Recently, the PSB released a report on its nationwide anti-kidnapping activities in 2011 which contains some impressive statistics. You can find an English AFP piece on the report here, or read the full report in Chinese.
The report is, unsurprisingly, triumphant and self-congratulatory, and there are some things to celebrate. Chief among them is the claim that the PSB rescued 8,660 kidnapped children ((This number does include children who were trafficked into China from other countries, mostly Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam)) and 15,458 trafficked women over 2011. That’s great, although with media reporting on this subject controlled we more or less have to take them at their word as there’s no way to independently confirm those numbers. Still, even one child rescued is good news.
That said, as someone who has spent the last year talking to the parents of kidnapped children, it is difficult to read the report without getting angry. It states, for example, that the disappearances of children are uniformly treated as criminal cases, and that these cases are to be “swiftly developed and investigated” with the same urgency the PSB might use in pursuing a murder case. But in actuality, everything we’ve heard from parents indicates that this is not how things work in practice. In every case we’ve looked into, police initially tell parents to look for their children themselves, assuming the child has run away or is visiting friends, and telling parents they won’t take the case until the child has been missing 24 hours ((This is not a legal regulation, but it does seem to be the de facto practice at many local police stations.)). When they do take the case, investigations are slow and remarkably lazy. In the 2011 disappearance of Lei Xiaoxia (one of the subjects of our film), it took police months to request surveillance footage from the school where Lei went missing — by which time it was already deleted — and nearly a year after her disappearance, the police still haven’t interviewed any potential witnesses.
Interestingly, the 24 hour window after a child’s disappearance is something that is explicitly addressed in the PSB report, which calls it ‘a golden window of opportunity’ and mandates police to begin their investigations as soon as a disappearance is reported. Clearly, though, the national PSB has some discipline issues lower in the ranks, because many local police stations are not actually doing this.
Another lauded accomplishment is the DNA database, which allows parents to get free DNA tests so that if their child is ever discovered as the result of an anti-kidnapping operation, they can be quickly and unequivocally identified as the parents. This is very much a good thing, but again, the execution has been spotty at best. In the case of one of our subjects — coincidentally, Lei Xiaoxia’s parents — police demanded they pay for the test themselves, and wouldn’t back down until the parent of another kidnapped child who was more familiar with the law called them and asked why they were trying to charge money for a service that was meant to be free. This sort of situation is not uncommon, and the availability of the DNA database also needs to be more widely publicized, as some parents aren’t aware that they have the right to a free DNA test.
Another positive development has been the official anti-trafficking Weibo, which became an avenue for tips collection. The account collected 2,000 tips on trafficking cases in 2011. This is not to be confused with Yu Jianrong’s “rescue street children” campaign, which was quickly marginalized in early 2011 thanks in part to condemnations on the opinion pages of Chinese papers like the Global Times.
Analyzing the Numbers
Of course, the report doesn’t mention how many kidnapping cases remain unsolved. If there were 8,660 children returned home in 2011 ((Note that the kids may have been kidnapped years or decades ago, their cases were solved in 2011 but they were kidnapped and sold at different times)), what percentage of the total number of kidnapping cases is that? Going by the official government numbers, which put kidnappings of children at around 10,000 per year, that would make the child-returned-home rate about eighty percent. Going by the the US’s estimates in its human rights report, which pegs yearly child kidnappings at around 20,000, the solve rate is about forty percent.
Previously, I had been inclined to believe the US government estimates rather than higher independent estimates, which run up to 70,000 children kidnapped per year, but looking at the evidence we have — since there are no public statistics about this issue — it becomes very difficult to believe that only 20,000 children are kidnapped per year.
Now, obviously the numbers we have are very small, but the cases we’ve looked at do offer a good spread across victim demographics, old vs. new cases, and case types, so they may give us a decent sample of “average” missing child cases, although they are limited geographically to mostly eastern central China. Of the eight parent groups we’ve interviewed directly since March 2011, to date none of the families has seen their child returned. Of their larger social circle of dozens of parents of missing children, one child has been returned over the past year. Very conservatively estimating that loose social group to contain at least twenty sets of parents, that puts the solve rate at more like 5%.
Now, those sample sizes are too small to be scientific, and even if they were larger, they’re biased by location and also by selection — we only know about the cases of parents who want their cases publicized and have been in touch with other parents; some parents of missing children may choose to stay quiet and put their trust in the police rather than trying to look for themselves. It would probably be inaccurate to try to extrapolate much from the anecdotal data I’ve presented above — although we’re trying to figure out a way we might conduct a more exhaustive survey somehow — it does make the Chinese government figure of 10,000 children kidnapped per year look preposterously low, and even the US government figure seems to perhaps be an underestimation. If you assume that the solve rate really is 86% like Chinese government statistics would suggest, there would be only a 0.001% chance of us picking eight sets of parents and none of them having their children rescued ((although there are selection issues here in that they all agreed to speak with us, which not every parent would)). Could we really be that unlucky?
Anyway, we’re looking into how we might be able to analyze this sort of thing more systematically and scientifically for our film, but without trustworthy public statistics, it is very difficult. Anecdotal data is troublesome to work with, but if nothing else, I’m quite sure that the Public Security Bureau has not earned the triumphant tone of its yearly anti-kidnapping report. Although many of its policies sound good in theory, they don’t seem to be being put into practice, and one wonders, if the public security bureau can’t manage its own officers, why the hell should anyone trust it with finding their children?