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The father crossed China on a motorcycle for almost 24 years. With banners showing photos of a two-year-old boy flying off his bike, he traveled more than 300,000 miles with a single purpose: to find his kidnapped son.
This week the search for Guo Gangtang finally ended. He and his wife were reunited with their now 26-year-old son after police checked their DNA, according to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security.
In a scene recorded on Chinese state television, the trio clung to each other in tears at a press conference on Sunday in Liaocheng, Mr. Guo’s hometown in northern Shandong Province.
“My darling, my darling, my darling,” Mr. Guo’s wife, Zhang Wenge, sobbed as she hugged the young man. “We found you, my son, my son.”
“He was put into your hands, so you must love him well,” said Mr. Guo, trying to comfort her, even though his own voice was trembling.
The seemingly happy ending captivated China, where Mr. Guo has become something of a folk hero. His cross-country odyssey, in which he said he was thrown off his bike at least once and slept outdoors when he couldn’t afford a hotel, inspired the 2015 film “Lost and Love” with renowned Hong Kong actor Andy Lau .
After the reunion, the Chinese social media filled with messages of congratulations. Hashtags about the Guo family have been viewed hundreds of millions of times. “Today ‘Lost and Love’ finally has a real happy ending,” said the film’s director, Peng Sanyuan, in a video for Douyin, a social media app.
Child abduction is a long-standing problem in China. There are no official statistics on the number of children abducted annually, but officials from the Department of Public Security announced earlier this month that they found 2,609 missing or abducted persons Kids so far this year. Various reports estimate the number of children kidnapped annually in China at up to 70,000.
Historically, child abduction has been linked, at least in part, to China’s one-child policy. At the height of policy enforcement in the 1980s and 1990s, some couples resorted to buying young boys on the black market to make sure they would have a son, according to research from researchers at Xiamen University in Fujian Province. Chinese society traditionally prefers sons.
When the central government began easing enforcement in the early 2000s – before ending it in 2015 – reported kidnappings fell sharply. Technological advances like a nationwide DNA database for missing children, tougher sentences, and greater public awareness of child trafficking have also helped contain the problem, said Zhang Zhiwei, director of a center to combat human trafficking at the China University of Political Science and Law .
However, many Chinese are still at risk of kidnapping. On Monday, several police departments in the eastern city of Hangzhou issued statements denying viral rumors of attempted kidnappings.
Mr. Guo’s son, named Guo Xinzhen when he was born, disappeared on September 21, 1997. He had played at the door of his house while his mother cooked inside, according to interviews the elderly Mr. Guo gave over the years Has.
A desperate Mr. Guo and his wife, with family, neighbors, and friends, swarmed across the area to look for the boy. But after several months the exertion subsided. At that point, Mr. Guo posted large banners with his son’s photo on the back of a motorcycle and went to find the boy.
“Son where are you?” it said on the banners next to a picture of the boy in a puffy orange jacket. “Papa is looking for you so you can come home.”
Over the years, Mr. Guo has worn out 10 motorbikes while traveling from Hainan in the south to Henan in the north in search of all the tidbits of information, he said. Once, on a rainy day, a stone slid off a loading area in front of him, causing his motorcycle to tip over. He’s had so many near-miss traffic accidents that he couldn’t count any more. But he kept going back and forth.
“When I’m at home, the trafficker won’t deliver it back to me,” he said in a 2015 interview with state television.
In 2012, Mr. Guo founded an organization to help other parents find their missing children, and he said he helped dozens of other families find loved ones even when his own search was unsuccessful. His story gained national fame with the film in 2015. Earlier this year, he also started promoting anti-human trafficking awareness on the Douyin social media app, which had attracted tens of thousands of followers even before his son was found.
The latest development in Mr. Guo’s story also seemed to come straight from a scriptwriter’s imagination.
In June, Shandong law enforcement officials received a notice of a possible partner for Mr. Guo’s son in Henan Province, according to the Ministry of Public Security. It was not immediately clear how the officers identified him, even though they said they had used “the latest in comparison and search methods.” Further blood tests confirmed that the 26-year-old man, who was reported by local news reports, was working as a teacher, was Mr. Guo’s son.
The authorities later said they had arrested a woman surnamed Tang and a man surnamed Hu. According to the state news media, Ms. Tang grabbed the boy and handed him over to Mr. Hu, who then sold him. State broadcaster CCTV said the two confessed.
Before the reunification, a dazed Mr. Guo and his wife bought more than 1,000 pounds of candy to give to the neighbors in celebration. Mr. Guo also tidied up his house and threw away old things as a reminder of a fresh start.
In an interview before the reunion with talk show host Chen Luyu, parents vacillated between cheering and paralysis. Sitting at her dining table, Ms. Zhang, Mr. Guo’s wife, collapsed several times and wondered if her son would blame her for not watching him closely.
Mr. Guo said he had no grudges against the couple who raised his son. How his son would treat the couple in the future was up to him, he said.
“If the child wants to be loyal to their adoptive parents, all you have to do is accept it openly and sincerely,” he said.
State media reports said the younger Mr. Guo said he would continue to live with the couple who raised him, whom he said he treated well. But he said he would visit his birth parents often.
Elderly Mr. Guo told Ms. Chen, the TV host, that he was satisfied with whatever the future held.
“Our child has been found,” he said. “From now on only luck remains.”