It is a case that has gripped and horrified China in equal measure.
A child abduction by a Bonnie and Clyde-style couple has ended with both the girl and her kidnappers dead, a social media editor facing questions about why he impersonated the youngster’s father, and claims that a bizarre religious cult may have been involved.
More pertinently, perhaps, it has also raised questions about one of the country’s most sinister, if largely unacknowledged, problems: mass child trafficking.
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Now, China’s netizens – its millions of highly monitored web users – are, if not exactly demanding answers, at least daring to wonder how such a tragic case could have been allowed to unfold.
It all follows the body of nine-year-old Zhang Zixin being pulled from the East China sea near Ningbo city on Saturday, a week after she was snatched from her home 180 miles away in Chun’an county.
The couple known to have taken her – named by authorities only by their surnames as Liang and Xie – had been found drowned the previous Sunday in what now appears to be a grisly murder-suicide plot.
But the deaths have only heightened the mystery surrounding the case that had received near wall-to-wall coverage on Chinese news channels.
Significantly, some people have wondered if little Zixin’s ordeal was an unusual, high-profile and ultimately tragic example of one of the country’s most pervasive – and oft overlooked – issues: the trafficking of children from impoverished rural communities to the wealthier urban regions of the south and the east.
Conservative estimates suggest some 70,000 youngsters – from babies up to teenagers – are separated from their families in this way in the country every year. Some are bought, some are simply stolen. They end up as labourers, in forced marriages or as the adoptees of wealthy families, either in China itself or overseas – 3,000 Chinese children are adopted by American families every year alone.
“Child trafficking is embedded into many aspects of life in China,” says Georgios Antonopoulos, a professor at the Centre for Crime, Harm Prevention and Security at Teesside University and the co-author of China’s Stolen Children: Internal Child Trafficking In The People’s Republic of China, one of the first western studies to look at the issue in depth. “It is a crime but it has a long historical and cultural tradition, and, in many regions, it helps underpin the economy. Officials know this happens. If the will was there, it could be stopped. Chinese authorities have this power. But a blind eye is often turned.”
Traffickers, he adds, are not necessarily the large organised gangs that tend to dominate such crime in the west. “It’s not uncommon for a one-off intermediary to move a child around and make a profit,” he says. “This is a very common way this happens.”
Officially, there is no suggestion that this is what happened to Zixin.
Rather, police say the kidnappers, both in their mid-40s, were loners who had spent months travelling the country swindling money from friends and family – and were already intent on a course of suicide when they met the child.
The youngster’s father Zhang Jun said the couple had rented a room from his elderly farmer parents where Zixin was staying while he himself was working away in an unnamed northern city.
He told the state-run Dushi Kuaibao newspaper that, after they had been there three weeks, he had received a WeChat social media message from the couple saying Zixin was “pretty” and asking to take her to a wedding in Shanghai. When he refused, they simply took her anyway.
For three days, Mr Zhang said he stayed stay in touch with Liang via the social media app, receiving a series messages and photos showing the trio at different sites on route.
But when, on 7 July, he expressed concern they appeared not to be heading to Shanghai, Liang’s phone was switched off and never came on again.
Zixin’s family reported her missing the next day, leading to a massive police hunt and the attention of national media across China.
More than 500 officers from different forces were drafted in to look for the three, with local fishermen in Zhejiang province also roped in to help.
But hopes of finding the youngster alive faded when a taxi driver came forward to say he had driven Liang and Xie for an hour – reports did not say where – without Zixin. He is said to have told police the pair did not speak during the whole journey.
Their bodies were discovered in Ningbo’s Dongqian Lake soon after. Zixin was found six days later on Saturday.
Police have now indicated that the child was killed in a murder-suicide plot; and have suggested the two killers may have been planning such a crime for months. An official statement is reported to have highlighted how, as they travelled the country – visiting 21 different cities in just a few months – they slowly left all belongings behind.
Yet, without officials offering any apparent motive – the schoolgirl is said to have been physically unharmed when she was killed – questions remain.
Conspiracy theories have gained traction online that the couple were part of a religious cult, an idea seemingly based on unusual and archaic content Liang posted to his social media sites.
Others have suggested child trafficking may have originally been at play with the couple seeking to make money by selling the child.
“Would officials pursue this if it had been a case of trafficking?” ponders professor Antonopoulos. “This we cannot answer but, in terms of child trafficking as a whole, we must to look at it through a cultural prism.
“There are 34 regions in China and each is largely run independently, but they have great pressure placed upon them to produce economically. So, when there are activities, even criminal, that contribute to the region’s economic success, local authorities are reluctant to crack down on this. A decision on whether to crack down on trafficking may often depend on these financial considerations. So, when individual cases of children going missing do make headlines, which is not often, this is often presented as an isolated case, rather than acknowledging that, generally speaking, the system allows, even encourages, a prevalence of this.”
To add to the confusion, in Zixin’s case, it has emerged her long-absent mother returned to her home county shortly around the time her daughter went missing – although both parents have since said this was a pre-planned visit to finalise divorce proceedings.
An editor at the search engine and social media giant Baidu, meanwhile, has been sacked in the fallout after creating an account in Mr Zhang’s name and posting a message on it – claiming to be from the man himself – shortly after his daughter was discovered.
“I just heard that my Zixin has left this world and has gone to heaven,” he wrote. “While we are not fated to be father and daughter in this life, I hope she will still be my daughter in the next life.”
It was viewed millions of times and received thousands of replies before it was discovered to be fake, and the editor himself sacked.
“We have deleted this post, immediately fired the editor responsible and will carry out a complete review of Baidu news management process,” the company said in a statement.
For now, police have said they would continue to investigate Zixin’s abduction but warned Chinese web users not to spread rumours.
In a statement released on Sunday and reported by CNN, officials in Zhejiang said that, despite the fact Liang and Xie had swindled much money from friends and family, neither had criminal records. They were not, it said, members of any cult, and dismissed child trafficking as a motive.
The overriding message appears to be that authorities had no reason or opportunity to suspect the pair could commit such a heinous crime, and that this was a one-off.
But in a country where transparency about children going missing remains so vague that there are not even official figures, it is possible not all parents will be entirely reassured.