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 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 activists say.
Legal battles can be futile – unless the child is being mistreated or in danger, it can be impossible to win back custody, activists and mothers say. The other parent can be granted visitation rights – but these, too, are difficult to enforce. Often, there are no repercussions for the abductors.
In “at least half” of divorce disputes regarding child custody, parents “hide the children for various reasons,” said Chen Haiyi, chief of the juvenile and family division of the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court in Guangdong Province, in a 2019 report by state-run news outlet Xinhua.
At the core of the problem is China’s legal system, which tends to favor the abductor and leaves few avenues of help for their partner, experts say.
In China, joint custody is rare – the common thinking is that “after a family breakup, the children should go with one parent rather than with both parents,” said Jeremy D. Morley, who heads an international family law firm in New York, and has extensively studied the phenomenon of child abduction around the world.
“The tradition of a parent taking a child away from the other parent, when there’s a parental separation, is something that’s been in existence for a long time,” Morley said. “It has been very difficult to interest courts and police and other state authorities in rectifying those issues.”
This hands-off, single-custody mentality isn’t unheard of, he added – it’s “historically an approach that has been Asia-wide,” previously seen in countries like South Korea.
But in China, that policy has lingered.
China’s marriage law states that after divorce, both parents “still have the right and duty to bring up and educate their children,” and that the parent who loses custody is still entitled to visitation rights unless it is to the detriment of the child.
But this law is often poorly enforced, parents and activists say, and there is nothing legally preventing parents from abducting their children before the divorce is finalized.
Mothers who give birth while unmarried are even more vulnerable, since they aren’t covered by the marriage laws, according to Zhang Jing’s report.
Wang, a mother based in Tianjin who asked to be identified only by her surname for privacy reasons, was unmarried when she gave birth to her daughter. The couple separated several months later in 2016. She and the six-month-old were staying at Wang’s family home two months after the separation, when her ex-partner and a group of other people showed up, she said.
In the confrontation, they pushed her to the ground and “violently abducted my child,” said Wang.
Surveillance footage from the street shows a group of people surrounding Wang and pushing her to the ground. Two women pick up the baby and run; when Wang tries to get up, she is thrown back down, still surrounded by the rest of the group.
That was the last time she saw her daughter, Wang said. She immediately went to the police, who detained and fined her ex-partner for the assault – but, she said, did nothing about the abduction. “They told me that since (the child was with) her father, it was not a crime,” she said.
The tactic is popular because it nearly guarantees custody, said Dai. Although her marriage had not been a happy one, she hadn’t anticipated the divorce or the lengths her ex would go.
“In marriage law, the clause says that in the best interests of the child, to place them with the parent they already reside with, so as to protect their psychological state,” she said. “As soon as the judge hears the child is with the father, there’s very little chance you win back custody.”
The practice is so common that it’s often viewed as the sensible thing to do. “If you want custody, you have to rely on yourself,” said Wang, adding that if you were to ask a law firm for consultation on winning child custody, lawyers may very well “tell you to go ‘abduct’ your child back.”
She spent years appealing the courts for custody and greater visitation rights, but the court upheld the custody verdict “on the grounds of ‘not changing the living environment,’” she said.
To make things worse, Wang’s ex allegedly disappeared with their daughter after the violent confrontation, she said. He signed a discretionary agreement allowing his attorney to fully represent him in the litigation process, meaning he doesn’t need to appear in court or stay in the city.
“After the child was abducted away, I haven’t seen her for four years,” she said. “I cannot find where she is, where the father is.”
CNN tried to reach out to Wang’s ex through his last known phone numbers but was unable to contact him.
Dai, too, appealed the custody verdict twice after her divorce was finalized, escalating it to the Beijing High Court. But she lost both times, with the judges upholding the initial verdict that it was best to keep her son in his “stable” current environment, according to court documents reviewed by CNN.
“Once you get the first ruling, it’s almost impossible to overturn it,” Dai said. “The further you go along, the harder it is.”
Still, Dai continues to fight. Her visitation verdict, issued several years after the divorce, allows her to see her son twice a month – but she said her ex-husband doesn’t show up for the agreed visits, and doesn’t take her calls.
She has little choice but to continually reapply for enforcement through the court. The process takes months, she says, and ultimately only allows her to see her son once in the courtroom – sometimes for only an hour if her ex shows up late – before she has to apply all over again.
“My son actually didn’t know I existed for many years, he was taken (when he was) so young, he just barely knew how to walk at the time,” she said. “I was a stranger. Even today, he’s never called me mom.”
“It’s so draining – psychologically, financially, emotionally,” she added. “It just takes so much out of you to keep going and keep fighting. How will my son even know that I struggled for so many years?”
Many parents in her situation choose not to fight because they know how futile it can be, which is another reason why the real number of cases per year is likely much higher than Zhang Jing’s estimate, said Morley.
“Why report them if you know that nothing will happen?” Morley said. “You won’t open a lawsuit if you know your chances of success are slim to none. I don’t think most of these cases are being reported – 80,000 is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Motives and cultural beliefs
Zhang Jing’s team discovered that among the cases they examined involving child abduction, about 63% of the abductors were men and nearly two-thirds of the abductees were boys.
There are a few possible reasons for this, activists say – a primary one being the traditional idea of inheritance and bloodline.
Many families still hold a preference for male children, and as private wealth has accumulated in China in recent decades, families’ emphasis on male heirs and “bloodline inheritance” has increased, said Zhang’s report.
But at the same time, women are having fewer babies. The number of newborns registered with the government dropped almost 15% last year from 2019, and the birthrate in 2020 was the lowest recorded since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949.
This under supply of sons means “the need for passing on the family bloodline” is a major motive in many cases of parental child abduction, said the report. “The older generation especially attaches great importance to carrying on the bloodline, which intensifies the fight for child custody.”
The one-child policy, and China’s tendency for single-parent custody, has exacerbated this problem, said Dai. Though the one-child policy was partially relaxed in 2013 and formally ended in 2015, in many families, the burden of providing a grandchild – and specifically a grandson – and continuing the family line lies solely on one child. “It gives them an enormous pressure,” she said.
Domestic abuse is also a common factor in cases of parental child abduction. Among the cases of child abduction Zhang Jing examined that cited the reason for filing divorce, nearly 39% cited domestic violence. In these cases, abusers may be taking their children as a way to gain power and exert control over their victim, said the report.
The majority of abduction cases reported occurred in places with rapid economic development, like Shanghai, Beijing, or Guangdong, said the report. In these economic hubs, couples tend to be more financially independent, and women are more likely to have their own income – meaning they are more able to file for divorce and fight for custody.
Another reason this phenomenon is so widespread could be because there are so many migrant workers across the country, said the report – nearly 300 million by some estimates. These people move from rural areas to large cities for work, which makes it easy for abductors to take their child and leave, often back to their home province where they still have family members.
Finally, the long-standing cultural belief that a family’s affairs are their private business has meant outsiders – including authorities – are often reluctant to step in. For years, activists have argued that this reluctance protects perpetrators and neglects victims in other household conflicts like abuse and domestic violence.
“If two strangers fight, the public security organs will deal with it in accordance with laws and regulations,” said Wang. “But if it is the husband who beats his wife, the punishment will be mild, or even no punishment.”
These factors have all created an impossible situation for women who find themselves with little assistance, legal protection, or ways to win back custody of their children.
The new law
Under the new amendments to the family law, which will go into effect in just a few weeks, “it is not allowed to compete for custody rights by snatching or hiding underage children.” Those who violate the articles may “bear civil liability in accordance with the law,” or face unspecified penalties, according to the law.
For many activists and mothers, the law has been a long time coming. After losing custody of her son, Dai co-founded an organization called Purple Ribbon Mother’s Love to connect and help others in this situation – as well as lobby for institutional change to better protect parents and children against abduction.
The group has launched initiatives such as sending petitions and victim testimonies to the National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislative body. Dai estimates they have also provided legal and psychological support to several hundred people so far – the vast majority women.
Their cause has gained broader support over the years, as public awareness has grown about similar issues. The problems of domestic abuse and child custody were thrust into the limelight in 2016 when China finally enacted its first nationwide law prohibiting domestic violence.
Women have since been speaking out about their experiences with abusive partners or child abduction, with some high-profile cases helping increase visibility around the issue.
Even government officials have spoken out in support of changing the marriage and custody law, including a delegate of the National People’s Congress.
After years of campaigning, Dai is cautiously hopeful of the new law. “It’s definitely a good step forward,” she said. “Very gradually, I think things are getting better in China.”
However, she cautioned that a “law is only a law when it’s able to be enforced.”
There are additional steps that could be taken – providing protections for visitation rights during the divorce period, or laying out clearer standards on which behaviors constitute “snatching and hiding” children, said Chen, the chief of the Guangzhou court, in the Xinhua article. By 2019, the amendments to the law were already being drafted and deliberated by the country’s legislative body, though the final articles still fell short of clearly defining the parameters and repercussions of the offence.
And for mothers who have lost custody or visitation of their children, the new law comes too late.
“You can always earn money back, but you can never earn time back,” said Dai. “My time is not infinite, and my child’s time is not infinite. You’re dealing with a child that is growing and changing and evolving.”
“It’s almost unfeasible that they say this is the best solution there is,” she added. “There has to be a better way.”
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Beijing Bureau.