Thoughts on China’s Big Child Trafficking Bust (and Comments Policy Revised)


Thoughts on the Child Kidnapping Bust

For the past few days, news of China’s big kidnapping bust has been making the rounds. In case you’ve missed it, here are the basic details, via Shanghaiist:

Chinese authorities have arrested over 600 individuals related to child trafficking in a joint operation which involved more than 5,000 agents in 10 different provinces. 178 children were rescued in the bust, and are currently residing safely in different orphanages while authorities are trying to reunite them with their families.

Police unwittingly stumbled upon a child trafficking group while investigating a traffic accident on May 5th in the province of Sichuan. The youngsters were allegedly either purchased or abducted by the group and distributed from Sichuan to clients in central China’s Hebei province and elsewhere.

Because I’ve been working on a documentary film about this very issue for the past year, a few people have asked for my thoughts, so here they are.

The good: First of all, even one child getting rescued is good news. 178 kids getting to return to their real homes is great news, and 600+ traffickers off the streets is great news too. So regardless of everything else, there’s plenty to celebrate here.

Secondly, it appears from the news reports that once they had gotten the initial clue, the police did exactly what they need to do to solve cases like this — pooled resources, collaborated across large distances, cooperated with police organs at different levels in different areas, etc. From one angle we’ll discuss in a second, it’s kind of bad that this bust came from a chance traffic stop, but on the other hand, it’s good news that the local police handled that well enough to know what they had, and the higher-ups were smart enough to listen to them and begin coordinating to accomplish something real.

Finally, since July the government has implemented a new policy that states kidnapped kids whose original families can’t be found cannot be returned to the families who bought them, and must instead be put into government care. Unfortunately for the kids, the care they’re likely to get from many of these government homes isn’t great, but I still think this is a necessary measure to stamp out the idea, still prevalent in some parts of China, that it’s OK to purchase children (and that if you get caught doing this, the worst that happens is you pay a fine).

The bad: That said, it is a bit disconcerting that this huge bust, coming amidst a bunch of high-profile crackdown campaigns, came to the police almost entirely by luck, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Among other issues, one thing we’ve seen in all the cases we’ve looked at is that local police are (to put it nicely) slow to respond to initial reports of kidnapping, and don’t tend to do much of anything until the first 24 hours — by far the most crucial time in a kidnapping case — have already elapsed.

Moreover, while 178 sets of parents may get a happy ending, there are hundreds of thousands of parents out there who won’t. Even by the Chinese government’s official numbers there are around 10,000 children kidnapped in China each year. Realistically, the number is higher than that. 178 kids rescued is great, but it’s a small drop in a big bucket.

Anecdotally, over the course of shooting we’ve had direct contact with around a dozen sets of parents, who themselves are connected via their own networks to hundreds of others. Over the past year, we’ve heard of exactly one family getting their child back. None of the families we’ve talked to have even heard anything new about their cases from the police since we first spoke with them.

So, in short, this is case is a good sign, but there’s still a long, long way to go.

New Comments Policy

On an unrelated note, followers of this comments thread will already be aware, but I have finally had enough of the bullshit that has been occurring in the comments here. It’s stupid and unproductive, and if I have to I’ll just close the comments permanently, but first, we’ll try out this new, harsher regime. So be warned. I’m going to be reading all the comments again, and I will be deleting comments and banning people like it’s going out of style (if they violate the comments policy).

So, read the comments policy. If you’re already familiar with it, please take note of the following additions, effective immediately:

  • Comment with a spirit of productiveness and openness, and support your points with evidence and reason. (Yes, this is subjective, but in actuality, it’s very simple to abide by this rule.) Failure to make productive comments will result in deleted comments and eventually the blocking of your account.
  • Comments along the lines of “But [Western country] does [object of discussion] as well….” are generally irrelevant, and will be considered off-topic spam, except in discussion of posts that explicitly invite comparison between China and other countries.This is a blog about China. The Western world has many social problems, but generally speaking, this isn’t the place to discuss them.

Note that nothing has been removed from the comments policy, so all the other rules remain in effect. To read the full thing, click here.

0 thoughts on “Thoughts on China’s Big Child Trafficking Bust (and Comments Policy Revised)”

  1. I guess the “long long way to go” part would be “the ugly”. The fact that they busted this ring shows it can be done. But it will take a lot more systematic political will to meaningfully curtail the problem on a national level. And even if the central government wants to do something about it, they would still need to overcome the complacency (and perhaps complicit involvement) of corrupt local officials, some of whom likely benefit from this human trafficking. It will be tilting at windmills for a long time to come.


  2. managed to forget reading this headline, thanks for bringing it back up.

    definitely a good job by the police forces (across 10 provinces!) Hope news doesn’t come out about activists getting abused by the government (I’ll blame corrupt officials). Actually, Custer, you didn’t mention this aspect in either the bad or good if the government/police are doing their jobs rather than trying to enforce “harmony”. Care to share about that portion of your documentary experience?


  3. 评论大革命就是好,就是好!

    RE: Officials. A friend of a friend had her new-born stolen from a Nanjing hospital with the apparent complicity of hospital staff. Somehow the baby could be abducted from a hospital equipped with CCTV without anyone noticing or any record existing of the theft.

    I do not support the death penalty, but it is very hard not to wish the people responsible for stealing a baby from its mother dead.


  4. @FOARP: That seems to be remarkably common. I think I’ve described this somewhere — maybe in the FP article? — but one of the cases we’re working on saw the police ignoring surveillance tapes until weeks later when they had been automatically deleted. They claim incompetence, but it’s hard not to wonder if something else was happening there. And even if it was incompetence, that’s pretty damn horrifying.

    (Of course, they didn’t use that exact word, but apparently the chief did tell the parents “We made a mistake, you can sue us if you want.”


  5. A few months ago there was a lady with two child beggars outside the Silk Market in Beijing. I went to the police stand next to the market, told them about seeing two child beggars, and the officer in charge immediately got out of his chair and said he would go get them some food and have them leave. He seemed to genuinely appreciate my telling him. I didn’t follow him, though, so don’t know what actually happened. But I don’t think it matters what the incentive is for the police/authorities to solve this problem–harmony, face, compassion, whatever–as long as it gets solved.


  6. Hey Custer,

    I am curious if there’s another angle you can choose to tackle this issue. One of the biggest drivers of change in the stolen baby angle recently in Vietnam was that the United States froze all adoptions in Vietnam due to similar instances of baby kidnapping. The State Department, after years of pressuring the government of Vietnam to improve its monitoring of its adoption agencies, finally got Vietnam to recognize the problem. In the course of these changes, 16 cases were frozen in the pipeline with waiting American parents. Needless to say those parents were very agitated and sought any means possible to unfreeze those cases.

    What happened later helped propel pressure on Vietnam to change quickly. Those 16 American parents, though not their intention, became the biggest agitators in the U.S. Congress for highlighting the problem and casting a shameful light towards the Vietnamese government.

    Imagine now if the State Department froze the 1000s of Chinese adopted babies each year…

    Sadly, there’s even more reason that the United States is not following its own policies on halting adoptions from countries of significant child kidnapping/trafficking concern. Of COURSE they should freeze Chinese adoptions, but they are unwilling because of the immediate political impact in Congress, which funds the State Department. If 16 American parents in Vietnam can cause so much ruckus, imagine what will happen in China?

    I’m a big admirer of your work on this issue, which I came across personally on so many occasions during my first trips to China in 2000. I still remember the little flower girls in Dali who ate spaghetti with me as I learned about their lives, unable to return home and beaten at night if they didn’t sell enough.

    Pressure the State Department to adhere to its own policies. It’ll create a backlash that will further shed light on this most painful a problem.


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