A man who was abducted as a child in China more than 30 years ago has been reunited with his parents – thanks to social media, online sleuths and a crude map drawn from memory.
Li Jingwei was only 4 years old when he was kidnapped by a man he knew from his family’s village in southwestern Yunnan province in 1988. He was taken to live with another family in central Henan province, where he grew up, according to state-run news outlet The Paper.
Even as a young child, Li realized he had been taken far from home – but he had no way of returning even as he grew older, he told The Paper. He didn’t remember his birth name, his parents’ names or the name of his village.
But he did remember what his home village looked like: where trees grew, cows grazed, roads turned and rivers flowed. He remembered the rice paddies and ponds near his house, and where bamboo shoots grew in the nearby mountain. As a child, whenever he was homesick or sad, he would draw a picture of his village – eventually drawing it at least once a day, he told The Paper.
Child abduction has long been rampant in China, a problem experts say was exacerbated by the country’s former one-child policy, which has been relaxed in recent years. For decades, those who had a second child were given heavy fines, or made to abort pregnancies.
Many Chinese families – especially those in rural areas – traditionally viewed boys as more able to provide and continue the family line. This demand drove a black market for infant boys, and pushed many families to give infant girls up for adoption.
In recent years, technology, social media, and police departments dedicated to the issue have helped a number of now-adult abductees to reunite with their birth families. One high-profile case was Guo Xinzhen, who was abducted in 1997 as a 2-year-old. His parents’ desperate nationwide search to find him inspired a movie – and, last summer, his discovery and their widely publicized reunion.
The recent success stories inspired Li to take another shot at finding his parents. So he drew a map from memory of his home village and shared it online. His childhood practice of drawing it daily paid off: the sketch shows a remarkable level of detail including winding paths, houses and highways – even a label showing where the water buffalo lived.
“So many years have passed, I don’t know if anyone in my family is looking for me,” Li said in a video posted to the Chinese video platform Douyin. “I want to be able to see my parents again while they are still here.”
The photo was shared widely on social media, garnering the attention of the Ministry of Public Security, which got involved in the investigation, according to The Paper and other state media outlets. Soon, authorities located Li’s suspected birth mother in the city of Zhaotong, Yunnan. Authorities took samples of their DNA to compare and confirmed their relation on December 28.
After the DNA match, Li had a video call with his mother and immediately recognized her. “My mother and I have the same lips, even my teeth,” he said. Several days later, on the morning of January 1, they were reunited at a police station in Henan.
Video of the reunion, shared widely by state media and on social media, shows Li falling to his mother’s feet and the pair embracing in tears, surrounded by supporters and other members of his birth family. “I’ve finally found my baby,” said Li’s mother, according to The Paper.
The pair thanked the public security department for their part in the investigation, and for the volunteers and online users who helped track down the village from his map. Li now plans to spend Lunar New Year in February with his mother, and return to Yunnan to visit his birth father’s grave.