A nationwide campaign by users of microblogging services like Twitter has sparked a new clampdown on child abductions in China, as users tweet photographs of children seen begging on the streets for the parents of missing children to browse.
Official media reports say that six children have so far been returned to their parents thanks to the initiative, set up last month by Yu Jianrong, a professor of rural development and a frequent critic of government indifference to the needs of China's underclasses.
"Without such people power, with people taking photographs and posting them online, how would parents be able to search the whole country?" said a parent from the southeastern province of Fujian surnamed Yang.
"Now, as soon as someone posts a photo, we can go online and take a look," said Yang, who is currently looking for his son.
He said Yu's microblog, titled "Take a Snapshot, Save the Child Beggars," was prompted by a letter he wrote to the China Academy of Social Sciences professor, begging for his assistance.
A parent from the central province of Hubei, Peng Gaofeng, whose child was returned to him with the help of the microblog account, welcomed the move.
"This is really an important channel of enquiry, from the parents' point of view," he said.
"It has also made people focus on the issue of lost children," Peng added.
A string of scandals
While Twitter is blocked by censors and hard to access for all but the most tech-minded, users of China's homegrown microblog services like Sina can embed photos in their brief updates.
China has been rocked by a string of abduction and human trafficking scandals, including the revelation in 2007 that thousands were being forced into slave labor in brick yards and mines across the nation.
China's government has ordered a renewed crackdown on child abductions in the wake of a slew of media reports sparked by Yu's initiative.
In a notice issued late Thursday, the Public Security Ministry said it had ordered police nationwide to step up efforts to "resolutely prevent such crimes from occurring."
Experts say that only some child kidnappings are motivated by traffickers wanting to force children into illegal activities, however.
The traditional preference in rural areas for a male heir to carry on the family name remains strong, and some families desperate for boys have resorted to kidnapping to continue the family line.
The authorities have tracked down 9,300 kidnapped children since April 2009, according to the the official Xinhua news agency.
Police have called for further help from the general public in providing clues.
Yu's microblog account had attracted around 200,000 followers on Friday, carrying more than 2,500 images of begging children for parents to check through.
Yu has traveled around China in recent years, lecturing local officials about the way they treat the least privileged people in society.
Recently, he has spoken out publicly about the power of microblogging.
"With a microblog, finally I have the same opportunity for expression as you," he said in a recent interview with the cutting edge Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper.
"You can’t steal my microphone. Current technology has altered the social environment," he said.
"Everyone has a microphone. Everyone is a news headquarters. Now it’s easy to find friends. You can instantly find a comrade when you post an essay," Yu said.
Reported by Lin Jing and Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.