The lost boys




The day his 15-year-old son left home will be forever seared into Yuan Cheng's memory. The family woke while it was still dark and his wife prepared breakfast. At daybreak, he readied his motorcycle to take Yuan Xueyu to the highway, an hour's ride away along a bumpy country road, to catch the bus to Beijing with friends then a train to Zhengzhou, Henan province, and a job on a construction site. 

Just as he was about to leave, Xuejing, his six-year-old sister, ran out of the house and begged Xueyu not to go. The boy walked back and whispered something into her ear before jumping onto the back of his father's motorcycle. 

Two weeks later one of his friends telephoned. Xueyu had been asked to take a tool to another worker and never came back. That was more than two years ago, in March 2007. 

The boy's whereabouts remain unknown but Yuan, or Lao (Old) Yuan, as he is known by his friends, fears his son is one of the countless young Chinese who have been kidnapped and forced to work in the illegal brick factories that dot the countryside - ominously known as black kilns. 

Yuan, 41, headed for Zhengzhou the day after receiving the phone call. He went to the police, who told him he had to wait 24 hours before filing a missing person's report. Unable to sit and wait, Yuan went to the site to search for clues that might point to his son's location. He found nothing. 

The next day, the police had little hope to offer Yuan. A few days earlier, at the same site, someone had put a hood over the head of another boy from Yuan's village and dragged him at knifepoint into a waiting van - he managed to escape shortly after, when the vehicle stopped to pick up more young men. The police had not even bothered to talk to the boy. 

Three months after Yuan Xueyu disappeared, his father received a phone call from a man who said he was in Shanxi province, claimed he had his son and wanted a ransom of 50,000 yuan (HK$57,000). Suspicious, he asked to speak to the boy. A voice came onto the phone for a few seconds and blurted out, 'Pa, rescue me.' 

Yuan, who cries as he repeats these words, says he thought the voice sounded like that of his son but he couldn't be sure. 'These words reverberated in my head for a very long time,' he says. 

He told the police about the call but once again they ignored him. Yuan called the number he had been given but there was no answer. 

'If my son was kidnapped or left on his own, there should be some eyewitnesses,' says Yuan. 'The police didn't do anything. They just said, 'Maybe he ran off.' 

'If it was their own kids who were missing, would the police be so uncaring?' he asks, sitting in his house, in Hebei province. He says he suspects that in some areas the police take bribes from kiln owners, and that they often 'have one eye open, one eye closed'. Media reports claim that in many areas, local government officials protect the operators of illegal kilns, making it difficult for the police to act even if they were inclined to do so. 

Having lost all confidence in the police, Yuan readily joined forces with other parents looking for lost sons. One such father had contacted others in the same predicament after seeing their missing-persons ads in Henan newspapers. When that man found his son, later in 2007, Yuan took charge and now leads some 40 families in occasional vigilante raids. So far, the group have rescued more than 100 young men, the majority of them in 2007. 

PROFITS IN THE BUILDING industry are razor thin and the kiln complexes in which bricks are produced are in remote rural areas, making slave labour both profitable and possible for unscrupulous operators. 

The black kilns, which are said to date back centuries, did not attract much attention until May 2007, when Yuan and some other farmers managed to liberate a boy in Shanxi. 

Xiao Wenlong, 16, had been waiting for classmates on a street corner when a minivan pulled up and three women jumped out. They asked him whether he was looking for work. He said he wasn't but the women overpowered him and dragged him into the van. He was driven to a black kiln operation and kept prisoner for two months. 

The boy has not been the same since his ordeal, says his aunt, Xin Yanhua, and he has not been able to hold down a job. During his captivity, he says, he did not have enough to eat and was beaten for not working hard enough. When he got home, Xin did not recognise the teenager, whose body was covered with scars, cuts and bruises. When his father greeted him, the boy did not react at all. 

To show her gratitude, Xin decided to help the parents, most of whom are poor farmers. Adept at writing and internet savvy, she wrote an article entitled 'The Blood-and-Tears Appeal of 400 Fathers.' She posted it on the state-run website in June 2007 but it was almost immediately taken down for being politically sensitive. It flew around the internet, nonetheless, amassing more than one million hits. Soon the national media were reporting the story. 

Under growing pressure, the government shut down some kilns and made a few arrests, and the story died down as suddenly as it had arisen. It was assumed that the problem had been taken care of but many of the illegal kilns remained in operation. Xin estimates that 50 per cent of the reported 1,000 missing young men and boys have never been found. The number could be far higher. 

The Yuan family has lived on their farm for four generations. The simple house has a pounded earthen floor and white plaster walls covered with posters of Chinese pop stars. Instead of tea, hot water with sugar is offered to guests. 

During lunch, Yuan describes the pain of losing a son. He's become a heavy drinker of baijiu, a popular and potent distilled liquor. 

'I began to drink to forget my troubles,' he says. 'Otherwise, I'd keep thinking, and then I'd start to think a lot of crazy things.' He says he can't sleep at night without a few glasses. 

'My wife makes sure I always have a stock of baijiu at home so I don't run out,' he says. 

Not doing well in middle school - several hours' walk away - and with no job opportunities at home, Xueyu joined the exodus that has seen hundreds of millions of rural youths head to the cities. 

'[Xueyu and his friends] were very happy about getting this job,' says Yuan. 'They had new work clothes, food, a dormitory and some money.' 

Yuan refuses to give up hope. To fund his search he first spent the money he'd set aside to build a house for his children and pay for their weddings. When that was gone, he borrowed 50,000 yuan from friends and relatives that he'll probably never be able to pay back. His farm income is just 3,000 yuan a year. 

A FEW DAYS LATER, Yuan and other searching parents congregate in Zhengzhou, some having travelled as far as 300 kilometres from their rural homes. At lunch, they meet 17-year-old Zhu Guanghui, who spent two years in captivity. The shy teenager tells a story that could have been lifted from the pages of Oliver Twist. 

Guanghui says that, after finishing the first year of high school, he traveled to Zhengzhou to look for work. He was just 15 when a man tricked him into a van a few days later, near the train station. He was taken to a black kiln facility, where he worked 10 hours a day with no days off and without pay. Guanghui says he was given only steamed bread to eat. When asked if he was abused, the boy, who has been staring down at the floor, looks up and says, 'Kendingde': of course. 

He worked at one plant for six months before escaping over a wall and down a dirt road to the closest town, where he walked into the Labour Affairs Bureau to make a complaint. An official drove him back to his place of imprisonment and made the boss pay him 600 yuan, half of which the official pocketed. Guanghui was then driven to another kiln complex, to which he was sold by the official for 300 yuan. Months later, the scrappy Guanghui escaped again and returned to the same town, where, unfortunately, he ran into the same labour official on the street. He was sold once again. 

The teenager escaped a third time and this time he was lucky - he was picked up on a country road by Yuan and others. He was wearing tattered clothes and was covered in dust. 

The owner of the third kiln complex at which Guanghui was forced to work and the labour official have each been sentenced to three years in prison. 

The parents listen quietly - probably wondering about the fate of their own sons. The food has been barely touched. 

In the afternoon, the group pays a visit to Chai Wei's food stall. His son, Changqing, who appears to be autistic, disappeared in 2007 from a street near the stall. He is unable to speak but when asked what happened to him, he mimics pulling a wheeled cart, his face grimacing to indicate that the imaginary load is heavy. He was found by the side of a road in a small town, very dirty and with a scar on the back of his head. 

The next morning, 10 parents gather in a light drizzle in a park to discuss which area of the Henan countryside they will search today. 

Zhang Xinguo has travelled three hours to be here. His clothes are splattered with mud and he's wearing a dark blue Mao cap and a sad look. He holds up a fuzzy copy of his son's ID card. The young man vanished 'in the year of the big snowfall', he says. 

Hu Xiaojiao has a screenshot lifted from a Henan television news report. Taken with a hidden camera smuggled into a black kiln facility, the picture shows a man she believes is her son. She recalls how astounded she was when she was watching a TV programme about the black kilns and realised what had happened to him. 

Guanghui said he had been at the same facility and that he tried to convince the young man to escape with him. 'He was afraid to run away,' Guanghui said. The kiln was later shut down and Hu's son - if it was him - disappeared again. 

Li Yuehua, a tearful petite woman recalls how in 2004, her 18-year-old son had been traveling from Urumqi to Zhengzhou by train but never arrived. A passenger said he last saw the young man when the train stopped at Xian. 

Li pulls out a colour photograph of the boy, wiping away her tears with a tissue. She also has a screenshot from the Henan TV programme. She is fairly certain that a figure in the background - a shirtless ghost-like youngster squatting and eating from a bowl - is her son. 

Later in the morning, Lao Yuan and the mother of a young man who disappeared after going out for cigarettes, visit a temple a few blocks from site of Yuan Yueyu's disappearance. The two parents prostrate themselves in front of a statue of the Goddess of Mercy. They burn spirit money, facing the four directions of the compass, and burn incense. 'If I can't find my son, I don't want to live anymore,' says the mother, who happens to be a fortune teller. 

In front of the temple, the mystic takes out her tools - bamboo sticks engraved with characters and several coins, which she takes from a wallet tied around her waist - and places them on the pavement. She and Lao Yuan squat and chat while she throws the coins onto the ground. She tells Yuan that his son is either to the northwest of Zhangzhou or to the southeast and that he has a small wound. She adds that Yuan Yueyu may be released in a number of months, or at the end of the year. Then she says: 'Sometimes I don't tell accurate fortunes.' 

Yuan is not discouraged, and hands her a few coins in payment. He says that she correctly predicted the return of another boy, in June 2007. 

'I'll search to the northwest first and then to the southwest,' he says. He turns and stares intently at the high-rise building that sprang up without one of its labourers, as if expecting to find a clue to his son's fate in the last place he was seen by friends. 

The next evening the group arrives in the small town of Zhengmou, less than an hour away from the provincial capital. The following morning, they'll proceed to a rural area that has many kilns. They meet for dinner in a bleak restaurant that does nothing to alleviate the mood. 

The fortune teller's husband blames the phenomenon on the reform that began in 1978. 'After that, money was everything,' he says. 'People will do anything today for money.' 

Yan Hehua cries every time she talks about her son, an 18-year-old disabled boy who disappeared in 2006. She's been tricked by people who call her claiming they have the young man - her number being widely available on missing-person notices. She has twice travelled long distances only to find a child that was not hers. She says she still has hope. 

Hu says that she often carries out one-woman searches. 'I'm not afraid,' she says, her voice rising. 'In Shanxi, I visited 17 kilns on my own.' She describes visiting one operation and pretending to be deaf, ignoring the questions of the kiln operators as she poked around. The owner asked her if she was there to sell workers. She finally blurted out: 'I'm looking for my son.' 

She gave up her small shop to devote herself to her search, and says she goes to church every day to pray for his return. 'I can't cry anymore,' she says. 'I have no more tears left.' 

Yuan proposes a toast: 'We're united here in a common task,' he says, holding his small glass of baijiu up to his friends. After the toast, the talking stops as everyone begins slurping hot noodles. 

At 7.30 the next morning, the group pours into several three-wheeled vehicles, the main form of transport in this rural area. Along the way, the convoy passes piles of bricks that will be used to build houses for the prosperous. An hour later, the group reaches Langchenggang, where Yuan negotiates the cost of two mini-vans in which to travel the dusty dirt roads. 

Yuan looks over a map and says that the area is probably safe. He says that in places where 'the owners are 100 per cent black', he and his group have been attacked. 

The two vans pull up and the 10 parents - aged between 40 and 70 - tumble out and spread out across a kiln complex. Yuan holds back like a general surveying the battlefield, his eyes scanning the landscape. He notices a motorcycle heading down the road and surmises the rider is going to warn other kiln owners. As the parents walk through the complex, young men push past them, their faces straining as they pull brick-laden carts, some weighing close to 400kg. 

At the next kiln complex Yuan notices an idle machine. He wonders aloud whether it was manned by kidnapped youths who have been rushed out of sight. A worker says the machine is broken. 

Yuan questions workers like a detective at every compound visited. Most consist of a production line that turns out greyish bricks that are piled onto hand carts, which are then pulled over to an area in which they are left to dry in the sun. Next, the bricks are fired in long kilns, each of which has several U-shaped hatches. The compounds do not have walls around them and, for the most part, the machinery is handled by women in their 20s, many of them wearing colourful minority clothing and carrying babies strapped to their back. 

At one site, the parents pull out photos of their sons and show them around. Zhi Nianjing, whose lips are turned down in a permanent look of sadness, holds a photo of his son in a People's Liberation Army uniform. 

As the motley crew of desperate parents rolls up to each kiln complex, their managers move off into the distance and stand beside foreign black saloons, watching quietly but doing nothing. 

The day has been an unsuccessful one for the group. 'We didn't come up with anything this time,' says Yuan, 'but at least we can find solace in the fact that we came here to look.' 

After arriving back in Langchenggang, about a dozen plain-clothes police suddenly appear on the street, taking photos and videos of the parents. A circle forms. What is shaping up to be a tense situation is diffused by a local journalist, who gently urges the farmers into the two vans and tells the drivers to take them to Kaifeng - their next destination and less than an hour away. 

BACK IN BEIJING, A WEEK later, Lao Yuan admits 'the more time that passes, the further away our children seem to us'. He then adds, though, that it's the responsibility of parents to keep looking for their sons. 

'That's the only way you can face your child,' he says sadly. 

At the Yuan home, Xuejing pulls out an essay she's written for school, titled 'My Brother'. In it she describes the last conversation she had with Xueyu, just before he climbed onto the back of his father's motorcycle. 

'Little sister, when brother returns home he'll bring you clothing and shoes,' he whispered in her ear. Mollified, she wished him a smooth journey and peace in Henan.


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney