Two of China’s major Internet news sites, QQ.com and Sina.com, reported prominently today on a grassroots web-based initiative attempting to locate abducted children in China and re-connect them with their families. The initiative, launched on January 25 by CMP fellow Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, calls on web users to share photos through the dominant QQ and Sina microblog platforms of children around the country who are working as street beggars. Once shared through these platforms, the photos may be matched with police databases or recognized by parents.

Child beggars are an all-too-common sight in major cities in China, where they are often forced to approach passersby and ask for money by chaperoning adults who are not their parents. In some cases, abducted children are sold to couples who cannot have children or prefer boys, but many also end up in positions of virtual slavery, forced to work as beggars.

Within one week of the initial call, close to 1,000 photographs were shared through the microblog groups set up by Yu Jianrong. In a story today from Information Times, a spin-off of Guangzhou Daily, Yu tells the reporter that four children have already been identified from photographs provided by web users, and efforts are now underway to rescue the children.

Soon after the movement got under way, Chen Shiqu (陈士渠), the head of the Child Abduction office of China’s Public Security Bureau, voiced his support on his microblog, providing his contact information, and a number of delegates to the upcoming session of the National People’s Congress said they were preparing to submit a proposal on the issue of child abduction.

QQ.com has now set up a special “Baby Return Home” page for the movement, with a link to the QQ microblog group.

An English-language story from the official Xinhua News Agency on the “photograph a child to stop abduction” movement is available HERE.

This will be an interesting story to watch as it develops. While it certainly demonstrates the power social media can have in addressing an issue of broad social concern — and one that has vexed authorities in China — it also illustrates how such tools might challenge controls on public opinion.

This movement is unofficial, and it is growing rapidly. How will the leadership get behind it? How will the seek to shape it?

Remember, too, that we have the recent ban on the use of the term “civil society.” So we’ll have to see how China’s newspapers discuss this movement and what it signifies.