Men and women knocked Wang Jiangnu to the ground. Holding her by the legs and shoulders, they snatched the six-month-old baby from her arms and started to run.
All this was filmed by a surveillance camera. But there was little Ms. Wang could do: the person who had directed the kidnapping on the street outside her mother’s house was her partner, the father of the child.
According to Ms. Wang, police in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin refused to intervene, claiming that a parent could not abduct their own child. The court then granted sole custody to Ms. Wang’s partner, citing the need to keep the child in a “familiar environment.”
On that day in January 2017, Ms. Wang saw her daughter in person for the last time.
“I feel deeply hurt,” said 36-year-old Ms. Wang. “Although the abduction is unfounded and unfounded, the court still upheld it.”
Guardian battles can be bitter deeds anywhere in the world. In China, where the courts rarely grant joint physical custody, disputes over children are particularly acute. Judges often leave children in their existing environment, arguing that it is better for their well-being. But this creates a perverse incentive for split parents to abduct and hide their children in order to obtain sole custody.
Nine months after Ms. Wang’s child was abducted, Tianjin police admitted in a final report that her partner, Liu Zhongmin, had injured Ms. Wang and her mother during a “physical dispute over the child,” according to a copy of the report viewed by The New York Times. The police ordered Mr. Liu to serve a 10-day administrative arrest and pay a $ 75 fine for causing physical harm. But the officers did not blame him for taking the child.
Mr. Liu could not be contacted for comment. His the lawyer and one of the persons allegedly involved in the kidnapping hung up when asked to comment on the situation.
For decades, Chinese law did not make it a crime for parents to kidnap and hide their own children. The problem has become more common as the divorce rate in the country has increased. grew steadily… Most divorces in China are resolved privately, which can lead to custody separation agreements. But for couples who go to court, it is often all or nothing.
In June, the government tried to address this issue by outlawing kidnapping for the purpose of detention. Activists welcomed the law, but said it was too early to say if it would make any difference.
According to a recent report by Zhang Jing, a renowned family lawyer in Beijing, citing figures released by China’s highest court, in 2019, about 80,000 children were abducted and hidden for custody purposes.
Many say the numbers are likely higher. Long-term judge in Guangzhou city in the south of China. told state media in 2019, more than half of the contested divorce cases she saw involved child abduction for custody purposes.
Most often, fathers are behind the abductions. Ms. Zhang found that men were to blame for more than 60 percent of these cases. Most of the abductions involved sons under the age of 6, reflecting the traditional emphasis in China on boys as bearers of the surname.
“It has become almost a game – whoever has physical custody has legal custody,” said Dai Xiaolei, who founded the Purple Ribbon Mother’s Love advocacy group after losing a custody battle with her ex-husband. “It’s free for everyone.”
In some cases, child abduction for the purpose of obtaining custody is part of a broader model of domestic violence. Official statistics show that about one in three families suffer from domestic violence…
Ms. Wang said the violence against her started in 2016 when she was about five months pregnant with her daughter Chiayi. She and Mr. Liu lived together; they never officially registered their marriage. She said that one month after giving birth, Ms. Wang beat her again after she asked him to bring diapers.
Court documents confirmed that Ms. Wang had told the judge that Mr. Liu often quarreled with her “over trifles, even beating and insulting her.” Mr. Liu rejected Ms. Wang’s request for custody, but did not respond to her specific demands, as the documents show.
Ms. Wang said the abuse continued for months until she stopped taking the beatings. At her request, her husband’s relatives took her and the child to their parents, she said. Mr. Liu showed up once to try to grab a child, but left after the police arrived, Ms. Wang said. For the next month she received nothing from him.
The next time, she said, he ordered people to help him snatch the baby up. Ms. Wang appealed when the judge granted him full custody, but the judge upheld this, according to court documents.
Guardianship disputes have only recently become a major problem in China. Traditionally, a woman who filed for divorce was expected to give up custody of her children. But this has changed over the years as women in China have gained greater financial stability and independence.
On paper, Chinese legislation is tilted slightly in favor of women. In cases where the child is 2 years old or younger, the mother usually receives sole custody. But in practice, judges can be influenced by institutional and informal considerations, which experts say often give men an edge. For example, men have access to additional financial resources and propertywhich allows them to make stronger custody claims.
“The law itself looks very neutral, but many of the things that underlie it are not equal,” said He Xin, professor of law at the University of Hong Kong. “Women often fail.”
According to her, when in 2014 Cindy Huang was thinking about divorce, lawyers gave her this advice: first take your child and hide him.
Ms. Huang refused, believing that there was no need to take drastic measures to protect her right to raise her own child. However, shortly after she filed for divorce, her husband took their son away, she said. She recalled in an interview that although the judge showed sympathy, he told Ms. Huang that there was little he could do.
“The judge told me very clearly,“ We have no way of taking your child away from his father, so we cannot transfer custody to you, ”said 43-year-old Ms. Huang.
After an unsuccessful appeal in 2016, Ms. Huang was granted permission see her son twice a month in a café at meetings closely followed by her ex-husband. Ms. Huang said she was sorry that she did not follow the advice of the lawyers.
“I thought, ‘How could it be possible for the law to award custody to the parent who first kidnapped the child? “, – she said. “I was a fool.”
Soon after Ms. Wang’s former partner took their daughter away, he cut off all contact. Last year, Ms. Wang persuaded the court to force him to hand over the photographs to their daughter. They show a toddler with pigtails and a pile of colorful toys. But the child’s face is hidden – the strategy, according to Ms. Wang, was invented by her ex-partner to prevent her from recognizing their daughter one day and grabbing her back.
Four years later, she still dreams of reuniting with the child she once rocked to sleep every night.
“If I don’t save her in my dreams, then I’m chasing her,” Ms. Wang said. “But her face seems blank – I have no idea what she looks like.”