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By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
AOSHI, China -- When a man offered Feng Chenyun temporary work in another city, she jumped at the chance. Barely literate and desperately poor, Ms. Feng had two children, 10 and 16, and it was nearly impossible to scrape together school fees from her small plot of rice and rape seed.
Her husband was working as a migrant laborer 1,000 miles away, in Guangdong Province. At 37, she had never left her county in Sichaun Province and was feeling restless.
"I went with him because he was offering me work," she said, recounting from her small dark home the start of a tale that still brings tears three years later. "I just wanted to get out and earn a bit of money."
Instead, Ms. Feng was kidnapped, drugged, placed on a train and sold for about $1,500 as a bride to a brick maker in faraway Xinjiang Province -- becoming one of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of poor Chinese women who are sold on a black market each year.
Since last year, the government has been waging a harsh campaign against trafficking in women, featuring highly publicized arrests, death sentences, rescues and the like. But the trade, though significantly damped, still thrives in rural areas because it arises from the mathematics of gender in rural China, reflected in the equations of supply and demand:
|In rural China, there are nearly 120 boys for every 100 girls because rural couples, who favor sons, abort fetuses and abandon newborns that are female.
|In much of rural China, it is considered culturally and economically essential that 100 percent of the men find brides and produce heirs.
|Net sum: For every 100 rural men who marry, 20 others must resort to extraordinary measures to find brides, like buying women kidnapped from urban areas.
The trade also reflects the extremely low social status of poor rural women. Rural girls get inferior schooling, training and medical attention when compared with boys. Not surprisingly, they grow up with little hope or confidence. Most kidnappings occur when uneducated young women leave their hometowns looking for jobs.
"Abduction is a very serious problem for these women," said Xie Lihua, editor of Rural Women Knowing All, a self-help magazine. "They have few resources to draw on. They are desperate for work, but don't know what is suitable or how to find it. So they can be easily tricked, then forced to work as prostitutes or sold to poor men who can't find wives."
It is unclear exactly how big the problem is, although reports in the state press say that as of 1999, the police were rescuing 10,000 women a year, clearly representing only a fraction of those kidnapped. That year, before the current crackdown started, abductions of women were rising 30 percent a year, the state press reported. Abductions of children, generally young boys bought by heirless families, were rising 15.3 percent a year.
The densely populated, hardscrabble mountain villages of Sichuan province, like Gaoshi, have become a principal source of women for sale.
In Sichaun's capital, Chengdu, the dirt lot around the vast concrete Nine Eye Bridge Labor Market, the city's largest, is dotted with young country girls in loose shifts and plastic sandals. "Do you need a worker?" they hopefully ask each visitor who enters.
"So many are abducted from this place," said Zhu Wenguang, a private detective who rescues abducted women, noting that the city government recently moved the labor market from a bridge to the edge of town to try to cut down on the trafficking.
In April, a court in Sichuan sentenced Zhou Legui, a trafficker, to death for selling more than 100 women to other provinces, many of whom were abducted from this labor market, press reports said.
"In villages, there is a long tradition of prizing males and looking down on females," Mr. Zhu explained. "So the best local women from the countryside can hope for is to get away, to look for work elsewhere -- and that leaves them very vulnerable."
Mr. Zhu said most of the women are sold to remote places that are even poorer than rural Sichuan or where the ratio of men to women is even more lopsided. Studies have found that it approaches 140 to 100 in some places, generally those with strict enforcement of the family planning policy that limits parents to one or two children.
In such places, the scarcity of women has already dramatically altered the economics of marriage: young men must pay the families of their brides-to-be huge sums, "bride prices," dowries in reverse.
Bride prices in some areas can run over $4,000. "But you can get an abducted wife on the black market for a quarter of that," Mr. Zhu said. "So that fuels the trade."
Once the girls have left Sichuan, locating them and bringing them home is costly and time-consuming, since relatives most often have no idea where they have gone. Police campaigns have focused mostly on breaking smuggling rings and bringing traffickers to justice.
Families with money hire Mr. Zhu, a former policeman, to help rescue those who have disappeared. But he spends months researching and preparing for each rescue and his services cost about $500, or 10 years' income for many rural families. Many simply give up on ever seeing their daughters or wives again, just another hardship to endure.
Down a dirt path in a mountain village so poor and remote that it is still called the 281 Brigade, a name dating from the Mao-era collectivization of farms, Peng Zhihua and his wife cling to a picture of their younger daughter, their only keepsake.
Tall and thin, wearing bright red lipstick, a blue V-neck sweater and high heeled boots, this trendy girl, Jinlian, is hard to imagine in her family's crude mud home, where sky peeks through the rough timbers that serve as a roof and large woven trays of silkworms -- food for the ducks -- are the main fixture in a sitting room.
Peng Jinlian was fond of fashion, so her parents scraped together the money to send her, at 15, to a seamstress course in nearby Guangfu Township. She never returned.
On Sept. 29, 1998, she and two friends were lured from Guangfu by the promise of work, and she was sold as a bride to a man in Shanxi Province. One friend later escaped and reported her whereabouts.