China’s Social Media Used to Find Missing Children

In China, social media such as microblogs and instant messaging services, are tightly controlled, to prevent the spread of information the government does not like. But some Chinese are learning to use social media to reunite families.

In an emotional scene, Peng Gaofeng is reunited with his son, who was abducted three years ago, when he was just three.

Child abduction is a big problem in China with thousands of children disappearing each year. The government seems powerless to help distraught parents.
Xinle’s desperate father scoured the country looking for him, traveling hundreds of miles.

But the boy has finally returned home, thanks to the reach of the Internet.

Peng started a blog and bombarded China’s version of Twitter – Weibo – with postings of his son’s photo in the hope that someone, somewhere, in this vast country of 1.4 billion people, would recognize Xinle.

And it worked.

Peng says the power of social media has been huge in his search, and if it was not for the Internet, he would never have found this son.

Peng’s online pleas for help were spotted by Deng Fei, a journalist with a following of 100,000 on Weibo.

He re-posted Peng’s pleas and Xinle’s photo.

During Chinese New Year, one of Deng’s readers contacted him to say he had seen the boy on the other side of the country.

Deng contacted the police, and then used social media to show the tearful reunion, which made headlines news.

He says he filmed the reunion to offer proof that social media can be a powerful tool in searching for missing children.

He says every Chinese person with access to the Internet now has a power of expression.

Another on-line campaign encouraging Internet users to post photographs of beggar children reportedly has led to six children being reunited with their families. In China, kidnapped children often are forced to beg.

Thomas Crampton does social media consulting in Asia for the Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, and writes extensively on the use of the Internet in China. He says although Beijing views social media and the country’s growing digital consciousness with suspicion, it should be pleased with the case of Peng Xinle.

“The relationship, however, is not entirely antagonistic, the government does see the value of it,” Crampton said. “Social media has been used for example, during the Sichuan earthquake to coordinate rescue efforts, to raise money. … It’s a relationship where the government is very aware of the power of it, and is happy when it’s used in ways that are in line with the interests of the government.”

Still, China’s ruling Communist Party censors the Internet, and blocks international social media, such as Twitter. Many web sites of foreign news organizations, including Voice of America, also are frequently blocked.

Reports on the fall of Egypt and Tunisia’s presidents after pro-democracy protests have been heavily censored in China.

But even the government’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, admits the usefulness of social media. “The era of the microblogs is here,” it said in a report about Peng’s successful on-line hunt for his son.

And some government agencies are beginning to tap social media. There are reports of police units using microblogs to solve missing persons cases.

- VOA News