by Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY
BEIJING -- Every Mid-Autumn Festival, farmer Yang Zengjian's son used to wolf down mooncakes and other traditional treats.
At Chinese New Year, "he loved firecrackers and would beg me to buy more and more," Yang says of son Dingding. "Now I hate the sound of firecrackers."
Yang's boy disappeared in 2008 age 7, one of up to 20,000 children abducted each year, according to the U.S. State Department's 2010 human rights report. Other estimates run much higher.
In the USA, a missing-child alert sparks concerns about imminent abuse and murder. In China, home to a centuries-old scourge of buying and selling children, abduction appears less lethal but no less painful.
China's traditional preference for sons, to continue the family line, drives an illegal trade now bolstered by the market-shrinking impact of the one-child policy, the ruling Communist Party's three-decade-old drive to restrict family size.
"At the local level, police don't do their best to find lost kids, so more people dare to abduct and buy them. It's a vicious circle," says Xiao Chaohua, 37, whose 5 year-old son Xiaosong was abducted in 2007.
Instead of waiting for the government to act, five fathers have taken their case to the people. This weekend is when Chinese families traditionally reunite for the Mid-Autumn Festival, and Yang and four other fathers of missing children have driven hundreds of miles to Beijing in a minivan covered with photos of victims of child trafficking.
In a nation of over 1.3 billion people, looking for lost people invites the Chinese, hopeless phrase, "Finding a needle in the ocean." In recent years, these five dads' desperate search for clues has cost them their marriages, jobs and savings.
And in a stability-obsessed system like China's, where the space for civic activism remains minimal, their persistence in publicizing a widespread but sensitive problem like trafficking has landed them in trouble with the authorities too.
"It's a miracle we've made it this far," says Yang, 38, in the semi-rural suburbs of east Beijing's Tongzhou district, where the group has hidden the van while they print leaflets and handbooks on how to prevent child abduction. On previous trips to the capital, police have detained Yang and others, and sent them back to their home provinces, he says.
"A policeman told me, 'You lose face for the country,' but we ought to get support from the government as we help society by raising awareness on preventing abductions," Yang says. "We tell people that trafficking is not some remote danger, it's right beside you."
Official statistics are hard to come by. China's police ministry said in 2010 that up to 60,000 children are reported missing every year, but did not estimate how many are victims of human trafficking. The Chinese media have reported estimates of child abductions as high as 200,000 case a year.
A wave of Internet activism last year in China, inspired by a popular campaign to photograph child beggars who may have been abducted and forced to beg, compelled the nation's police to promise greater vigilance.
Xiao, from southern Guangdong province, once owned a fashion store there but is now focused solely on finding his son. He drives the publicity van, one of eight he is aware of. Passengers picked up en route, including Yang, are friends Xiao made online through their shared sorrow.
Other cities traversed since early July have proved less sensitive than Beijing. Encountering only minor harassment, Xiao and friends have laid out hundreds of photos on city streets, garnered some publicity in China's tightly controlled media, and won useful leads, he says, though not for their own cases.
To spread the word, Xiao and Yang have distributed lighters and matchboxes bearing photos of missing children. Shen Hao, another activist who posts online videos of the relatives of missing children and adults, hands out poker packs printed with their pictures.
The authorities' lack of effective response has forced Xiao and other parents to acquire multiple new skills. He's learned how to use the Internet, how to micro-blog and network - and how to dodge the police.
"We're now black-listed as 'sensitive personnel,' " says Xiao, who kept this latest trip secret from his social networking group, which he believes is infiltrated by Chinese security agents.
"The police should help them find their kids, not give them hassle," says lawyer Gan Yuanchun, an expert on missing children in Hunan's Changsha city, and consultant to two organizations working on abduction.
"The case clearing rate on abducted children is normally around 5%, though it spiked to 8-10% last year, but it's still very low," Gan says.
Social tradition, the one child policy and a weak legal environment all contribute to the problem, he says. The almost non-existent penalties on buyers of stolen children remain those set by China's Criminal Law in 1997.
"Fifteen years later, it's high time to change the law," Gan says.
Beijing established a formal anti-abduction network within its Ministry of Public Security in 2007. Several high-risk provinces have since set up specialist police units, but others have merely put up an office nameplate without dedicating any full-time staff, reported the state-run Legal Daily newspaper in April.
The top police officer responsible for fighting the traffickers, Chen Shiqu, has 2.7 million followers on his Twitter-like micro-blog account on Weibo
- a record among China's 50,000 government weibo that reflects public interest in the problem. He blames easy profits.
Usually a male child sells for about $8,000 to $9,500, and a girl child for $4,800 to $6,400, Chen told The Beijing Times' This Week magazine.
"Engaging in this kind of crime, criminals basically have little economic costs, so we constantly crack down on these cases but they still exist," he said.
To tackle the scourge, China's police established a DNA database in 2009 that by March 2012 had helped over 2,000 abducted kids return home, according to state-run Xinhua News Agency. Yang and Xiao, who in 2010 protested in vain outside the police ministry to visit to the new database, remain unconvinced that the data they submitted are being actively used.
U.S.-trained DNA expert Wu Yuanming, a professor at a military hospital university in Xian, is trying to set up a civilian-operated DNA database that will match the police ministry's existing 20,000-sample database within five years.
"I have been moved by the large numbers of people seeking to find their parents or children. We need a database that can serve the people cheaply and effectively," he says.
But after years of fruitless searching, the group of fathers has exhausted their relatives' and friends' patience and savings.
"My father says, 'You've searched for so long. I've lost my grandson, but now I'm losing my son too,' " says Yang, who has sold his tractor and no longer farms.
Despite the toll, the fathers say they will not give up.
"We won't stop as we still have hope every day," Xiao insists. "I think every day of ways to find our kids, and how to prevent others being abducted."
Contributing: Sunny Yang