Kidnapped toddler found by China internet campaign

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For little Lele's homecoming the crowds brought the town of Qianjiang to a standstill.

They blocked the road and set off thunderous rounds of firecrackers, welcoming back a boy they thought was lost forever.

The six-year-old climbed out of the car and the crowd swept forward to see him. His grandfather picked him up, hugged him tight and wept.

All around fireworks were set off, exploding then showering the throng of people with burning fragments.

Lele's story has gripped many in China, the tale of a boy, kidnapped three years ago, and returned to his family last week, thanks to the internet.

But it wasn't the police who found the boy; it was Lele's own father, a poor, migrant worker, who solved this crime. He did it using Twitter-type microblogs.

Twitter is banned in China but similar services have tens of millions of users. These sites are giving ordinary Chinese people a voice they have never had before, empowering them.

Kidnap filmed

As the crowds pressed around, Lele's father Peng Gaofeng, told me: "I found him with the help of people from all walks of life, using the great platform of the internet.

"I'm really grateful. I want to say thanks to all the people who have helped me to find my son." He waved to the crowd beaming a smile.

Image caption,
Mobile phone footage of Lele aged 3 shows him boisterous and happy at home

On film taken on a mobile phone three years ago, Lele, then aged three can be seen, boisterous and happy at home, playing with his father.

Not long afterwards he was snatched off the street from outside his father's mobile phone shop in the southern city of Shenzhen.

Security cameras filmed the kidnap, a man carrying the boy away in the night, looking warily over his shoulder.

The kidnapper can be seen walking down a busy street. Tired he puts the boy down for a few seconds, then picks him up again. Despite the video evidence the police could not find Lele.

Instead the authorities turned on Lele's father, pressuring him to give up his very public campaign to find his child.

He had been travelling across southern China looking for his son, putting up posters, making appearances on television. They wanted him to remain silent so he didn't disturb the appearance of "social harmony".

When I met Peng Gaofeng 18 months ago he agreed to talk, but only discreetly, in a private room in a local restaurant because, he said, police had been monitoring him, and had warned him against making too much fuss.

"If there were just one or two cases it would be a minor thing for the police," Peng Gaofeng told me then, "but there are thousands of us who have lost our kids. It's a massive issue.

"By campaigning openly we undermine the image the government wants to project that this is a harmonious society."

Family reunited

It is estimated that up to 20,000 children in China are kidnapped every year. Some are sold to gangs to be used as beggars, others to families who don't have a son but want one. Most are never recovered.

Image caption,
Deng Fei tweeted Lele's picture to his 2m followers and the photo on the right was sent back by a user

Although in the past two years police have stepped up a campaign against child trafficking and say they have rescued over 6,700 children.

Little Lele's family have had many dark, depressing days in the past three years. But Peng Gaofeng refused to give up. Instead he found help from Deng Fei, a journalist, who has a massive following on the internet.

Twitter-type microblogs took off in popularity in China last year. Well over 100 million people now use them. Deng Fei tweeted Lele's picture to his two million followers. Someone saw it and spotted the boy in Jiangsu province, 2,000km away from where he was kidnapped.

So Lele's father headed there. Overcome with emotion he waited outside the police station as officers went to investigate the sighting. They returned with his son.

Peng Gaofeng shouted the boy's name. Lele replied: "That man crying is my father." It was all filmed and tweeted live by journalist Deng Fei.

Inside the police station Peng Gaofeng called his wife to tell her the news, breaking down in sobs as he told her the boy had been found. Then he clutched Lele close and told him: "No matter where you go, I will find you."

China's people, for so long controlled or ignored by the state, are discovering the power of the microblog. It can force change, says Deng Fei.

"With this tool, everyone can express themselves immediately. Things can no longer be kept secret. Microblogs break the monopoly on information. They mean it can flow freely. A lot of things in China are caused by the lack of transparency here. So a lot of things will change now."

'Coping well'

Lele had been taken by a man whom, it seems, wanted a son of his own. He apparently told his wife the boy was his son by another woman. The man died last month, and Lele's family say they are not going to press charges.

Image caption,
Peng Gaofeng bypassed the traditional media to set his own agenda

Back in Qianjiang the celebrations went on late into the day. A giant feast was laid on by the family, huge pans of noodles and spicy chicken laced with red chillies. Lele's mother held him tight.

"When I heard Lele was found it was a mixture of emotions," she told me. "All the unjust treatment we'd suffered, all the sadness came up. But I was excited and happy too that we'd finally found him.

"I know he was aware that he didn't belong with that family. I think he's coping very well, better than I imagined."

The highlight for Lele was a giant, three-tiered cake covered in lurid-coloured icing. He cut a slice then giggled as he fed his father. The photographers snapped away.

Lele's story transfixed many because it is much more than a kidnap with a happy ending. It's also a tale about the way the internet is starting to change lives in China.

Ordinary people, using just a mobile phone or internet connection, now have their own platform, a place where they can speak out. They can broadcast their stories, their thoughts, their concerns.

In a nation where the Communist Party and the state have always dominated public discourse, the individual suddenly has a voice.

Microblogs create a space where people who feel wronged by indifferent, apathetic or corrupt officials can speak out. And, occasionally, like Peng Gaofeng, an individual can connect with others, bypassing the traditional media, to set their own agenda.

That also makes the microblogs a potential challenge to China's Communist Party and its cherished control of the media.

For now it seems to be tolerating them, even encouraging them in this case, where they have helped find missing children. But it could, one day, shut them down if it feels threatened by them.