Four or five years after their youngest son was kidnapped, the Zhou family gave up hope of ever seeing him again. They would still regularly visit the police in their hometown of Zunyi in southwest China and ask if there was any news on the case. But with little money or influence, there was slim hope that the missing boy, Zhou Chengliang, would someday be found amid the thousands of children kidnapped each year in China.
Last year the family decided to try again. More than two decades had passed since that October 1988 day when their son was taken by two strangers. In that time memories had faded and clues disappeared, but other lines of inquiry had emerged. “We felt that technology had become so developed that we should see what happened if we put something online,” says Zhou’s older brother, Zhou Yong. “We had always gone to the Public Security Bureau and asked. Every year we went to see if there was news, but there never was. So we decided to do it on our own.”
The results were stunning. Within three hours of posting the information online, the Zhous were contacted by a volunteer from Baby Come Home, a website that helps reunite families with missing loved ones. “We were very excited, but it wasn’t confirmed,” says Zhou Yong. “So much time had already passed, more than 20 years. Some friends and family felt so much time had passed, there was no way he was still alive.”
He was alive, though. His last name was now Huang, and he was no longer the terrified 6-year-old Zhou Yong had last seen being led away by a stranger, but a grown man with a job, a wife and a daughter who was seeking the family he had lost so long ago. I met Zhou Chengliang in 2010, not long after he had begun his own quest to uncover his past, and wrote about his search for TIME Asia. At that time, his childhood recollections were hazy:
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.
Speaking with Zhou’s elder brother recently, it was chilling to hear his disappearance story once again, only told from the perspective of an older child with a precise image of what happened, even though it occurred more than 20 years ago.
“Do you remember that day?” I asked him.
“Do I remember that day?” Zhou Yong replied. “How could I not remember? It’s the deepest memory of my entire life. I’ll tell you about it. Our family was very poor. We lived in the countryside and came to the city to do business. My mother had gone home for the harvest, while my dad and my brother and I were living in Zunyi, in the city. We went to school in the city. Every day we had a little pocket money, not a lot, just a couple of cents. After we had spent our money we decided to return home. We were walking along a river. We came to Dingzikou and thought we’d look around and then go home. Then someone came up and said they knew our family.”
“They said, ‘What are you two doing here?’”
“I said, ‘We just got out of school and we’re going home.’”
“They replied, ‘Do you want something to eat?’”
“We were really hesitant because our parents told us not to talk to strangers. But we were really hungry. My little brother had come to Zunyi a year before me, so there were a lot of people who knew him that I didn’t know. I thought if he recognized them then it was fine.”
The couple separated Zhou Yong from his brother, then took the younger boy on a multiday bus, train and boat trip to coastal China, where he was sold to a family in Fujian province. His life there was difficult at first. He was treated poorly and given less food than the family’s own children. The family told him that his life would have been even worse had they not bought him.
In Zunyi, Zhou Chengliang’s family anguished over his disappearance. “At that point, we had pretty much fallen apart,” says Zhou Yong. “Especially my mother, she took it the worst. My father, his attitude was that there was nothing to be done. He tried to comfort her. We were so poor, what could we do? We organized everyone we knew to search, but we couldn’t find him.” At times Zhou Yong, who is two years older than his brother, would venture out on his own, taking train trips in hopes of tracking down Zhou Chengliang. In Fujian, Zhou Chengliang would try to escape, taking off for days in hopes of finding the home he couldn’t clearly remember. But the two boys — separated by 1,100 miles (1,770 km) and a vast gulf of mystery — never found each other. Not until two decades later, when blood ties began to exert their powers once again. The birth of Zhou Chengliang’s daughter inspired him to renew his search. “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.”
He posted what he remembered of his childhood and kidnapping on several local government websites, then on larger nonprofit sites dedicated to reuniting families. Volunteers for Baby Come Home tracked down dozens of leads — 59 possible matches by one count — but they all came up empty until Zhou’s family posted their own plea online in April 2011. After years of waiting, it took just a few short hours for a volunteer to match the names. A DNA test sponsored by Shandong Satellite TV confirmed that he was the Zhous’ missing son. “I was really moved,” says Zhou Chengliang of finally finding his family. “I was filled with such emotion.”
Zhou says that while he is deeply angered at being kidnapped as a child, he is thankful to the family who raised him. Despite his difficult early years in Fujian, he learned to get along with his new family, and they helped pay for his education. He still visits them regularly, and his birth family has spoken with his family in Fujian as well. “They gave my father in Fujian a phone call. They were really grateful because they raised me,” Zhou says. “They thanked them for taking such good care of me.”
China has tried to stem the kidnapping of children, which is driven in part by efforts to get around the country’s one-child policy. The government has announced multiple crackdowns, and reported that 8,660 children had been rescued last year. In Zunyi, police busted a child-kidnapping ring last year that saw 18 suspects arrested and 17 children freed. But no figure for the total number of kidnapping victims has been published in recent years, and most of those rescued had only been recently abducted. As time passes, reuniting children with their families becomes more difficult. The indifference of local police and a sometimes tolerant attitude toward kidnapping perpetuates the problem. Charlie Custer, an American who co-directed Living with Dead Hearts, an upcoming documentary on child kidnapping in China, said one of his film’s subjects knew he was abducted as a child, but no one in his new home raised the alarm. “Everybody in that place was accepting of the fact that a family had purchased a kid, or at least they weren’t going to do anything,” Custer says.
While his successful quest to find his family has satisfied so many of his own questions about the past, Zhou Chengliang says he has little hope that the scourge of child kidnapping will soon diminish. “In the Chinese system, there’s nothing you can do about it,” he says. “For so many years this has been happening, and people still aren’t willing to face up to it.”
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