AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This week, NPR is investigating a missing persons case from deep in the mountains of southwest China. Now, this came out of a series by NPR's Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt. He's been offering free rides around Shanghai in exchange for people's stories. And this fall, the project took an unexpected turn. A Chinese-American woman heard one of his reports and got in touch with him. She asked for his help to find her little sister. She went missing in Yunnan province two years ago, and Frank's here with us now. And Frank, I want to start by asking you why did you take this on? I mean, this is kind of an unusual request for a reporter.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's very unusual, but the reason I did it is because I found it, Audie, a compelling human story. The big sister - she lives in the Midwest. She works in IT. She's kind of made it. The little sister really had struggled, and I saw this as a way to understand some of the incredible social and economic changes in China through the story of these two women. In China, also, it's not that easy to understand the life of a family from inside.
CORNISH: Right, and you were able to do that with these women. The story gets very intimate. In fact, we're going to refer to them as big sister and little sister for the next few minutes - right? - to protect their privacy.
CORNISH: All right. So after you talked to big sister, she flew to Yunnan province to meet with you, and you're going to tell us what happened next.
LANGFITT: Yeah, well, my assistant Yang and I, we met her at the airport.
Nice to meet you.
BIG SISTER: Nice to meet you.
LANGFITT: You travel very light.
BIG SISTER: Yes, I have to.
LANGFITT: All the way from the states.
BIG SISTER: I have to. I know.
LANGFITT: A little background here - the little sister had been living in northeast China, and she moved more than 2,000 miles away to Yunnan, and this was a few years back. And basically, she was trying to reinvent herself after a very tough past. And she was studying business books. She was hoping to open a bar, and then in the fall of 2013 she gets married. But she soon fled her husband who she said had beaten her. She told big sister about it on WeChat. That's China's most popular social media app. Big sister preserved the audio.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LITTLE SISTER: (Through interpreter) I told him, don't beat me anymore. My injuries haven't healed. If you beat me again, I couldn't bear it.
LANGFITT: Not long after that conversation, she just vanished. So we head into the mountains trying to retrace her steps, and the big sister fills us in on the family's story. They grew up poor on a farm in Heilongjiang province in Northeastern China. This is the late-'70s, early '80s. At the time, China was rapidly urbanizing. Little sister struggled in class.
BIG SISTER: She even studied so hard and, like, harder than anybody else in the family, but she never got a good score.
LANGFITT: So she quit school. Like millions of rural Chinese women, she moved to the city where she fell into sex work. It's one of the default industries for unskilled women, and big sister explains.
BIG SISTER: It's really sad. It's just for survival. A couple of times she called me while she was beaten. Her nose was broken.
LANGFITT: The big sister feels partly responsible. You know, she's the eldest of five. In Chinese culture, it's almost like being a second parent, and this is her last chance to try to find her little sister.
Do you have hope?
BIG SISTER: Yes, I have hope. That's why I'm here.
LANGFITT: What of the information we know so far gives you hope?
BIG SISTER: First of all, the police said she had banking activity, and second, we don't see her body. And so I'm thinking she's alive somewhere.
LANGFITT: Police recently discovered someone had used the little sister's ID number at a bank in northeastern China. It's our only solid lead. One of the last people to see her was her husband, a rubber farmer. So we head up a dirt road past banana groves. About five miles in, we find his cinderblock farmhouse. He's surprised to see us, but he's courteous. Soon, the big sister confronts him.
BIG SISTER: (Through interpreter) I've come here to ask you, do you know what happened, exactly? Where did she go, or did you kill her?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
LANGFITT: He denies it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) If I had killed her, I wouldn't still be here. She really ran away. You guys should not think that I sold her to someone or killed her. I have never done things like that.
LANGFITT: The husband says they quarreled a lot, but he insists he never beat her. He also says little sister was secretive. He only learned she had recently divorced another man when they went to the local marriage office. As we drive away from the farmhouse, big sister struggles to make sense of it all.
BIG SISTER: Oh, God. Little sister, what did you leave behind? This is so puzzling. I just don't understand.
LANGFITT: The next day, we have lunch with a friend of the little sister. He's a local businessman in his 40s. He has chiseled, good looks. He also has a wife and a son several provinces away near Shanghai. He says the little sister was often depressed.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through interpreter) We met at a night market at the Big Buddha Temple. We just chatted about things and took walks together. She gave out a feeling of loneliness. She was clearly unhappy.
LANGFITT: The guy, on the other hand, is really gregarious, but he actually says very little. He insists he has no idea where she is.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
LANGFITT: We're now almost out of leads. The big sister books a flight to Dalian in Northeastern China where the little sister used to live, where police say her ID number was used at that bank.
BIG SISTER: I hope it wasn't somebody stolen her card. I really hope it was her, so then we are just one step away of finding her.
LANGFITT: But that hope which helped draw her back to China is soon dashed. The bank says there's been a big misunderstanding. She hadn't been there.
(SOUNDBITE OF WECHAT TONE)
LANGFITT: The big sister explains to me over WeChat while the bank was reorganizing accounts, there was a glitch, and the little sister's ID just popped up. It triggered an alert to the police in Yunnan. Big sister pleaded with the bank officials.
BIG SISTER: I said, was there any activity about my sister in that bank? He said, no, so I asked him three times to confirm. The answer was no, but I don't understand.
LANGFITT: Now big sister fears the worst.
BIG SISTER: I don't think anything good happened to her. She's a tough survivor. She would think of a way to contact somebody from my family or the police. I think maybe she's killed by someone.
CORNISH: Frank, this woman reached out to you with hope - right? - hope that...
CORNISH: ...You would help her find her sister, and now she's talking like it could be a murder case.
CORNISH: I mean, who would have wanted to kill her little sister?
LANGFITT: Well, police interviewed the husband and the guy that we talked to in the restaurant who insisted, at the time, they were just friends. But before going back to the states, the big sister visited the little sister's empty apartment, and she found a clue.
BIG SISTER: On the right side of the coffee table, there was a bag, and on top of the bag, there was a piece of paper like a pregnancy test result.
LANGFITT: It was positive. And earlier, family members had also been in that apartment, and they found a note showing the little sister and that married businessman were having an affair.
CORNISH: What does this tell you, though, about China today and how life there really works for people who are struggling?
LANGFITT: You know, Audie, these two sisters - their lives were changing as China was shifting from rural to urban, communist to capitalist. And the big sister - she was able to navigate that. She succeeded. But the little sister - she didn't really have the skills. She couldn't compete, and she ends up in illicit work. And at the time that she disappeared, she had been trying to reinvent herself, which is now almost as common a concept in China as it is here in the States. And to do that, though, we'll see that the little sister - she had to take some pretty big risks.
CORNISH: Tomorrow, the second and final episode of the case of the missing Chinese woman and the American sister who's trying to find her. Again, that's tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Frank Langfitt, thank you.
LANGFITT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.