When 3-year-old Peng Wenle vanished into the night in March 2008, his parents despaired of ever seeing him again. Although a surveillance camera had captured video of a man scooping up the youngster from a crowded street outside the family's small shop in the southern city of Shenzhen, the images were too grainy to identify the perpetrator or provide clues on where he might have fled.
FOR THE RECORD A headline on an earlier online version of this story misspelled Peng Wenle's last name as Winle.
"China is such a big country. We thought it would be like finding a needle in the ocean," his mother, 29-year-old Xiong Yili, said in a telephone interview.
Technology, however, made a crucial difference in this case. An all-out campaign by Chinese microbloggers to circulate photographs of abducted children has led to the boy's reunion with his family.
A university student who had seen an Internet posting by the child's father, Peng Gaofeng, on Sina.com — which hosts a Chinese version of Twitter — thought the missing child looked a lot like a 6-year-old boy he'd seen in a village in Jiangsu province, about 800 miles away. He e-mailed a photograph of the 6-year-old to Peng Gaofeng, who recognized the child as his son. DNA tests have confirmed the relationship.
This is not the first time an abducted child has been reunited with parents thanks to the Internet, but it may become the most celebrated. Chinese censors have allowed only snippets of news coverage about child abductions, usually upbeat reports praising police who bust rings of child traffickers.
Not this time. The reunion was widely tweeted and televised to the point that it seemed like a reality TV show.
Crews from Phoenix Television, a Hong Kong-based private broadcaster, followed the tearful father to Jiangsu to bring back his son. The reunion has also been covered by state media.
The two set eyes on each other Tuesday outside a police station. The boy, dressed in a red parka, was escorted by a policeman. Peng Gaofeng was too choked with sobs to speak, but when the policeman asked the youngster, "Who's that?" he reportedly answered, "That man crying is my father."
After the DNA results came back, Peng was given custody of the boy.
"When I was giving him a bath, I could still recognize his body. The tears started flowing again and my son asked me with a Jiangsu accent, "Dad, what happened? What's wrong with you?" he wrote on his microblog.
On the way home to Shenzhen, the boy was quiet and morose, leading Peng to speculate, "Maybe he misses the family he was living with."
Well-wishers and television crews crowded the Shenzhen Airport on Thursday night when the boy, escorted by his father, flew home and into the arms of his waiting mother.
Child abduction is a scourge for China's poor, particularly migrant workers. Thousands of small children have disappeared from Shenzhen and other manufacturing boomtowns of southern China, where the anonymity of millions of people coming and going makes it easy for traffickers and their victims to blend into the crowd.
Most of the children snatched are boys, who are then sold for as much as $10,000 to families, sometimes thousands of miles away, that are childless or without sons. Peng Wenle had been living with such a family for three years.
The kidnapping had been a garden-variety case. Peng Wenle's parents had come from Hubei province two years earlier and operated a small store where fellow migrant workers paid to call home. It was just after dinner on a balmy evening that the boy wandered out to the street to play with friends. That is the time of day that most abductions take place, activists say.
"We were busy. It happened in just a minute that we weren't paying attention," said Xiong, his mother. "It is so easy to lose kids in the city, not like the countryside where everybody knows each other."
The couple put huge red posters with their missing child's photo on their shop and distributed fliers begging for information around Shenzhen. Convinced that they would never find their child, they had another son a year ago.
"This is a very ordinary case. There are so many like them," said Yang Guan, an activist with the non-governmental agency Baby Come Home, which has helped reunite 180 children with their parents over 2 1/2 years. She said that the use of social networking and microblogs has made it far easier to find children because of the speed with which information can be conveyed.
"By pushing just one button, you can send information all over the country," Yang said. "Microblogging has made people much more aware of the problem."
Peng Wenle's rescue coincides with a well-publicized Internet campaign launched by a professor at the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Yu Jianrong is encouraging people to take and post photographs of child beggars to determine whether some had been abducted.
In less than three weeks, more than 1,800 pictures have been posted, according to the Chinese state news reports. An eager volunteer has even developed an application that allows people to upload photos from their cellphone to a database.
So far, however, those pictures haven't led to the positive identification of any kidnapped children. One man who was begging with a young child in Zhuhai was picked up and given a DNA test, but the child proved to be his son.
Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.