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)).
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.
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…