Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Internet provides a flicker of hope for China’s missing children

 On Wednesday evening, when four year-old Chen Honghao’s mother sent out a call for help into cyberspace, it was an act of desperation from a parent who feared the worst.

When most of China was out celebrating the Chinese New Year with fireworks and sweets, Honghao’s parents were in a state of panic.

Their four year-old son had gone missing, wandering out of the Chen family’s small home and disappearing into the deserted, narrow streets of Fuan, a small town in China’s southern Fujian province.

Honghao’s mother feared he had been kidnapped. An estimated 200,000 children are abducted every year across China, many taken from families in small towns and sold to families in the city for $ 6,000.

Young boys are often in demand, in a society that has a traditional preference for male children. More than 600,000 children across China are still missing, with thousands of parents desperately trawling the country — some for more than a decade — in search of their children, with little support from the government.

For families like Chen’s, left with little resources and sources of support, an unlikely ally has emerged in their searches for their loved ones — the Internet.

When Honghao’s mother posted a message on the microblogging website Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter, she did not expect a response.

Online campaign

Yet in only two days, more than 50,000 Chinese on the website had spread her message, carrying a description of the four-year-old and a photograph. By Friday, the search for Honghao had become the second most-forwarded message on Weibo, which is used by more than 80 million people, reported Bill Bishop, a China-based blogger.

The online campaign for Honghao reflects how the Internet is redefining boundaries in China, which has the world’s biggest online population with 475 million Internet users. The Internet is closely controlled here, with politically-sensitive information often censored and social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, blocked by the authorities.


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