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Missing: The Search For A Sister In China

Isabel Seliger for NPR

Last summer, a Chinese-American woman and NPR listener reached out with an unusual request. She asked me to help find her sister, who'd vanished in the mountains of Yunnan province in southwest China.

"My little sister has been missing since Nov. 23, 2013," the woman wrote in an email. "She married a farmer in a remote village and was abused by her husband shortly after her marriage. She escaped from him after a few abuses."

Then, her little sister disappeared. Her account on WeChat, China's most popular social media app, went dark, along with her cellphones. Police had initially investigated but seemed to have lost interest in the case.

The big sister, who works in IT in the American Midwest, had heard a radio series in which I drive a free cab around Shanghai, giving people rides as a way to learn about the lives of ordinary Chinese.

"By reading and listening to your reports," the woman wrote, "I know you can help me."

People disappear in China all the time. Boys are kidnapped and sold to couples who want sons. Back in the 1990s, I traveled with a private detective who rescued women who'd been sold to farmers as wives. There's even a popular TV show devoted to helping people find their missing loved ones, called Dengzhewo, which means "waiting for me" in Mandarin.

This particular case, though, stood out. It offered an intimate way to understand some of the country's dramatic changes through the lives of two sisters — one Chinese, the other Chinese-American — who'd taken very different paths.

To protect their privacy, and because our investigation unearthed sensitive personal details, NPR is not naming the women or other characters in this story.

My assistant, Yang Zhuo, and I met the big sister at an airport in Yunnan last fall. Her journey back to China was not only a quest to find her little sister but also an attempt to do her duty, according to Chinese family tradition, as the first-born sibling. Her mother had passed away, and her father was a simple farmer who lacked the skills to mount an investigation.

We set out in an SUV, driving through lush valleys carved by muddy rivers. After a couple of hours, we hit a military checkpoint. A soldier in body armor with an automatic rifle asked for our IDs and where we were heading. It was a reminder that we were traveling in a distant, dicier part of China near the border with Myanmar and Laos. The region just south of here is known as the Golden Triangle, and it's notorious for heroin smuggling and human trafficking.

A Troubled History

As we continued into the mountains, Big Sister filled us in on her family's history. The girls had grown up with three other siblings on a farm in Heilongjiang province, in China's far northeast, in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the children were born before China instituted its one-child population policy. This was also at a time when the country was just beginning to shift from communism to capitalism. The family was poor, and sometimes there wasn't enough to eat. Little Sister struggled in school.

This section of Yunnan province in southern China is near the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. The area is notorious for heroin smuggling and human trafficking.
Frank Langfitt / NPR
This section of Yunnan province in southern China is near the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. The area is notorious for heroin smuggling and human trafficking.

"She even studied so hard, even harder than anyone else in the family," Big Sister said. "She never got good scores."

Against the family's wishes, Little Sister left school at 16 and moved to the city. With few skills, she fell into sex work.

"It's just for survival," said Big Sister. "A couple of times, she called me when I was abroad and she was beaten. Her nose was broken."

Starting in the 1990s, tens of millions of women moved from the countryside to the city to earn money, as China shifted from being a nation of farmers to one of urban workers. Many women worked in factories. The brighter ones went into professions. Big Sister, for instance, became a nurse. Those with fewer skills, like Little Sister, sometimes ended up in massage parlors.

In the old communist China, the two sisters would probably have lived similar, circumscribed lives — essentially poor and rural. Under capitalism, they had new opportunities in an increasingly competitive society — which was less predictable and carried more risk.

After saving some money, Little Sister quit sex work and moved more than 2,000 miles away to the southwest corner of the country. Amid the warmer, more relaxed climate of Yunnan, she tried to reinvent herself — something that is becoming as much a part of modern Chinese culture as it is in the U.S. Little Sister studied business books to learn about investing. She looked into buying a bar and becoming a legitimate businesswoman.

A Sudden, Short Marriage

In the fall of 2013, she surprised her family and suddenly married a rubber farmer. After little more than a month, though, she left him. She told Big Sister that her husband accused her of cheating on him. Big Sister wondered if her little sister's past — which she had moved to Yunnan to bury — was coming back to haunt her.

"Does he know what you did before and is that the reason he watches you so closely?" Big Sister asked in a series of WeChat audio messages, which she's preserved. "If that's the case, he'll never trust you."

Little Sister said her husband grew suspicious because she often traveled alone to a city several hours away to check on some investments that she'd kept secret from him. She said her husband began to beat her.

"I told him, 'Don't beat me anymore,' " Little Sister said over WeChat. " 'My injuries haven't healed. If you beat me again, I couldn't bear it.' "

Little Sister was now 34. Her attempts to find a lasting relationship and turn her life around weren't working.

"I myself feel empty, always feel empty," Little Sister said as she wept. "I simply want to find a man who dearly loves me. Why is it so difficult?"

She wanted a divorce, but said she was too afraid to face her husband again. A lawyer told her if she disappeared for two years, she could obtain a divorce without having to appear in court. She told her big sister she was heading to another part of the province to start anew.

"You don't need to worry," she reassured Big Sister. "I got off the bus yesterday and am now staying at a hotel."

That was Nov. 22, 2013. According to police, she checked out of a hotel a few days later.

No one has heard from her since.

Last year, a sign of hope emerged. Police received an alert that Little Sister's ID number had been used at a bank in Dalian, a coastal city in northeast China where she'd previously lived. The cops thought she was following the lawyer's advice and was in hiding.

'She Really Ran Away'

One of the last people to see her was her husband. So we drove up a dead-end dirt road, past banana groves, looking for his farmhouse. We were a little anxious. Police had told us he had recently spent time in jail for theft. The husband, a skinny 26-year-old, was surprised to see us, but courteous. He offered us tiny wooden stools, typical seating for guests in China's countryside.

Soon, Big Sister confronted him.

"Do you know what happened exactly?" she said angrily. "Where did she go? Or did you kill her?"

"If I'd killed her, I wouldn't still be here," he said. "She really ran away. You guys should not think that I sold her to someone or killed her. I've never done things like that."

He said the couple had quarreled a lot, but he denied ever beating her. The husband also said Little Sister was secretive about her past. The day they picked up their marriage license, in October 2013, the clerk asked her to produce a divorce certificate. Her husband-to-be was stunned.

"Before we got our marriage license, she had just divorced a guy, just a month earlier," he said. "When we were dating, she didn't tell me that."

A Big Sister's Hopes Are Dashed

The next day, we had lunch with one of Little Sister's friends, a local businessman with chiseled good looks. The friend, who wore a black T-shirt, said Little Sister read lots of self-help books and was often depressed.

"She gave out a feeling of loneliness," said the friend, who has a wife and son several provinces away, near Shanghai. "She was clearly unhappy."

Warm and gregarious, he talked for nearly two hours, but actually said very little. He insisted he had no idea where the woman was.

We were now down to our last lead. Big Sister booked a flight to Dalian, to follow up on the information from police about Little Sister's ID number showing up at the bank.

"I really hope it was her," she said, as we saw her off at the airport, "so we are just a step away from finding her."

Trying to turn her life around, Little Sister moved from a bustling city in China's northeast to lush, tropical Yunnan province in the southwest, where the pace is slower and life is far more relaxed.
Frank Langfitt / NPR
Trying to turn her life around, Little Sister moved from a bustling city in China's northeast to lush, tropical Yunnan province in the southwest, where the pace is slower and life is far more relaxed.

But that hope — the one that had kept Big Sister going throughout our journey — soon evaporated. Bank officials told her there had been a misunderstanding. Little Sister hadn't been to the bank after all. While the bank was reorganizing accounts, there was a computer glitch. Little Sister's ID number popped up, triggering an alert to police in Yunnan.

Big Sister had arrived in China thinking her little sister was still alive. Now, she feared the worst.

"I don't think anything good happened to her," she said, choking back tears as we spoke over WeChat. "She's a tough survivor. She would think of a way to contact somebody from the family or the police. I think she was probably killed by somebody."

But who? And why?

A Forged Medical Report

Before returning to the U.S., Big Sister went to Little Sister's empty apartment in a city along the Mekong River, where she'd lived before she got married and had stored her belongings before going on the run. Big Sister discovered medical results on a coffee table, showing that her little sister was pregnant a few months before she disappeared. Earlier, her family had also found a love note revealing Little Sister was having an affair with the handsome businessman — something he'd denied during our long lunch.

There was something odd, too, about the pregnancy results. The little sister's given age was wrong, making her seem a decade younger. Puzzled, Yang and I went to the hospital that issued the document and showed a copy to several doctors.

"Where was this test done?" asked one physician. "It's not done by us. Our department doesn't have a doctor by this name or an ID number like this. This report is fake!"

Another physician called up Little Sister's medical records and found an earlier, legitimate pregnancy test, which had been negative. He said Little Sister appeared to have created the positive test report using a Microsoft Word document.

Why would someone forge a pregnancy test?

"Some girls want to take some leave from their jobs," said the first doctor. "Others lie to a man, saying 'I'm pregnant' to get a sum of money."

Little Sister didn't have a job, but she did have some money, so Yang and I suspected there was probably another motive. What had started as a hopeful search was turning more ominous.

Yang and I called the businessman. We expected him to hang up. Instead, he spoke for 40 minutes and came clean about the affair. He said he and Little Sister had fallen in love.

"She wanted me to get a divorce and then marry her," he explained. "But I told her when this all started, 'I have a family.' "

He said he broke up with Little Sister and last saw her in the fall of 2013, not long before she vanished. Given the heavy drug trade and human trafficking in this part of China, he said he assumed something terrible had happened.

"After such a long time, she could have contacted her family," he said. "She's either been taken hostage or someone has murdered her."

/ Isabel Seliger for NPR
Isabel Seliger for NPR

The Dark Side Of The Dream

Big Sister thinks her sister's relationship with the businessman led to her disappearance, at least indirectly.

"If he were not married, they probably would have a nice family together and my sister probably would end up with a nicer life," she said.

Little Sister's story of failed reinvention — with potentially fatal consequences — is a particularly Chinese one. Over the past two decades, under capitalism, something new has developed in China: individual dreams. It's one of the most exciting and encouraging developments in the country. People figure if they work hard, take risks, maybe they can succeed.

Big Sister is emblematic of those dreams. She came from a poor farming village, eventually made it to America, continued her education there and landed an IT job.

Little Sister represents the dark side of the dream. She didn't have many skills, struggled and went into illicit work. When she tried to turn her life around, it seems she couldn't escape her past. For all the many success stories here, China can be tough and unforgiving. Some people just don't make it.

NPR News Assistant Yang Zhuo contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as the war in Ukraine and its implications in Europe. Langfitt has reported from more than fifty countries and territories around the globe.