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Li Jingzhi searched for her son, Mao Yin, who was kidnapped and sold in 1988, for more than three decades. She had almost given up hope of ever seeing him again, but in May she received the phone call she had been anticipating.

Jingzhi and her husband would take their toddler Mao Yin to the zoo or one of the many parks in their hometown of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province in central China, on weekends. And one of these outings has always stood out in her mind as particularly memorable.

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“He was about a year and a half old at the time. We took him to the zoo in Xi’an City. He noticed a worm on the ground. He was enthralled by the worm and exclaimed, ‘Mama, worm!’ And as I was carrying him out of the zoo, he held the worm close to my face, “Jingzhi expresses himself.

Mao Yin was her only child; China’s one-child policy was in full effect, so having more was out of the question. She wanted him to study hard and succeed, so she gave him the nickname Jia Jia, which means “great.”

“Jia Jia was a well-mannered, intelligent, obedient, and sensible child. He didn’t like crying. He was vivacious and endearing. When everyone saw him, he was the type of child that everyone liked, “Jingzhi expresses himself.

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“Every day, after leaving work, I played with my child,” Jingzhi says. “I was very happy.”

Jingzhi worked for a grain exporting company and had to leave town for several days during harvest to visit suppliers in the countryside. Jia Jia would remain at home with his father. During one of these trips, she received a message from her employers telling her she needed to return immediately.

“Telecommunications were not very advanced at the time,” Jingzhi explains. “So I only got a telegram with six words on it: ‘Emergency at home; return immediately.’ I had no idea what had happened.”

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She rushed back to Xi’an, where a manager broke the bad news to her.

“Our leader said one sentence: ‘Your son is missing,'” says one witness. Jingzhi expresses himself. “My mind blanked out. I assumed he had gotten lost. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to locate him.”

Jia Jia was two years and eight months old in October 1988.

Jingzhi’s husband explained that he had picked up Jia Jia from kindergarten and stopped on the way home to get him a drink of water from the family’s small hotel. He’d only left the child for a few minutes to cool the water, and when he turned around, Jia Jia was gone.

Jingzhi assumed he’d be discovered soon.

“I thought maybe my son was lost and couldn’t find his way home, and that kind-hearted people would find him and bring him back to me,” she says.

But after a week had passed and no one had taken him to the police station, she realized the situation was dire.

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Kidnapping of Mao Yin

Mao Yin was kidnapped in 1988 while walking home from nursery with his father. He was only two and a half years old at the time. On Monday afternoon, in the western city of Xi’an, where he was born, his parents finally embraced him again.

Following Mao’s disappearance, his mother, Li Jingzhi, quit her job and embarked on a decades-long search for her son, which included the distribution of over 100,000 flyers and appearances on numerous television shows.

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That lengthy campaign assisted 29 other families in locating their own missing children, and her search became one of the most publicized in the country. “Hope is what motivates me,” she said earlier this year in an interview. “I believe I will find my son someday.”

After more than three decades, a tip-in in late April led to the long-awaited reunion. According to state media, police received information about a boy from Xi’an who was sold for 6,000 yuan to a family just over 600 kilometers (370 miles) away.

Authorities used facial recognition technology to aid in the search, using toddler photos to create a possible photofit of the adult Mao and comparing the image to ones in a national database, according to state TV.

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Mao Yin’s identity was confirmed by a DNA test, and on May 10, Mother’s Day in China, police informed Li that her son had been found. “This is the best Mother’s Day gift I have ever received,” she was quoted as saying.

Officials scheduled the reunion for a week later, in front of a large crowd and a slew of television cameras. When the door was opened, Mao, who had been waiting in a side room, ran towards his mother.

Mao’s father, Mao Zhenjing, gently kissed his son’s forehead as the family embraced, all weeping. He last saw his son when the toddler asked for water and they stopped at a hotel entrance to get some.

“I would like to express my gratitude to the tens of thousands of people who assisted us,” Li told the Xinhua news agency. “I can’t believe that after assisting 29 missing children in reuniting with their families, I’ve been able to locate my own son.”

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Mao renamed Gu Ningning, was raised in the city of Mianyang, in neighboring Sichuan province, unaware that he was the target of a decades-long, high-profile search.

His mother recalled a child who was “clever, cute, and healthy.” She had begun her search in the villages and counties surrounding their hometown of Xi’an, and had followed a lead to Sichuan, only to discover she was on the trail of a different boy with the same name.

The kidnapping of children has been a problem in China for decades. Some of the minors who were kidnapped from their parents were directly exploited by adult criminals and forced to engage in begging, pickpocketing, forced labor, or the sex trade.

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Others have fueled a market for adoptees, both among Chinese couples looking for a son and orphanages looking for the large donations required of foreign adoptive parents.

Abductors have included family planning officials, who had the authority to seize children from parents who exceeded their quotas under China’s one-child policy.

Using DNA tests, Chinese authorities have reunited more than 6,300 kidnapped children with their families in the last year, according to the Xinhua news agency.

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However, this is only a small percentage of the total number of missing children. Since 1978, Baby Come Home, the largest charity for families looking for missing relatives, has received reports of nearly 36,000 cases, with the true number likely to be much higher.

Mao, who owns an interior design firm, plans to spend several days with his parents before returning home to deal with the consequences of having his life turned upside down overnight, according to Xinhua. “To be honest, I’m not sure about the future,” he admitted.

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