2016-12-30 13:46:16

Outside a Shanghai flower shop, while a woman pretending to be a customer and the shop’s owner were discussing discussing the price of a plant, a little girl — partially hidden from view by another woman who stood in the doorway — snuck inside and grabbed the blue handbag that the owner had left in the store. She gave the woman who was blocking the door a sign: I got it.

The scene was caught on film by a camera inside the flower shop. Four women, two of them surnamed Song, had trained the girl and at least two other children as professional thieves for years, teaching them to see stealing bags or cellphones as a game. If they did well, they were given candy. If they failed, they were hit, according to the procuratorate of Shanghai’s Qingpu District, where the flower shop is located. 

A screenshot from store surveillance footage shows a girl grabbing the blue handbag that the owner left in the shop.

A screenshot from store surveillance footage shows a girl grabbing the blue handbag that the owner left in the shop.

While investigating the case, authorities found that the children’s parents were not only aware of their children’s situation, but had actually rented them out at the price of 100 to 200 yuan ($14 to $29) per day. 

Two of the women involved in organizing the child gangs are pregnant and have been released on bail. The two surnamed Song, however, are currently in jail and face prison sentences of three to seven years. 

The Song women have been arrested multiple times since 2006 and have each accumulated 11 entries on their criminal records, most related to theft. However, at the time of their arrest, they were either pregnant or lactating. Chinese law allows expectant mothers or women who have recently given birth to be released on bail.  

“Before, when we didn’t have evidence from surveillance cameras, the thieves were only charged with one case at a time,” an employee surnamed Wei, from the publicity department of the local procuratorate, said. Now, however, the legal authority has managed to link the gang to a number of crimes and will be able to charge the adult ringleaders with having organized minors to engage in theft, fraud, robbery, blackmail, and other activities that violate public security regulations in a 2009 amendment to China’s Criminal Law.

The girl seen in the flower shop has been located and placed in a special boarding school for children of prisoners, the procuratorate told Sixth Tone, as the child’s parents have lost custody of her. She didn’t know her age and said she had never attended school, but was estimated to be 6 or 7 years old.

Surveillance footage from other thefts revealed that two more children had worked with the gang but had already been returned to their parents before the group was caught this spring. One child had apparently been sent home because he had gotten so skilled that he started charging too much for his services, the prosecutors told Sixth Tone.

The children are not related to the Songs, but they do come from the same town in central China’s Hunan province. 

Wei said that authorities were unable to locate the parents of the girl from the flower shop, and that she didn’t have a hukou — or household registration document — as she reported having several siblings, which would have made her “illegal” under China’s recently overturned one-child policy.

(Header image: A young girl tries to steal a woman’s wallet at a shopping center in Foshan, Guangdong province, Jan. 18, 2006. IC )