her little brother - Wu Yulong - was sold to traffickers.
Yulong was the ninth child of the Wu family, who live in a village in southern China where authorities demand annual payments from families who exceed the one-child policy. His family could not afford another child and so allowed him to be adopted by neighbors who at the time had one daughter.
But when Yulong was a year old, the family had another child, and it was a son.
“That is when the fostering father started to consider selling Yulong,” she said, “He had a few friends who were in the business of human trafficking, they earned a lot of money doing it.”
This year the U.S. State Department downgraded China to rank among the world's worst human traffickers. The 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report
found that although Beijing has created better awareness of the danger of human trafficking, authorities are still not making significant efforts to tackle the problem.
Traffickers target kids
Trafficking is acute among the younger population. Estimates put the number of children lost every year to trafficking at 200,000. Only 0.1 percent of trafficked children are found and returned to their families.
Kids are sold for a few thousand dollars and demand for babies, especially boys, is always very high.
Police records paint a grim picture, with traffic rings buying or stealing children and then reselling them to the highest bidder; sometimes an orphanage, sometimes a gang of city peddlers, sometimes a childless rural family for whom male heirs are prized.
“Those who do not have a son, do not dare to lift their heads in public because people in the village look down on them,” said Wu Liping, “If they do not have one of their own then they go buy one and bring it back. Human traffickers take advantage of this.”
Four years ago, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security launched a nationwide anti-trafficking campaign and started creating a nationwide DNA database to help with investigations.
According to the most recent official statistics such police campaigns helped rescue more than 54,000 trafficked children and prosecute more than 10,000 traffickers.
Chen Shiqu, director of the anti-human trafficking office under the Ministry of Public Security, is often quoted on Chinese media saying that despite police efforts, it will take some time before China can completely wipe out human trade.
“The phenomenon remains severe,” the Guangming Daily recently reported Chen saying, “demand in the buyers' market is high, and trading of children continues despite repeated prohibition.”
Families band together to press authorities
Many who have lost a family member to trafficking say that local authorities are not doing enough to get them back.
Liping says that people in her town all know who the traffickers are, but police often turn a blind eye to the problem.
“After my brother was lost, my father went to report it to the police. They asked us to write a record and register the missing person. They said they would contact us if they had news, but they did not even give us a receipt and there was no investigation done whatsoever," said Liping.
Last month, an exhibition by artist Li Yueling brought the issue of missing kids to Beijing.
Li painted portraits of more than 60 missing children, and interviewed the kids' families. Among them was Wu Xinghu, a father from Shaanxi province.
More than four years ago, traffickers entered his home, used drugs to numb him and his wife and took Wu's newborn son, Jiacheng.
Helped by his neighbor, Wu was able to record the license plate of a suspicious car that had been stationed around his home for the whole day before his son was kidnapped. But when he asked the police to investigate, there was no follow up.
Pressing officials in Beijing for help
Together with 22 other parents, Wu wrote a petition letter, asking that police seriously investigate human trafficking cases, and end local authorities' malpractice.
The group traveled to Beijing to present their petition to the National People's Congress, wearing T-shirts bearing the photos of the child each lost. But before they could even present their petition, the group had been rounded up by local police. Two hours later, they were released after agreeing to abandon their campaign.
Afterward, Wu Xinghu said, “we have lost hope with the local authorities. That is why I am appealing to higher levels, so that they can apply some pressure to those under them. If there is no pressure from the high ups, then there is no motivation for action at the lower levels.”
He said that he will likely continue to petition high-ranking officials in the capital, because they are his only option for pressing law enforcement officials to try to find his son.