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    As a Long-Lost Son is Found, a Dilemma: Arrest His Other Parents?

    Stolen son Sun Zhuo returns to family who raised him, as its members face prison time.

    It seemed like a fairy tale ending: a poor Chinese couple who spent 14 years searching for their lost son are finally reunited with the boy as his kidnappers face justice. But it’s not that simple. As Sun Zhuo is reunited with his birth family in Shenzhen, he’s faced with the prospect of the family he knew as his own being sent to prison.

    In 2007, then 4-year-old Sun Zhuo was abducted from the southern city of Shenzhen, setting his biological parents on a desperate search that would last 14 years. Sun Haiyang, his father, offered a 200,000 yuan reward for clues and changed the name of his steamed bun shop to advertise it. His story won national attention, and was adapted into a 2014 movie called “Dearest.” He has become an iconic figure in the field of anti-trafficking, and his account on microblogging service Weibo, named “Sun Haiyang Looking for Son,” has over 116,000 followers.

    Meanwhile, Sun Zhuo was growing up with two older sisters in Shandong province, about 1,800 kilometers from Shenzhen, unaware that the couple raising him were not his birth parents.

    Chinese police identified Sun, now 18, during a crackdown on child trafficking. The police arrested a total of nine suspects involved in abducting three children, including Sun Zhuo. His identity was later confirmed by DNA testing.

    On Monday, Sun Haiyang finally met his son after 14 years, while the second family is facing potential criminal charges.

    But by the end of the week, the young man went back to the family in Shandong. He told domestic media that he chose to return to his foster parents and sisters because they have treated him very well and had raised him for over a decade.

    The Shandong family, who have not been named by police, face up to three years in prison if they are convicted of buying the child. They deny the charges, claiming that the kidnapper, who was their relative, gave them the child under false pretenses and that they did not pay money.

    Sun Haiyan called for the family to be “taught a lesson by the law.”

    The woman who raised Sun in Shandong and couples who raised another abducted child have been taken into custody by police and released on bail pending trial, while the Shandong father was exempted owing to an illness.

    Chinese law punishes those who buy children less harshly than traffickers. According to the criminal code, those who abduct women or children can be sentenced to no less than five years in jail and up to life imprisonment and even death, while those who buy abducted women or children face a jail term of no more than three years.

    Following the arrests in the Sun case, people online called for harsher penalties for child buyers, with many arguing that “buying and selling are the same crime — if no one bought, no one would sell.”

    Until 2015, the law made some people who bought children exempt from punishment if they treated them well and didn’t obstruct rescue attempts. Under a revised law, buyers can receive reductions in sentencing if they’ve taken good care of the children.

    “Abducted children could have been loved by their biological parents and would have grown up in love, but it was traffickers and buyers who deprived the parents’ rights,” read a comment on microblogging platform Weibo, where a related hashtag has been viewed over 600 million times.

    Zhou Chuikun, the deputy director of the criminal law division at the Beijing-based Yingke Law Firm, told Sixth Tone that child trafficking is driven by demand.

    “Even if buyers treat the abducted as well their own biological kids, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a crime,” said Zhou. “The law is rational. It does not judge right or wrong based on emotion.”

    Zhou said that equal penalties for buyers and sellers make sense in theory, but should not be enacted until the traditional attitudes that drive the trade have declined.

    “The root of child trafficking lies in traditional ideas about raising boys for old age and the preference for boys over girls. As such attitudes change, there will be less crime driven by need and the remaining child trafficking cases would be purely profit-oriented. So the punishment for buyers could certainly be strengthened," Zhou said.

    Zhou Zhaocheng, the attorney of a father in another recently solved, high-profile child trafficking case that inspired a 2015 film, agreed that while having equal punishments for buyers and sellers may reduce the frequency of child abduction and trafficking, it will stimulate buyers to use “more aggressive ways” to conceal the children, putting them in danger.

    “It is more important to follow China’s household registration system, requiring neighborhood and village committees to monitor the sudden appearance of unfamiliar children, register newborns in strict accordance with legal procedures, and remain on alert for the identity of unregistered children,” said the latter Zhou.

    Thousands of other children of Sun Zhuo’s generation were victims of similar kidnappings for sale, driven in part by strict enforcement of the one-child policy and a preference for male children. In 2020, China’s sex ratio in rural areas was 107.91, meaning there were about 108 men for every 100 women, higher than the 102.97 ratio in urban areas.

    Such kidnappings appear to have become far less common over the past decade, although there are currently no clear statistics on how many children go missing in China each year. Annual child trafficking cases have been decreasing year by year since 2012, down nearly 90% from 5,907 that year to 666 in 2020, an official at the Ministry of Public Security said at a press conference in September.

    A 2020 data analysis by Caixin of posts on, or Babies Return Home, China’s largest information registration site for lost children, found that a larger number of children went missing in the late 1980s and 1990s, with fewer and fewer registrations seen in the 21st century.

    Over 700 children were reported missing on the site annually from 1989 to 1999, with the number gradually falling from around 800 cases in 1998 to less than 100 by 2017, according to the analysis.

    Editor: David Cohen.

    (Header image: Sun Haiyang (second from right) brings his son (middle) to his hometown in Jianli, Hubei province, Dec. 7, 2021. IC)