By CHRIS BUCKLEY
CHUZHOU, China — Ever since Wu Lina left home on an errand last May and never returned, her family has lived with fears it hardly dares dwell on.
Ms. Wu, then 19, left saying she was going to buy an envelope, said her mother, Lu Qingying, though the police later found that she also dropped in on a former classmate. He was the last person they know who saw her.
"I’d do anything to get her back," Ms. Lu said. "Only then will I have any peace. Now she never leaves my thoughts."
As tumultuous social changes pull apart the cramped, closely monitored communities that once confined people’s lives in China, more Chinese families are experiencing the novel trauma of unexplained disappearances.
Vast distances, an increasingly mobile population and an ill-coordinated bureaucracy can make searching for missing loved ones here a long, often inconclusive ordeal. But growing numbers of families are, like Ms. Wu’s, finding some hope in a band of Internet-savvy volunteer searchers.
Ms. Wu grew up in Chuzhou, a city of 200,000 set in the flat croplands of Anhui Province, in central China. She was a smart, well-liked business student at a local college and dreamed of running her own company, said her family and teachers.
They also recalled her squalls of bad temper, but insisted that she was punctual and generally level-headed. They and the local police could only guess at why she disappeared, though her parents flinchingly speculated that she might have been abducted or murdered in their crime-troubled neighborhood.
"If I knew there was a boyfriend who made her leave, I could bear it," said her elder sister, Wu Yan. "But there’s no explanation or clues. Just this blank."
Stories like Ms. Wu’s, and the melancholy sight of the missing-person notices that speckle newspapers and lampposts here, inspired another Chuzhou resident, Shen Hao, to establish a Web site and a network of volunteers dedicated to finding missing people.
Three years ago, he said, he read about the disappearance of three young women and decided to use to his self-taught computer skills to do something about it.
"In China, volunteers like me should help when the government can’t solve society’s problems," he said.
Mr. Shen’s "Missing Person" Web site is the most visited of several similar nonprofit Web sites in China. Conversations with him are punctuated by phone calls from anxious families. Since the site opened in January 2000, it has had 370,000 hits. Searching families pay a small fee to cover computer costs and phone bills.
Mr. Shen’s site has carried photographs and descriptive details of hundreds of missing people. Over the past two years several dozen have been found with the help of some 4,000 volunteers who pass on information and search for people at places like train stations and Internet cafes.
Mr. Shen said that nobody, not even the police, seemed to know how many people across China disappear for months or longer every year, but there seems little doubt the problem is growing.
"I can’t even guess," he said, "but if China has more than 200,000 suicides every year, I’d say many more people go missing. It’s astronomic. We try our best, but we’re only a drop in the ocean."
Police estimates from Shanghai, for example, showed that the number of people reported missing there approached 10,000 in 2001, double the number in the mid-1990’s.
Most people who go missing here are teenagers and young adults, often escaping unhappy homes or exam terrors or lured away by romance and ambition, Mr. Shen said, or old people whose failing minds lead them astray.
"Some kids don’t even want to come back when we find them," he said, shaking his head, as if their refusal defied explanation. "They want to escape their families for good. The generation gap is growing, and we need to explore how to heal it."
Mr. Shen, 34, runs his missing-person Web site and a Web site design business from a spare, concrete house he shares with 10 relatives.
Ms. Wu’s parents said they were sure she did not run away from them, even though she did go off to Shanghai for a few days when she was 14. When she stepped out the door last May 6, she had only a little change and the clothes she was wearing, and she was looking forward to returning to college in two days.
Her father, Wu Xianshu, said: "We were always very happy. We’re not rich, but we did everything for our children."
He lost his job as a traveling film projectionist because he and his wife chose to have four children — three daughters and a son — in violation of China’s family planning restrictions.
Their search for Ms. Wu was first stymied by official indifference. For a month after Ms. Wu disappeared, her college dissuaded them from putting up search notices, saying it would hurt the school’s image. The first police officer they went to scoffed at their fears, saying Ms. Wu had no doubt run off with a boyfriend.
Later, another officer assigned to her case organized an intense investigation and sent out notices to the police in surrounding provinces. He also questioned the former classmate who last saw Ms. Wu, but he turned up no clues and suggested that her family go to Mr. Shen.
Ms. Wu’s searchers face the enormous task of tracing her in a country of 1.3 billion people where the old administrative controls that once hemmed in movement, and crime, are crumbling under tides of population mobility. According to recent estimates, 120 million people have migrated from their homes, mostly to larger cities, to make a living.
Mr. Wu said his family could do little but wait for a telephone call either to answer hopes or to confirm fears.
Since issuing a notice on Mr. Shen’s site last year, the family has received phone calls from several would-be extortionists promising information about Ms. Wu in exchange for large sums of money, he added.
"If I could believe them," he said, "I’d sell my own flesh to know where she is or even hear her voice."
[作者：CHRIS BUCKLY 译者：芒果]