The men and women slammed Wang Jiana to the ground. Grabbing her legs and shoulders, they snatched her 6-month-old baby from her arms and started running.
A surveillance camera captured all this. But there was little Ms. Wang could do: The man leading the kidnapping on the street outside her mother’s house was her partner, the child’s father.
According to Ms Wang, police in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin declined to be involved, saying it was not possible for parents to abduct their own child. A court then granted sole custody to Ms. Wang’s partner, citing the need to keep the child in a “familiar environment”.
That afternoon in January 2017 was the last time Ms. Wang had seen her daughter in person.
“I have been deeply wronged,” said Ms. Wang, 36. “Though snatching is unfair and unjustified, yet the court upheld it.”
Custody battles can be bitter matters anywhere in the world. In China, where courts rarely grant joint physical custody, disputes over children are particularly acute. Judges often place children in their current living environment, saying it is best for their well-being. But it creates a perverse incentive for parents going through parturition to kidnap and hide their children in order to win sole custody.
Nine months after Ms. Wang’s baby was taken away, police in Tianjin admitted in a final report that her partner, Liu Zhongmin, had injured Ms. Wang and her mother during “a physical altercation over a child”. Report seen by The New York Times. Police ordered Mr. Liu to be placed in administrative custody for 10 days and fined approximately $75 for causing bodily harm. But the authorities did not blame her for taking the child.
Mr. Liu Could not be reached for comment. Their The lawyer and one of the people allegedly involved in the child snatching hung up to comment.
For decades, Chinese law did not make it a crime for parents to abduct and conceal their own children. The problem has become more widespread as the divorce rate continues to rise in the country. Most divorces in China are settled privately, which can result in custody-sharing agreements. But it’s often all or nothing for couples going to court.
In June, the government sought to address the problem by outlawing kidnapping for custodial purposes. Activists welcomed the law but said it was too early to tell whether it would make a difference.
An estimated 80,000 children were abducted and hidden for custody purposes in 2019, according to a recent report by Zhang Jing, a prominent family lawyer in Beijing, citing figures released by China’s Supreme Court.
Many say the figures are the most likely. A longtime judge in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou told state news media in 2019 that more than half of contested divorce cases involved the abduction of a child for custodial purposes.
Sometimes the father is behind the kidnapping. Men were responsible for more than 60 percent of such cases, Ms. Zhang found. The kidnappings mostly involved sons under the age of 6, reflecting the traditional emphasis in China on boys as bearers of family names.
“It’s almost become a game — whoever has physical custody has legal custody,” said Dai Xiaoli, who founded Purple Ribbon Mother’s Love, a grassroots advocacy group, after losing a custody battle with her ex-husband. Of. “It’s free for everyone.”
In some cases, kidnapping children for custody is part of a wider pattern of domestic violence. Official statistics show that one in three families are victims of domestic violence.
Ms Wang said the violence against her began in 2016, when she was about five months pregnant with her daughter, Jiayi. He and Mr. Liu was living together; They had never officially registered their marriage. A month after Ms. Wang was born, she said, Mr. Liu beat her up again when he asked her to bring some diapers.
court documents confirmed that Ms. Wang had told a judge that Mr. Liu often quarreled with her “over petty things, even beating and humiliating her.” Mr. Liu rejected Ms. Wang’s request for custody, but did not address her specific claims, documents show.
The violence continued for months, Ms Wang said, until she could no longer bear the beatings. On her request, her in-laws took her and her child to live with her parents, she said. Mr. Liu once came to try to hold the child, but left after police arrived, Ms. Wang said. Until the next month, she didn’t hear from him.
The next time, he said, he ordered people to help him snatch the baby. Ms Wang appealed when a judge granted her full custody, but the judge upheld the arrangement, according to court documents.
Controversy over custody has recently become a major issue in China. Traditionally, a woman seeking divorce was expected to give up custody of her children. But this has changed over the years as women in China have achieved greater financial stability and independence.
On paper Chinese law is slightly tilted in favor of women. In cases where the child is 2 or younger, mothers are generally awarded sole custody. But in practice, judges can be influenced by institutional and informal considerations, which experts say often give men an advantage. For example, men have access to more financial resources and property, allowing them to make a stronger claim for custody.
“The law itself looks very neutral, but it doesn’t have many things in common,” said He Xin, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. “Women often lose.”
When Cindy Huang began considering divorce in 2014, she said, lawyers gave her this advice: Take your child and hide it first.
Ms Huang refused, believing there was no need to take drastic action to protect her child’s parental right. Shortly after she filed for divorce, her husband took their son, she said. While the judge was sympathetic, he recalled in an interview, he told Ms. Huang that there was little he could have done.
“The judge told me very clearly: ‘We have no way to take your child back from his father, so we can’t give you custody,'” said Ms. Huang, 43.
After an unsuccessful appeal in 2016, Ms. Huang has been allowed Twice a month to see her son in a cafe in meetings that are closely monitored by her ex-husband. Ms Huang said she wished she had followed the lawyers’ advice.
“I thought, ‘How could it be possible for the law to give custody to the parent who first took the child away? he said. “I was a fool.”
Not long after Ms. Wang’s former partner picked up her daughter, he cut off all contact. Last year, Ms. Wang persuaded a court to force her to hand over photos of her daughter. They show a child with pigtails and a pile of colorful toys. But the child’s face is ambiguous – a tactic, Ms. Wang believes, devised by her former partner to one day recognize her daughter and prevent her from snatching her back.
Four years later, she still dreams of being reunited with the baby she used to shake every night to sleep.
“If I’m not following her in my dreams, I’m following her,” said Ms. Wang. “But her face looks like a blank one – I don’t know what she looks like.”