Child Beggars and a Revolution of Digital Conscience

Any foreigner who has traveled to China has seen its beggar children, often alone, wandering the streets in search of spare change. It is a sad sight, and the unseen background is sadder: most of these children are kidnapped or otherwise forced away from their families. Often their families have no idea where they are. Handlers will even sometimes break healthy children’s legs or arms on the theory that a mutilated child looks sadder, and attracts more money than, a healthy one.

Even going by government figures, which aren’t necessarily reliable ((understatement)), kidnapping is a serious problem. Official figures from 2010 report that there were 9,165 cases of selling women and 5,900 cases of selling children uncovered. 9,388 kidnapped and sold children were rescued, as were 17,746 women. 3,573 criminal kidnapping gangs were destroyed, and 22,511 criminals were sentenced in connection with cases of human trafficking. The true number of children kidnapped each year is unknown, but in all likelihood it is much, much higher than the number of resolved cases. For example, this Baobeihuijia thread that tracks open cases of missing children indicates that of the over 300 missing children on that page (many of those cases are years old), only 17 of them have yet been located, and of those, only 14 were found alive. Of course, that’s a very small sample size, and in all likelihood a decent percentage of these children weren’t kidnapped and sold but are missing for other reasons. Still, it indicates clearly that the rate of success in these cases is not particularly high.

This has been going on for years, and groups like Baobeihuijia have been fighting it by helping parents who have lost their kids post photographs and spread information about their kids online. In a way, it’s remarkable that it never occurred to anyone to go about it the opposite way until a few weeks ago.

Yu Jianrong, a Beijing man, set up a Sina Weibo account and asked people to do something simple: take photos of child beggars, and send them to him to be republished in his feed. This remarkably simple idea has taken the Chinese internet by storm, and brought light to the topic of human trafficking and child exploitation in China. Variations of the terms “help child beggars” and “human traffickers” have been in the top five trending topics on Sina Weibo every day for the past week, and Yu Jianrong’s microblog has accrued nearly 95,000 followers, with no signs of slowing down ((I suspect that by the time most people read this post, he will have passed 100,000)).

The story has been all over the media, and Yu Jianrong was recently interviewed by Southern Metropolis. Thankfully our own K. Drinhuasen has taken the time to translate the interview in full for us.

Interview with Yu Jianrong

Southern Metropolis: When did the idea of a rescue action / help for child beggars first occur to you?

Yu Jianrong: I didn’t have any kind of plan beforehand, it started incidentally when I was discussing things with friends online and everyone had some ideas [concerning this issue]. One thing just led to another. On January 17th I received a notice from a mother from Fujian province asking for help. Her son Yang Weixin had been abducted in 2009. In early 2010 a netizen had taken a picture of a child on a street in Xiamen., the child had been crippled and was begging. So I put her call for help on my micro blog. There was a huge response and a lot of people left messages with suggestions and possible leads. After things calmed down a bit I talked to several netizens that I know quite well to see if there might be something we could do for those kids.

Southern Metropolis: But how did the initiative first get started?

Yu Jianrong: On January 24th I had dinner with a few netizen friends, and when we talked things over we thought: Why not just open a micro blog on Sina that specifically collects and publishes information about child beggars! On the next day we opened our official blog “Help child beggars, take pictures!”. Me and the other netizens involved all use micro blogs, QQ and phones to communicate and keep each other updated on the progress of this project.

Southern Metropolis: Have you run into any difficulties?

Yu Jianrong: There are two challenges we face. We only have been running this micro blog for ten days and a lot of people who have lost their kids don’t know about this initiative yet and haven’t used micro blogs before, so we have to figure out a way to let them know. Here we need the support of the traditional print media to help spread the news. Usually when parents are looking for their child they publish a picture online, but our approach is right the opposite—it is netizens who post the photos they take, thus enabling a wider participation of the public. The second problem is that we need to start setting up a digital database now. We hadn’t even thought about this, since at first we believed that maybe 10 or 20 netizens would post their pictures online. But by now we have already received more than 1.000.

Southern Metropolis: In regard to posting pictures of child beggars online, might this not be interpreted as an infringement of their rights?

Yu Jianrong: I don’t believe that there is an infringement of rights involved. Begging in itself is a public act. But more importantly, letting a child under 14 years beg is illegal, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Civil Affairs are very clear about that in their regulations. Thus taking a picture is merely a way for everyone to step in and offer help.

Southern Metropolis: In your personal opinion, what results has the initiative brought so far?

Yu Jianrong: So far there have been several parents who believe they might have identified their children in those pictures and who have gone to the places where the pictures were taken, although none of them has found their child yet. I think that the greatest achievement is the fact that our society as a whole has realized a very fundamental thing: If you see a child under 14 begging on the street, then you can and should report this! The degree of public participation in this initiative was very high, so I do believe that this general notion has really taken hold in peoples’ minds. Another positive outcome is that the institutions of public security have also actively taken part.

Southern Metropolis: What effects, do you think, can this initiative have?

Yu Jianrong: The aim of this initiative is to put an end to the practice of child beggars. No matter if the children have been abducted or if it is their own family members who are sending them out to beg—they all require our help. And if there wasn’t a general consensus on this, our initiative might have just gone astray. We want to marginalize and ultimately end the practice of forcing minors into begging by setting up mechanisms and institutions and [encouraging] public participation. We hope that by pushing for legal action and establishing concise procedures for investigating [cases] and helping child beggars, we can ultimately deprive the ones who are in this for personal gain of their market.

A Revolution?

Potentially, especially in combination with a new police initiative that is offering reduced sentencing to human traffickers who turn themselves in by March 31st. It’s way too early to tell, but already there are reportedly several cases that have been solved thanks in part to Weibo, and this is only the very beginning. Of course, to leverage this approach effectively, Yu Jianrong will need to create a database fast, or risk being flooded with data. But as his followers continue to grow (he’s gained more than 300 since about ten minutes ago) it seems clear that even if this doesn’t reunite a lot of families with their children, it is going to become a significant hassle for the criminals who kidnap children and force them to beg.

Why? Ironically enough, they were able to remain relatively anonymous even in the middle of the street when no one was paying attention. But now their children are being documented, along with locations and times. To stay safe, this means they have to move the children frequently, and they face increased risks of police pressure because they not only have to deal with local authorities, but also local media and everyone else who sees their children begging via Weibo. Yu Jianrong tends to tweet the photos of children directly at local officials, media outlets, and other lumunaries to bring as much attention to them as possible. Even if this doesn’t result in the children being rescued, it’s definitely bad for business for kidnappers, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, for this to really matter, the movement will have to sustain its forward momentum. That will not be easy. But it is refreshing to see netizens approaching this issue with such passion, and so wholeheartedly embracing this clever and simple approach to helping with street children.

This is also something foreigners can participate in. There are many people who have already volunteered to help translate information and transmit it to Yu Jianrong and his microblogging account, so if you come across a beggar somewhere, please take a photo, note the time, location, and any other relevant data, and send it to someone. Cell phone images are fine, but remember what’s most important is a clear shot of the face so that people can recognize the child! If you can’t write Chinese or don’t have a Weibo account, you can send this to…

Me: custerc at, or twitter @ChinaGeeks and weibo @ChinaGeeks.
@niubi: @niubi on twitter
[I will edit in other volunteers when/if they appear here].

0 thoughts on “Child Beggars and a Revolution of Digital Conscience”

  1. Fine initiative by Yu Jianrong and follow-up by C. Custer. Also, a good example of how civil-society activities can fill in the gaps where government authorities have either neglected an issue or simply have not been set up from the start to give a high priority to such an issue (as compared, say, with arresting protest marchers). So even though the Central Propaganda Ministry has placed a ban on the Chinese-language term for civil society (公民社会), that doesn’t mean that civil-society activities and organizing cannot continue within the PRC!


  2. It’s great that many celebrities like Faye Wong, Zhao Wei, etc. have joined this cause as well, and they have been playing a major role in raising public awareness for the past weeks.

    They’ve also been engaged in other microblogging initiatives to help sick children in need.

    Traditionally, celebrities in East Asia avoid getting overly active outside the entertainment industry (Can you name one famous Korean or Japanese singer or acter who’s as politically active as say Sean Penn? It’s hard isn’t it.), but I’m glad that many of the Chinese stars are now taking advantage of the Internet for social issues. Helping child beggars and trafficked children is a wonderful drive.


  3. Just listen to a story on NPR about the child abductions and how the Chinese citizens are solving the problem using Microblogs. They reported 6 kids have been found with the microblog posting pictures of child beggars. Glad to see this approach is working.


  4. Nice one. And the translation/transmission is good initiative. My chinese is fairly poor and I don’t have a weibo account, so if I do take some photos I’ll definitely send them through to you.


  5. It’s great that this initiative tries to help families find their children. But. I just read an interesting post on ESWN (not sure how to link to the posts but it’s currently on the front page,, with reports on people attempting to rescue beggar children. It turned out that all the kids they tried to rescue were actually begging together with their own parents, and weren’t kidnapped at all.

    On the other hand, a kid who was found and returned to his father ( was kidnapped not to have him beg, but to have him as a son. This kid would never have been found by searching among begging children.

    Then there is this other article, I forgot where I read it but the reasoning was: you can certainly make money off kidnapped kids, namely by selling them to families who don’t have children/sons. You can of course also maim them and have them beg, but that’s a lot more labour-intensive, and you have to feed and shelter the children. Why would you have them beg if you can sell them?

    All this makes me wonder just how many kidnapped children are begging, and how many beggar children are kidnapped. I’ll be interested on seeing more articles on this issue, here and elsewhere.


  6. It says a lot that the usual haters (you know who they/you are) have nothing to say or do for this cause and some are even being habitually cynical about it.

    Really. It’s events like this that reveal people’s true colors.


  7. @ keisaat: agreed. There are a bunch of negative articles on ESWN that he translated, I find it pretty surprising frankly…I suppose one downside of this movement is that it might be an inconvenience to people who beg with their legitimate children, but frankly, who cares? It’s worth inconveniencing a few people if we can find even ONE lost child, and at the very least, giving these people DNA tests will give police a chance to remind the parents that their kids should be in school!


  8. I’m sorry, do you think that the point made in the post on ESWN about real child beggars begging with their parents facing harassment is illegitimate? I know that many beggars in China really are frauds and that many of these kids are trafficked, but I also think that people tend to exaggerate the prevalence of frauds because its more comforting than being faced with truly desperate people, and to make excuses for their own lack of charity; with people operating under the assumption that beggars can pretty much be assumed to be frauds (or, at best, that any apparently able-bodied person should just “get a job”- yeah, like you know everybody’s story it’s inevitable that people who are already in dire straits are going to get hurt in this. I do think this movement is a good idea, but I also think some care needs to be exercised.


  9. Corby, good comment.

    By the way, if anyone is interested in Yu Jianrong, you can find some English Language articles by him on the “China Media Project” website.


  10. I think you guys are completely missing the point. You know who are the criminals behind begging children? Their parents, for the most part. You know why? Because in China there’s plenty of poor people. I think microblogging is an opium for the people, and geeks love posting photos of children on the internet thinking that they are free and that the revolution is happening. And the government is happy too, because the blame falls on crminals who kidnapped them and not on the Party officials who are in charge of social welfare policies….


  11. “And the government is happy too, because the blame falls on crminals who kidnapped them and not on the Party officials who are in charge of social welfare policies….”

    Are you working for the government? Are you a Party official? Do you really know the government is happy about it, or you are just bullshitting?


  12. @ MAC: Basically, yes. What harassment are they really facing? Occasionally having a photo taken of their kids and (presumably only once) potentially having to take a DNA test, if the parent of a kidnapped child thinks the child they have looks similar. Who cares? Is that incredibly minor inconvenience foisted on a tiny minority of beggars really anything worth complaining about? IMHO, it would be worth DNA testing every beggar family in the country if it could save one kidnapped child.

    Honestly, it takes TWO SECONDS to give the police a piece of hair or a quick swab, it’s not like the beggars have to go down to the lab and run samples themselves or whatever.

    @ tom: True, many child beggars are with their actual parents. But why does that mean people shouldn’t try to help find the ones who aren’t? It’s easy to talk about how this won’t really change anything, but if nothing else, it has brought attention to the problem and it will probably liberate at least a couple kidnapped beggar kids. Is that not worth it?

    Yes, this campaign is not going to save the world. But it could help save some children. Seems like a worthy cause to me….


  13. There aren’t a lot of details at ESWN but the anecdotes don’t give the impression that being exonerated was necessarily as quick and painless for some people as you make it sound. Yes, kidnapping of kids is obviously a million times worse than beggars having their pictures put online, but frankly I wouldn’t expect you to be so confident in the authorities always being just and the public always being rational if this wasn’t an issue that you felt particularly strongly about. I hope that this campaign will be a good thing, but I do think the potential downsides are worth considering.


  14. I support Custer here. The downsides are minimal compared to the benefits.

    It will be interesting to see how things pan out – how this will effect the Chinese internet and how the government will react in the long term. Honestly though I don’t think this will start a revolution of any kind, but at least a few kids will go home.


  15. @ MAC: Sure, but if the authorities aren’t doing things properly, that’s a problem with them, not with the Weibo initiative, so it condemning the whole thing because some cops are being jerks to beggars (which I’m sure happened before this campaign, but no one was paying attention) is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    As for the public, I haven’t heard of any instance of them doing anything beyond photographing…


  16. Are there any details about the reported six kids rescued and returned to their parents? I’ve seen this number pop up in some reports, but have no way of knowing whether it is correct, and how exactly such a rescue works out in practice.


  17. Aren’t parents acting in a criminal way anyways? Does being a parent put a veto on criminal responsibility? At least a few cases in the UK put the legal responsibility on Romanian parents who made their kids beg.

    Also an interview on the link between begging and human trafficking with the author of the new book on the issue:

    Just to say a trafficker is a trafficker – parent or not.


  18. @Corby

    The term “civil society” is not banned. I just tried search 公民社会 on Baidu, 4.4 million links were returned and no “some content blocked” notice.

    As to your insinuation the Chinese authority ain’t doing enough about child abudction, it is also false. When I goto Advanced Serch in Baidu News and looked for missing children (失踪 儿童)reporting for December 2010, I find over 5000 headlines:

    Here are few examples from December 2010:

    12/13/2010 – An infant was taken from shop near a firtility clinic. Police tracked down childless couple who taken the child from the clinic’s appointment sheet.

    12/05/010 – Xinfong deputy locates 4 year old girl taken by homeless woman, returns victim to family after 10 days.

    12/02/2010 – Guizhou vice squad solves 40 marriage fraud and child abduction cases, offer 50000 yuan reward hoping to crack 6 remaining 2010 missing children cases

    12/01/2010 – Lizhou police rescues 7 girls in neighboring province, makes arrest for two child prostitution cases.

    BTW, the opinion in Chinese blogsphere on the beggar children isn’t so simple as the expat bloggers would like us to believe.

    There’re the opinions vast majority of these children are on the streets with their parents, and the photograhs without permission, exaggerated police report and subsquent detention, blood test (yes China as a national network of missing children DNA bank) amounts to harrasement.

    Look for an article titled “放开那个乞丐” (Free The Beggars) that advocates for better social wellfare.


  19. Also, Prof. Yu Jianrong is a staffer with Chinese Academy of Social Science. Google this:


    Some of you just love to ding the Chinese government on every little thing, well now it’s time to say “Chinese government pioneer digital conscience”, no?


  20. @ ChasL: The number of search results you find is totally unrelated to the number of resolved cases. As you probably know, we’ve been talking to some experts on this issue in connection to the film we’re making (Chinese, work as profs for state-controlled legal university programs) and they have all suggested that efforts to track down kidnapped children have a very low success rate.

    That’s not to say the government is doing a bad job, there are a lot of reasons why it is really hard to track down kids once they’re kidnapped, but the fact that you found 5,000 responses for a search term on Baidu is completely meaningless.

    As for the “harassment” issue, will be addressing this in another post soon.


  21. What the uncensored Baidu results do show is there’re spectrum of reporting on the matter as well as opinions. Chinese media’s attention on missing children and the authority’s efforts in solving the cases its nothing new.


  22. ChasL is saying the Chinese Government should take credit for the actions of a civil society promoting, LXB-loving, human rights guy, because he’s a professor at a Chinese institution….

    Thanks for the laugh, I needed that.


  23. @Some Guy

    Right, that’s why Yu Jianrong recently gave a speech titled Safeguarding The Bottom Line: Societal Stablility, contradicting what LXB wrote in Charter 08?

    And here’s a quote from Yu I read recently: “if the officials don’t tear down buildings, what would you intellectual dissidnets do?”

    Face it, you guys are inadvertantly cheering on a CCP cadre. Now let’s all pick on how this is violationg Chinese beggar’s human rights, since “Instant Photo ID” movement is initiated by Chinese Acadamy of Social Science professor and sanctioned by the Chinese government.

    Geeze people, the truth is somewhere in between wouldn’t you say?


  24. YJR is a big name, not just “a man from Beijing.” He’s a member of CASS and a law professor. He’s not a democracy activist like LXR, but he’s no conservative party hardliner by any means, and is not a politician. He’s a respected Chinese intellectual who has made a name for himself studying and lecturing on law reform. Those unfamiliar with his work ought to read a recent lecture by him, which I’ve posted the link for below:

    What’s interesting to me is how Yu, an academic, and far from a radical one at that, has spearheaded a popular online initiative that promotes civic engagement for a cause that almost everyone can get behind. Is he making a suggestion about the potential for/limitations of online activism in China? Perhaps. Or maybe this is just a worthy cause.


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