By Charlie Custer on July 25, 2013, for The Atlantic—
“In March 2011, Rose Candis had the worst lunch of her life. Sitting at a restaurant in Shaoguan, a small city in South China, the American mother tried hard not to vomit while her traveling companion translated what the man they were eating with had just explained: her adopted Chinese daughter Erica had been purchased, and then essentially resold to her for profit. The papers the Chinese orphanage had shown her documenting how her daughter had been abandoned by the side of a road were fakes. The tin of earth the orphanage had given her so that her daughter could always keep a piece of her home with her as she grew up in the U.S. was a fraud, a pile of dirt from the place her daughter’s paperwork was forged, not where she was born. Candis had flown thousands of miles to answer her daughter Erica’s question — who are my birth parents? — but now she was further from the answer than ever.
Almost exactly a year earlier, Liu Liqin had the worst day of his life. He was out on a temporary construction job, looking forward to lunch and his next cigarette break, when his wife called to tell him that their two-year-old son Liu Jingjun was missing. Liu rushed home and began a frantic but fruitless search for the boy. He and his wife called relatives, ran to the local police station to report Jingjun missing, and then fanned out through their city neighborhood calling the boy’s name and asking passers-by if they had seen anything. The police told him they couldn’t take the case because not enough time had passed since the boy had disappeared. Finally, late in the evening, Liu thought to check the footage from a surveillance camera at a building on the street outside his family’s apartment. Sure enough, when the video footage was queued up, in a small corner of the frame, Liu could see a man, face obscured, carrying little Jingjun down the narrow alley where the Liu family lives. I met Liu for the first time in that same alley; he had agreed to become the first subject of a documentary film I was making about kidnapped children in China. “Watching the man in the footage taking him away, I just…” Liu trailed off. “There’s really no way to describe that feeling.”
Rose Candis and Liu Liqin’s backgrounds could not be more different, but both parents have spent the past couple of years searching in China for the truth about their children. Both will do almost anything to get at it. And both have been stymied at almost every turn.
Child trafficking and its relationship to adoption in China is a serious problem, but also a deeply opaque one. It is a taboo topic for the Chinese government, which acknowledges the problem exists but also does not make public statistics about the number of children kidnapped or the number of children sold into adoption. Because of the implications for the tens of thousands of families in the United States and elsewhere in the West who have adopted children from China — Americans alone adopted nearly 3000 Chinese children in 2012 — the topic is often taboo outside of China’s borders, too.
Neither child trafficking nor baby buying in Chinese international adoptions are widely studied. No one can say for certain how many children are kidnapped in China each year, or what percentage of them end up being put up for adoption domestically or internationally. But the problem is a lot more serious than most people know, as I have come to learn over the last few years. In the process of making a documentary film on the subject, my wife and I have spoken to dozens of parents of kidnapped Chinese children, as well as adoptive parents in the U.S., who have come to believe their children were sold into adoption.”
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