In China, 80,000 children were 'snatched' in 2019 by parents fighting for custody, report says

Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT) May 22, 2021

(CNN)When Dai Xiao Lei arrived at her Beijing apartment with her husband and son, after a long flight back from Canada, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law were already waiting inside.

They wanted to take her 16-month-old to their family home in Gaoyang, several hours' drive away, Dai said. Her then-husband seemed unsurprised and told her he must have forgotten to mention it, she said.
"We never discussed this and there was no prior agreement at all," she said. "This is not something that I agreed to. They didn't care."
Dai tried to refuse, locking her son in his bedroom. But, she said, her now-former husband had been physically abusive and she was afraid. With no friends, family or neighbors nearby who could help, several hours later she conceded.
In the following months, Dai said her ex-husband denied her repeated requests to see her son. He filed for divorce, claiming she was "irresponsible" and "didn't have time to take care of the son due to work," according to court documents reviewed by CNN. Dai, a Canadian citizen, went to the Beijing police and the Canadian consulate -- but she said authorities called it a private family matter and that there was nothing they could do.
Then came the worst blow: the divorce court granted her ex-husband sole custody of their son, ruling that it was best for his "physical and mental growth" to stay in his existing environment. In China, courts often grant custody to whomever is currently housing the child, according to legal experts and activists campaigning against the issue.
Dai Xiao Lei and her son in Beijing, China.
Dai has spent the past five years since then appealing the custody ruling and fighting for visitation rights. CNN has repeatedly reached out to her ex-husband for comment over the phone and social media.
She is not alone. Nearly 80,000 children in China are estimated to have been abducted and hidden in divorce cases in 2019, according to a report by Zhang Jing, deputy director of a Beijing law firm and professor at the China University of Political Science and Law. The abductions mostly involved sons under six years old.
To reach their estimate, Zhang Jing and her research team analyzed 749 litigation cases involving custody and visitation rights from a national legal database, spanning 2007 and 2020 -- then applied the proportion of "snatching" cases to the number of divorces registered in 2019.
Though the 80,000 estimate is based on 2019 divorce figures, legal experts say it reflects a consistent trend seen each year -- and the real figure may be much higher, since many cases might not be publicly available or settled out of court.
A new law aims to put an end to this practice: in October last year, the country's legislative body passed an amendment to the child protection law with dozens of new articles -- one of which declared it illegal for parents to "snatch and hide" their children to win custody battles.
The amendments, which go into effect on June 1, were praised by some as a crucial step in protecting children and mothers. But years of loose regulations and a hands-off approach by Chinese authorities have sowed doubts as to whether a new law will change anything, say experts on family law and parental abduction.

Gaps in the law

Though the details and circumstances of abduction cases differ, the result is often the same. According to activists like Dai and Zhang Jing, who have worked with such cases, the abductor moves and hides the children, typically with the help of their parents or family members. The other parent, usually the mother, is blocked from seeing their child; often, they don't even know where their child is. In some cases, the abductor continues to hide the child long after winning custody, the