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Society

Search for a Lost Son

After a search of 15 years that captured the nation’s attention, a father is reunited with his son who was abducted as a baby

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

Shen Cong was dressed in a white worn-out T-shirt when he saw his biological parents for the first time in 15 years. He held his parents, rubbing their backs, saying over and over: “Don’t cry, ma and pa.” 

His father Shen Junliang was speechless, overcome by emotion. Then he asked his son: “All these years, did you know you were abducted?” Shen Cong told his father and mother Yu Xiaoli that although he had seen news on TV about his father’s ceaseless quest, he never imagined that he could have been the missing child.  

Shen Cong was abducted in 2005 from his home in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, when he was just a baby. While police in Zengcheng, a district administered by Guangzhou, had arrested the five criminals involved in the abduction in 2016, it took more years to find the abducted boy himself. In 2018, two of the five perpetrators were sentenced to death, two were sentenced to life in prison and the fifth to 10 years in jail.  

On the night of March 6, police in Zengcheng announced that they had tracked down and confirmed the identity of the missing boy, now 16 years old. Shen Junliang and his wife Yu Xiaoli immediately set off from Jinan, capital of East China’s Shandong Province, to make the long journey south to Guangzhou, not easy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.  

The following day, officers accompanied Shen Cong to a hotel to meet his biological parents in Zengcheng. His father recognized his son as soon as he saw him. The birthmark on Cong’s face remained as it was when he was an infant. Shen Junliang collapsed and burst into tears.  

Reunion
For the past 15 years, Shen Cong had lived in an ordinary rural family along with his adoptive grandmother in Meizhou, Guangdong Province. His adoptive parents worked as migrant workers in Shenzhen. He grew up with three siblings, an elder sister and a younger brother and sister.

Shen Cong said he used to look at family photos and wondered why he looked different. But no one ever told him anything about the real story of his life.  

After the family was reunited, they spent a few days in Zengcheng, staying together in the hotel. It was an unprecedented period of happiness for Shen senior. Every morning, the father and son went out jogging or walking. During the day, when his son was studying online classes due to the Covid-19 epidemic, Shen Junliang would stay quiet or go out so he would not disturb his son’s study. Shen Cong told his father that he would try his best to perform well in the senior high school entrance examination this summer.  

There was so much chatter between the two, about family, about school life. One night, when Shen senior fell asleep exhausted, he woke to find his son had covered him with a coat. He was so touched and expressed that he could never expect that such a moment would come after years of hardship.  

Shen Junliang and his wife had been notified by Zengcheng police that they had found their son in late January, and had confirmed his identity with a DNA test, but the reunion was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and the difficulty of traveling cross-country.  

Before setting off on the journey to meet his son, in early March Shen went to buy new clothes for him and five N95 masks. But he did not know if Shen Cong would like to return home with them. The police had cautioned him that he should stay calm and try not to scare the child. The police had arranged counseling for Shen Cong and told him of his birth parents’ story. When Shen Cong learned that, he wept.  

Shen Cong was abducted when he was 11 months old. His parents were migrant workers from Henan Province working in Guangzhou. On January 4, 2015 when Shen Junliang was away from home working, Yu Xiaoli was cooking in the kitchen at the couple’s rented apartment with the baby. She told police that she was drugged and tied up, her mouth covered with tape so she could not scream, by two strangers brought into her apartment by two neighbors. As they took her son, she heard his cries fade into the distance.  

Yu Xiaoli was pregnant with their second child. The abduction and the psychological suffering led her to be diagnosed later with acute stress disorder. The apartment the couple rented in Zengcheng was close to her husband’s work, a four-story building with around 10 households living on each floor. There was a police station near the building, and Shen thought it was a safe place to live. They never expected that they would lose their son right in their own home. 

Later, they learned their son was abducted by a group of people involved with one of their neighbors, a man called Zhang Weiping, who lived across the corridor in the same building.  

Yu Xiaoli realized that the abduction had been planned. Once, Zhang had taken the baby from his walker in the corridor outside the apartment. Yu searched the whole building and discovered her son sitting on Zhang’s bed. He said he just wanted to give her son some cookies. Yu had brushed aside the incident.  

Artist’s impression of alleged child trafficker “Aunt Mei” by Lin Yuhui

Shattered Family
Losing their son shattered the family. The couple quit their jobs and started searching for their son. Shen Junliang printed posters offering a reward, crisscrossing Guangdong for years in a desperate attempt to find his son.  

In 2016, police detained Zhang Weiping after investigating another child abduction case. Police found that Zhang was a serial child kidnapper, starting in 1999. He had already served two jail terms in connection with child abduction.  

Li Guangri, deputy director of Zengcheng public security bureau, told media that after Zhang was detained, he admitted his gang hadsold several children via a female intermediary known as “Aunt Mei.” Zhang also confessed that his gang had broken into Shen Junliang’s house and taken his son. The child was sold via the intermediary Aunt Mei for 13,000 yuan ($1,831), he said.  

“Aunt Mei” was later alleged to have been a person of interest in several child abduction and trafficking cases, and while there is a description of her circulating, there is little concrete information.  

Despite many tips from the public, and a reward offered by police in Guangzhou, Aunt Mei has never been found.  

In autumn 2015, Shen Junliang contacted Chen Shiqu, head of the Ministry of Public Security’s office for combating human trafficking, to seek his help. After verifying Shen’s information, Chen told Shen that his case would be investigated. In September that year, police from Zengcheng told Shen they were gathering new evidence.  

In early March 2016, Zengcheng police zeroed in on a gang of five people, including Zhang Weiping. His accomplices, Zhou Rongping, Yang Chaoping, Liu Zhenghong and Chen Shoubi were all arrested in different places that month. When Shen discovered the gang had been captured, he was so excited he went to buy a school bag and clothes for his lost son and even bought wine and cigarettes to have a celebration.  

But police still did not know where Shen Cong was.  

During the trial in October 2016 in Zengcheng, the accused told the court what had happened the day Shen Cong was abducted. Zhou Rongping and his wife waited outside the building while Yang Zhaoping and Liu Zhenghong carried pepper spray and tools to break into the apartment. They grabbed Shen Cong and sent the boy to Zhang Weiping, who later sold the boy for 13,000 yuan (US$ 1,837) to the intermediary.  

Shen Junliang was outraged during the court hearing. Zhang, standing in front of Shen, confessed that he sold the child to Aunt Mei, a local person in Zengcheng, who frequented a mahjong club on Xiangjiang Road. Shen Junliang went there to see what he could find out. He spoke to a shoe polisher who had been doing business there for years, who claimed that he knew details of a family that had bought a child. But police investigations failed to turn up further information.  

In June 2017, Zhang Weiping disclosed new information, claiming he was involved in the abduction of nine children from 2003 to 2005. They were all sold through Aunt Mei to families in Zijin County under the city of Heyuan in Guangdong. Shen senior shifted his focus to that area. He carried three photos, a baby picture of his son and an artist’s impression of what his son would look like aged 13, with the birthmark on his left eye clearly identified. He also had the photofit of Aunt Mei, who was supposedly around 65, 1.5 meters tall, and spoke Cantonese and Hakka, a dialect of southern China.  

Police released a statement in November 2019 stating they had tracked two of the nine children Zhang confessed to having abducted.  

Zijin is a mountainous place in northern Guangdong, 200 kilometers from Guangzhou. According to the police investigation, Aunt Mei had sold the child in a restaurant opposite the main bus station to a couple in their 30s. The former restaurant boss had even dined with them as they reached the deal, police said.  

When police from Zengcheng found the restaurant owner, he denied all knowledge of the case. He told Shen senior he had sold the restaurant in August 2004.  

Shen Junliang on his way from Jinan, Shandong to Zengcheng, Guangzhou to meet his kidnapped son Shen Cong, March 6, 2020

Artist’s Impression
The artist’s impression of an older Shen Cong was drawn by Lin Yuhui, who had retired from the physical evidence identification center at the Department of Public Security of Shandong Province. Lin was well known as an expert in making sketches for identification purposes. He had worked for the International Criminal Court, and was known for his sketch of a man accused of kidnapping and murdering Chinese student Zhang Yingying in Illinois in 2017. Shen senior asked if Lin could help create a picture of an older Shen Cong.  

“It’s a big challenge for any sketch artist in the world to create an older portrait based on a childhood photo,” Lin told NewsChina, He said it was the first time he had tried to do one based on a baby. Using the baby picture and photos of the parents and their two younger children, it took Lin several hours to do the finished sketch.  

Shen Junliang returned to Zijin County with the picture in 2017. There was no progress, so he asked Lin to do another sketch. When he returned to Zijin with the updated picture, he was joined by other parents who had traveled from across the country, also seeking their children who had been abducted by the same gang. They joined to search for their lost children in Zijin. 

There was no news until 2018, when Zhang Weiping claimed that a man called Peng Jiaqing had lived with Aunt Mei in Huangsha Village in Zijin County. Zengcheng police interviewed Peng, who said that Aunt Mei had disappeared when the two were planning to get married after having lived together for two years.  

In September 2018, Shen Junliang went to Huangsha Village and posted the sketch of Aunt Mei everywhere. But there was no new information.  

In 2019, Zengcheng police asked Lin to make a second sketch of Aunt Mei based on new information provided by Peng Jiaqing, giving a more detailed description of her.  

On November 9, Lin sent the new portrait to Shen Junliang, and he immediately released it online. Media soon followed up and started to spread the portrait, which made the case even more high profile. People were looking for Aunt Mei everywhere.  

The online storm abruptly ended on November 18, when the Ministry of Public Security announced that the second sketch of Aunt Mei was not officially authorized. It said there was not enough evidence to prove the existence of Aunt Mei or what she looked like if she did. They denied inviting an expert to sketch a second portrait of Aunt Mei and added that Guangdong police were still trying to find the other seven abducted children.  

Many of the other parents were forced to give up the search in Zijin after a week due to work, family commitments or lack of money. One father was driven to despair by the failure to find his child and committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. Shen Junliang was the only one who remained. 

Return Journey
In 1997, Shen Junliang left his hometown in Henan Province to work in Guangdong. Initially, he worked in Dongguan as a warehouse guardian. By 2005, he was working as a department manager for a toy company at a monthly salary of over 5,000 yuan (US$707). By then he was a 28-year-old man with a promising future. But three months after his son was abducted, he quit his job and sent his wife back home. He stayed in Guangdong and started the tenacious search for his son.  

Before 2017 when he narrowed the search to Zijin, he had been to all the major cities in Guangzhou in his quest. He sold a parcel of land at home, then their combine harvester and even a house belonging to his family to finance his search. He spent all the family savings and borrowed from relatives. By 2017, according to Shen, he owed over 500,000 yuan (US$70,551).  

Since early 2019, Shen has worked for a factory in Jinan, Shandong Province as a truck driver. His family moved to Shandong and rented a house in the outskirts. He continued to seek any information about his lost son and was ready to drop everything to return to Guangdong if necessary.  

Over 15 years, Shen spent 1.5 million yuan (US$211,655) and distributed over 1 million posters looking for his missing son and even offered a reward of 200,000 yuan (US$28,220). One time when he was in Shenzhen, he was robbed by gangsters of all his valuables including his phone, watch, gold ring and cash. At that moment, he told the reporter that he felt so helpless.  

Investigators have not disclosed any details about how Shen Cong’s adoptive parents bought him. NewsChina tried a few times to contact police in Zengcheng and was told the investigation into what happened is ongoing. At a March press conference, Li Guangri announced that there was no evidence to prove the existence of Aunt Mei, and all information about her came from the single source of Zhang Weiping in 2016. Police did not say how they finally tracked down Shen Cong.  

Shen senior has experienced so much over the years, so when his son was finally standing in front of him, no one could understand the complicated set of emotions he was feeling. As Shen Cong agreed to go with his birth parents, Shen Junliang was finally relieved and started to arrange for his son to enroll in a new school in Shandong. 

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