A few years back, I created a free taxi service in Shanghai in the hope of meeting a variety of Chinese people to tell the story of the country’s rapid transformation through their eyes. I drove scores of passengers and stayed in touch with the most interesting ones, profiling them in radio stories for NPR, where I worked as the Shanghai correspondent.
About a year after I started driving, I received a cryptic message from a Chinese American woman named Crystal, who had grown up outside the city of Harbin in northeastern China and now lived in central Michigan. Crystal said she was returning to China in the fall to continue a search for her little sister, Winnie, who’d vanished two years earlier near the country’s border with Laos. Winnie had married a farmer, who she said had beaten her. She had fled their home and then disappeared.
“By reading and listening to your reports,” wrote Crystal, who had heard my free-taxi radio stories on NPR, “I know you can help me.”
Two months later, I met Crystal in Jinghong, a city in Yunnan province, in southwest China. She was a slim 44-year-old who wore jeans, a blue polo shirt, and sneakers. We drove in my rented SUV to see an attorney for advice on the law surrounding missing persons. He explained that although the police were legally obligated to search for people who’d disappeared, they rarely made much effort. Too many people went missing in China, and the cops didn’t have the resources. Crystal, who’d been living in the United States for six years and had an especially favorable impression of American law enforcement, was appalled.
“Don’t you understand?” the lawyer said, shaking his head and laughing. “This is China. We’re not in America.”
This became one theme of our journey: how different the country of Crystal’s birth was from her adopted one.
After lunch that day, we drove across the muddy Mekong river and soon came to a military checkpoint manned by armed soldiers in camouflage, helmets, and body armor. I wondered what they were looking for. Crystal guessed correctly: drugs. We were just north of the Golden Triangle, a hub for opium and human trafficking where the borders of Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar (also known as Burma) meet.
As we drove on, climbing into the mountains, Crystal filled me in on her family’s history. She’d grown up in the 1970s and ’80s on a farm, and was eight years older than Winnie. The family lived in a one-bedroom mud-brick house with a dirt floor and a grass roof. They relied on government rations, which weren’t enough to feed them all. Crystal’s mother couldn’t produce milk for Winnie, who as an infant suffered from calcium deficiency, which Crystal thinks affected her little sister’s intelligence. “She was kind of slow,” Crystal recalled. “She studied so hard, but she never got good scores.”
Had the sisters been born a decade or two earlier, they would have probably remained in the countryside and lived similar, circumscribed lives under Mao Zedong’s socialist system. But economic reforms by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, created something new: the opportunity to succeed and the chance to fail. Crystal moved to Harbin, the provincial capital, where she studied and became a nurse. Winnie left school at 16 and headed to Harbin as well, where she fell into the default profession for many uneducated migrant women—sex work.
During the Communist era, Mao had all but eradicated prostitution, but after the economy began to open up, it returned with a vengeance. Tens of millions of men moved to coastal cities on their own to work, creating tremendous demand. Undereducated women left the farm as well, providing supply.
Winnie would call Crystal when her older sister was in the U.S. and tell her of the dangers of her work, of the beatings she suffered. Crystal urged Winnie to quit the business. Instead, Winnie climbed the next rung of the career ladder and became the mistress of a businessman. Working as an ernai—or “second wife”—is widely seen as an occupation and includes a contract. These women can expect an apartment and a monthly allowance, depending on the size of the city where they live and their perceived market value. Having a mistress is common among well-to-do businessmen and government officials in China: In 2013, a Renmin University study found that nearly all corrupt officials had adulterous affairs, and that most of those kept a mistress.
As the late 2000s arrived, Winnie turned 30. Her skin was not yet creased, but her youth was beginning to fade and she often looked tired. She took her savings and moved from northeast China to the other end of the country, where she could enjoy anonymity and her money would go further. She bought six small apartments in Jinghong and became a landlady. In the fall of 2013, Winnie stunned her family by announcing that she’d married a rubber farmer named Luo and moved into his tiny house in a remote village. In the beginning, she said her husband treated her like a queen, washing her feet and making her meals. But Winnie kept her secrets. She didn’t tell Luo about the apartments she owned, and when she traveled to the city to check on her real estate, he became suspicious.
“He always said I went to Jinghong to look for other men,” Winnie told Crystal at the time over WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app. “A couple of days ago, he smashed my phone.”
Luo had beaten her twice, Winnie said, and she had threatened that if he did so again, she would leave him or commit suicide. Crystal asked whether Luo was aware of Winnie’s past, arguing that he would likely never trust her. “You’d better find a good place and go into hiding to start a new life,” she told her younger sister.
Winnie grew more distraught. She was now 34. Her dream of finding a lasting relationship and building a new, independent life was slipping away. “I myself feel empty, always feel empty,” Winnie told Crystal as she wept over WeChat. “I simply want to find a man who dearly loves me. Why is it so difficult?”
Winnie took Crystal’s advice, eventually boarding a bus and riding 10 hours to a nearby city, where she checked into a hotel. “You take care and let’s stay in touch,” Crystal told her. “Okay,” Winnie messaged back.
A few days later, Winnie checked out of the hotel and vanished.
That was nearly two years ago, and in all the time Winnie had been missing, she’d never reached out to tell family members she was okay.
There was one cause for hope: Police had received an alert that Winnie’s government-issued ID number had been used at a bank in northeastern China, where she’d lived before marrying Luo. A lawyer had told her that if she disappeared for two years, she could dissolve her marriage without having to face her husband, Winnie had told Crystal in their conversations. If that were the case, Crystal thought, perhaps she would emerge in a couple of months.
After several hours on the road, Crystal and I arrived at the police station where officers had supposedly investigated Winnie’s disappearance. It quickly became clear police had all but ignored the case, not even checking Winnie’s social-media accounts. I pressed them for the village of Winnie’s husband, Luo. The officer cautioned us against approaching Luo, who’d recently been released from jail for stealing a motorbike; although they didn’t tell us at the time, police also believed that he dealt drugs.
We ignored their advice, and pressed on to the village. I guided the SUV up a one-lane road past fishponds, farmers weighed down with wicker baskets, and men on motorbikes. We eventually met Luo walking along the road in a black T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. He invited us back to his home. He said during their brief courtship, Winnie had been very pleasant.
“But after our marriage, she turned into a different person,” Luo said. “She was very irritable. One night I was out harvesting rubber. She went to a bank to wire money to someone. I asked her who she was sending the money to. She refused to say.”
Luo said they argued and admitted that he had slapped her once but insisted he didn’t beat her in the way she had described to Crystal. Glowering, Crystal confronted him.
“Do you know what happened exactly?” she asked angrily. “Where did she go? Or did you kill her?”
“If I’d killed her, I wouldn’t still be here,” said Luo, taken aback by Crystal’s prosecutorial tone. He seemed to know little about his wife. She didn’t tell him where she lived in Jinghong and refused to let him see her ID card. The day they picked up their marriage license, Luo learned Winnie had divorced another man a month earlier.
We said goodbye to Luo and made our way back out of the valley. “Do you think he killed your sister?” I asked Crystal.
“Not really,” she said. “I was just trying to get a reaction out of him.”
The more we learned, the more questions we had.
“My God, little sister,” Crystal said. “What did you leave behind?”
The next morning, we returned to Jinghong to meet Cao, a friend of Winnie’s. The first thing that struck me was just how different Cao was from Luo. Winnie’s husband was a poor country boy in his 20s, whereas Cao, a businessman who worked in biofuel, was in his mid-30s, tall, confident, and gregarious, with the chiseled features of a movie star. He said he met Winnie at an outdoor market one evening and they’d struck up a friendship. He said he knew nothing of her marriages, but sensed she was looking to settle down and start a family. Cao was friendly and charming, but provided very little information.
Running out of leads, I drove Crystal to the airport, where she flew to the northeast in hopes of finding who had used her sister’s police ID number at the bank. That trip was a disaster. Bank officials told her that Winnie didn’t have an account after all. Because of a glitch, a computer had mistakenly spit out Winnie’s ID number, triggering a false alert to police.
Crystal returned to Jinghong and went to the apartment where Winnie had stashed her belongings nearly two years earlier as she prepared to go on the run. The apartment was a time capsule of a life interrupted, crammed with artifacts from Winnie’s past. There was a pile of instructional DVDs on stripping and exotic dancing and a book filled with the personal confessions of prostitutes, including those who had tried to leave the life but failed.
However, the contents of her home also suggested Winnie was trying to turn a corner and become an independent businesswoman. She’d obtained a flyer for a local bar for sale and had been chatting online with a supplier of beer-making equipment. Her library was a collection of Chinese-language self-help and educational books with titles such as The Must-Have Book for Cultivating Character, From Mediocrity to Excellence, and Lessons on Managing People.
Reinvention is now as much a part of China’s mythology as America’s, and Winnie’s collection of books reminded me of Jay Gatsby and the American gospel of self-improvement. She was trying to change and pursue success as her big sister had, part of what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called the Chinese Dream. What set Winnie apart, though, was her earlier path. She had made her money beyond China’s gleaming skyscrapers, in the shadows amid the gritty reality of city life, and she hadn’t been entirely able to leave it behind. Among her belongings were several SIM cards and health-care records indicating that she had operated under an alias for years. One document showed that several months before her disappearance, she’d become pregnant. But there was something odd: A month after the pregnancy test, she went to the hospital under her alias and had her IUD removed, which suggested she couldn’t have been pregnant in the first place.
There was more. Hidden amid Winnie’s clothing was a handwritten note. “Cao and Winnie must be together for their whole lives,” it read, with what appeared to be a signature from Cao. “If they don’t stay together, Cao’s family must break up and his family members must die.”
The note implied that if Cao—who had insisted he had been nothing more than a friend—left Winnie, he would curse his own family and wish for their destruction. Stored on Winnie’s laptop were videos of Cao and her cuddling together and having sex, which Cao knew could serve as ammunition if Winnie ever chose to expose their relationship.
I headed to the hospital that performed the pregnancy test and explained the situation to the doctors. “Please take a look; can you tell us if it is real or fake?” I asked, showing a cellphone photo of the document. The doctor was skeptical. “It’s not done by us,” she said dismissively. “Our department doesn’t have a doctor by this name or an ID number like this. This report is fake.” Another physician called up Winnie’s medical records and found an earlier, legitimate pregnancy test, which had been negative. He said Winnie appeared to have created the positive test using a Word document. “Some girls want to take some leave from their jobs,” the female doctor explained. “Others lie to a man, saying, ‘I’m pregnant,’ to get a sum of money.”
I was feeling anxious about where our search was heading, so I called Cao and told him I’d seen the note threatening his family. Cao acknowledged the relationship and said in the months before Winnie disappeared, his wife came to Jinghong and discovered the affair. He had a tearful breakup with Winnie, but said they remained friends. He said his wife forgave him. Cao said he last saw Winnie not long before she vanished and thought she’d become a victim of the region’s drug trade or human trafficking.
I had been working on this trip with the help of my Shanghai news assistant, Yang Zhuo. We were almost out of leads, but had several phone numbers from Winnie’s papers, including one she’d put on a flyer to rent out one of her Jinghong apartments. We didn’t want to spook anyone who might answer, so Yang dialed and I listened in.
A man picked up. “Do you have any apartments to sell or rent?” Yang asked.
“Who are you?” the man answered. Yang said he wanted to buy an apartment and had gotten his phone number from a realtor. The man was unconvinced, demanding to know where Yang was at that moment, how Yang had obtained the number and the name of the supposed realtor who had provided it. Yang tried to finesse the answers.
“Okay,” the man said, “where are you right now?” Yang, sensing danger, declined to say. My heart began beating faster. These were not the questions of someone trying to hang up on a misdialed call or someone who might have been randomly reassigned Winnie’s phone number. This was the longest wrong-number conversation I’d ever heard. “Can we meet up?” the man pressed.
“If you don’t have an apartment to sell,” Yang responded, “we can forget about it.” There was a long pause and then the man hung up.
Yang and I looked at each other wide-eyed. The story of Winnie’s disappearance was growing more chilling with each new detail. I spoke with NPR security personnel, who advised that continuing to look for Winnie was unwise. Even Crystal agreed that it was no longer safe to keep digging.
I never did find out what happened to Winnie. The facts, though, supported a general theory: She’d moved to Yunnan to turn her life around and fallen in love with a married man. She wanted what her big sister had—a stable life with a good income and a lifelong romantic partner. But to secure that, Winnie faked a pregnancy and threatened to expose their affair, a dangerous strategy, even more so on the edge of the Golden Triangle, where few would miss someone like her, another anonymous migrant. Instead of achieving her Chinese dream, Winnie had descended into a Chinese noir.
I returned to Shanghai and visited Wei Wujun, a private detective I knew who’d made a career of investigating adultery. Wei saw his booming business as a measure of the problems beneath what some called the China miracle. Market economics had thrust the country forward at warp speed, providing previously unimaginable temptations. But the construction of a moral framework to help people grapple with such extraordinary change had lagged far behind. China’s radical transformation was more than most people could absorb or navigate.
“China’s huge economic success has concealed people’s falling morals and spiritual degradation,” Wei told me. “Its exterior looks shiny and splendid and the entire world is watching, but actually its inside is rotten to the core.”
I asked Wei what he thought had happened to Winnie. Throughout his years of tracking adultery cases, he said, he’d seen many people who took the sorts of risks Winnie did end up the same way.
“She’s dead,” he said.
Before Crystal returned home to the U.S., she made one last attempt to find her little sister. She rode a bus nine hours through the mountains to the hotel where Winnie had last been seen. She put up flyers in the city market and asked people if they’d seen anyone fitting her description. The journey was grueling. The bus passed through military checkpoints and careened along twisting roads with no guardrails. She couldn’t understand the other passengers, who spoke local dialects. As she prepared to fly back to Michigan, I asked Crystal what she had learned in her nearly three weeks in China.
“I miss my life in America,” she said, laughing and sniffling at the same time. “I think I was spoiled by the civility of America.”
She also couldn’t shake the sense that she’d failed her baby sister. Crystal had made it out and built a happy life overseas with an attorney husband and a house overlooking a lake, while Winnie spiraled downward thousands of miles away. Under Communism, most people’s lives in China had been pretty similar, but under capitalism, there were winners and losers. Some rode the economic wave and won, while others, like Winnie, lost and paid for it.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Langfitt’s new book, The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China.