In a country where many families are allowed only one child, the notion that one’s son or daughter could be abducted and sold feels almost impossibly horrible. And yet, as a new documentary makes clear, it happens in China with stunning frequency.
“Most foreigners don’t know this is happening at all,” says Charlie Custer, a blogger who co-produced and directed the film, “Living With Dead Hearts,” with his wife Leia Li. “Chinese don’t know it is happening or they know it is happening but don’t know it is happening on this scale.”
Simultaneously compelling and hard to watch, Mr. Custer’s film, released online last week, is the result of roughly two years of shooting, funded in part by $7,500 in donations solicited through social media. The blogger-turned-filmmaker was motivated to make the film, he says, because child abduction is a long-running problem in China – and because it’s an issue that transcends political divisions inside the country.
“I thought about doing a piece on censorship in China, or political dissent, but the government and those who defend it have a rationale behind it,” said Charlie. “Kidnapping of children is one of the China social issues that everybody, at least from a moral perspective, agrees should not happen.”
The market for stolen children is growing, according to state media reports, which put the price for an abducted child at between 30,000 and 80,000 yuan ($4,900 to $13,000). Some are sold into families, some into prostitution or marriage, and some into begging gangs.
Authorities disagree over just how many children are abducted in China. In June, state broadcaster China National Radio estimated 200,000 children are abducted in the country every year (in Chinese) – a number that was rejected a few days later by a senior police official. The film puts the number at around 70,000.
“The statistics are terrifying, but they’re just statistics, especially for people outside China,” Mr. Custer said.” We want to do a film that puts people in front of you and puts a more human face on the statistics.”
The first-time director got started by making cold calls to families that had reported losing children. He ended up with three families, whose stories form the backbone of the film. One is the family of Liu Liqin, a worker in the industrial central China city of Taiyuan whose son was abducted while playing in an alleyway with two other children in April 2010. “For a month after we lost him, she and I couldn’t even tell day from night,” he says, referring to his wife, who was sterilized on orders of planning officials in their home village after the birth of their son because he was their second child.
Mr. Custer notes that several documentaries have been made about the subject, but says many take a simplistic approach. “They blame one-child policy for the whole problem,” he says. “Certainly it is one of the reasons, but if you abolish the one-child policy tomorrow, kidnapping will not disappear.”
When he was in the northeastern city of Harbin during his first year in China, Mr. Custer says, he noticed children begging on the streets and mentioned it a to friend who was a former local policeman. The friend told him it was likely some of the kids had been kidnapped and sold. That’s when he started to follow the issue, taking notes on kidnapped kids wherever he traveled to China.
“It is happening everywhere,” he says.
One of the great barriers to solving the problem is the complicity of local officials. In some cases, Mr. Custer says, police are in the trafficker’s pocket. In other cases, family planning officials themselves are engaged in trafficking.
“Some officials take the kids (from more-than-one-kid families) and sell them to the orphanage for 500 bucks a pop, and there are a thousand kids,” he said. “That is a lot of money.”
Parents of stolen children are often poor and uneducated, and often don’t know what their rights are, he said.
Another barrier to dealing with the issue is cooperation and persistence necessary to find a lost child, and the low chances of success, which together discourage police from dedicating themselves to the task.
“Our main goal was to make [the film] emotionally affecting enough to create some more consciousness,” Mr. Custer says. “Hopefully, the more people get to think about it and engage with it, the better the chance that more solutions may come up.”
He says one of the best solutions currently being tried is a national DNA database set up by the Ministry of Public Security that theoretically allows for testing of children to determine whether they have been abducted (in Chinese). The problem is few parents know about or are willing to register their children in the database, and in some cases, police have illegally charged parents money for tests. It’s also not clear, he adds, whether the government is willing to do wide-scale DNA testing of children in orphanages and on the streets.
The film now can be watched online for free, though there are options to buy it on DVD or in a downloadable version with deleted scenes and director’s commentary. Mr. Custer says a Chinese version is roughly a week away from being uploaded to Chinese video sites.
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