Kinda recently, we (and every other news source on the face of the earth) posted about Sina microblogging account Prof. Yu Jianrong set up for reposting photos of beggar children. At the time, the campaign was rapidly gaining momentum, the Chinese media was all over it, and Sina was making special efforts to build up followers on Yu Jianrong’s account.
Then, perhaps inevitably, came the backlash. A number of prominent Chinese bloggers (i.e. hecaitou) and writers published pieces condemning, in one way or another, Yu’s campaign. The hype and the Sina promotion stopped. His followers started to come more slowly. Now, there are even rumors that he’s been told not to accept interviews or talk to the media (multiple calls to his office to request an interview with him for our film have thus far been fruitless).
So why have people soured on this campaign, and why are some so against it? It is deeply unclear. Let us examine, for example, a Global Times editorial on the subject.
The recent successful rescue of a kidnapped child has sparked a nationwide netizens-led campaign to crack down on the trafficking of children. However, despite its lofty goal, the campaign has unexpectedly resulted in many homeless families being wrongfully targeted, or family members being separated.
This is an interesting claim, and it seems to be as dubious as the claims that the campaign has rescued six children so far ((There seem to only be specific reports about two children, and Peng Gaofeng’s reunion with his son was not directly related to the campaign)). To date, I have seen one example in the news of a parent who was forced to take a DNA test to prove their child was theirs as a result of the campaign. I have not seen a single report of families being “separated.” Moreover, “wrongfully targeted” is a needlessly loaded phrase.
The article goes on to make some good points; namely that netizens cannot resolve this issue, and that the serious police work should be left to the police. No argument there. But:
The real side effects of the online campaign against child abductions have barely been mentioned in the media, which is overwhelmingly applauding the effectiveness of the blog-based effort. A few well-known scholars have actually privately voiced their concerns of this campaign, but they seem reluctant to openly express their views.
This is remarkably vague. Apparently, the “real side effects” of the campaign really aren’t being reported in the media, because it seems even the Global Times editors aren’t willing to actually say what they are.
Then, the article takes an especially weird turn:
The Internet has played an irreplaceable role in advancing political democracy in China, but its negative aspects should also be noted. The Internet campaign against child abductions has illustrated the “autocracy” of the online opinion, which tends to mute any dissident voices. Quite contrary to the diversified viewpoints in the traditional media, it seems that online media has adopted the old-style censorship by the media of the past. A few activists have now dominated the public opinion seen online. And to some extent, freedom of speech has been suppressed online.
For the healthy development of China’s Internet, a rational and tolerant atmosphere of public opinion is needed. Emotional and moody expressions ought not to become the mainstream on the Internet. The supervision of online public figures is as necessary as in the real world.
Again, there is no actual indication of how the internet campaign has “muted” dissident voices. Given that noted bloggers have come out against the campaign, and that most major mainstream papers have run pieces similar to this piece in the GT, it is utterly ridiculous to suggest that dissident voices are being “censored”.
(As a side note, I find it amusing that the Global Times editors apparently don’t know the difference between “censored” and “drowned out”. Just because a lot of people on the net agree about something doesn’t mean those who oppose it are being “censored”.)
And of course, for those who are feeling this still sounds overly reasonable for a Global Times editorial, there’s this kicker:
Chinese society has paid heavily for lessons over ideological clashes. Similar tragedies must be prevented in the cyber world.
Subtle! “If you people don’t stop taking photos of child beggars you’re going to make the Cultural Revolution happen again!”
Anyway, mocking a GT editorial is admittedly the low-hanging fruit on the saggiest branch of the shortest tree in the forest, so lets get down to business.
The main reason people seem to oppose the campaign is that it has resulted in the “harassment” of beggars and their children. While I agree that people don’t have a right to harass beggars, I disagree that being photographed and very, very rarely being subjected to DNA testing once qualifies as “harassment.”
As far as being photographed, that could certainly get annoying, but it’s not harassment, and it’s something anyone has to be willing to accept if they’re going to spend time in public places in China. Personally, I get photographed without permission by random strangers from time to time when I visit more far-flung places in China where foreigners don’t often go. Yes, it is slightly irksome. But it’s not a huge problem. When you’re in a public place, being photographed is always a possibility, and in China, it’s an absolute inevitability given the millions of surveillance cameras that cover cities from every imaginable angle. In any event, the slight annoyance of being photographed in public ought to be more than offset by the possibility that that photograph could potentially help unite a parent with their stolen child.
More understandable are concerns that beggars are being wrongfully dragged into police stations for interrogations and DNA testing. If beggars with children found themselves being dragged down to the station once a week and held there for hours, I would understand this concern. But that isn’t what’s happening. A small minority of beggars have been tested, and I haven’t heard of a single case of anyone being tested twice. Moreover, DNA tests can be done with simple swabs, so there’s no reason the tests should take up more than 10-15 seconds of a beggar’s time.
Now, in all likelihood, some police are arresting beggars and dragging them into police stations for extensive questioning because that’s how Chinese police tend to operate. But that has nothing to do with the “rescue child beggars” campaign, it’s an enforcement issue. Condemning the campaign because the police’s methods of dealing with it are inefficient and unjust is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. If the enforcement of DNA testing is harassment, that means they’re doing it wrong. It doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. Of course, let’s continue to keep in mind that DNA testing has been forced on a tiny, tiny, tiny minority of beggar families.
Moreover, the whole argument implies that adult beggars who are the legitimate blood parents of the children they beg with have an inalienable right to beg with their children. That strikes me as kind of nuts.
To be fair, the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child is fairly vague. And given Chinese culture’s long emphasis on the deep and important bond between parents and their
sons children, I can understand why people would be uncomfortable with the idea of the State confiscating people’s children. Frankly, the idea of the State doing just about anything makes me uncomfortable.
But there’s this:
1. States Parties recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.
2. The parent(s) or others responsible for the child have the primary responsibility to secure, within their abilities and financial capacities, the conditions of living necessary for the child’s development.
3. States Parties, in accordance with national conditions and within their means, shall take appropriate measures to assist parents and others responsible for the child to implement this right and shall in case of need provide material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing.
It seems to me that if parents are begging with their children, they cannot possibly be providing “a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.” And in many cases, of course, the kids’ presence on the streets is also proof that they’re being deprived of their right to a proper education.
I don’t believe that beggars should be harassed. But at the same time, I don’t believe that there is anything about the Weibo campaign that constitutes harassment. I also don’t believe that many of these commentators actually give a damn about the comfort or rights of beggars, a group of people that none of them were talking about a month ago.
So what’s going on? A couple things. First, there’s the natural, contrarian reaction that some people often have when something becomes popular overnight. But the bigger theme, I think, plays out pretty clearly in the Global Times article I quoted from above. The government — and its army of media spin artists — have realized the dangerous precedent this campaign sets. People are completely circumventing all State authority and addressing a social problem directly. I think someone up top realized that while it may be good in this case, that’s not a model for social change that the government can afford to let become popular. They can’t just shut down the campaign, of course — I think even the tonedeaf PR folks at the PRC know that would be a disaster — but they can chip away at it in the media, raising doubts.
And, of course, it’s good for people to be raising questions; no movement like this should be allowed to go unquestioned or unchecked. But the questions some people are asking aren’t productive, logical, or really grounded in any kind of fact.
Speaking of not grounded in fact, another big argument against the campaign is that in reality, there are very few child beggars who were kidnapped because kidnapping a child, crippling them, and forcing them to beg offers high risk and low rewards; it would be easier just to sell the child you kidnapped directly to a family, which net you an immediate lump of cash.
While no one knows the exact percentage of street kids that are kidnapped, suggesting that there aren’t any — or that that isn’t a lucrative business — simply is not true. Consider, for example, this story from the SCMP ((Sorry I don’t have a link, I’m not a subscriber, someone emailed me the text of the story.)):
China National Radio reported early this week that begging had been treated as a profitable business in Gongxiao and nearby villages for decades, and that farmers had begun to seek healthy young children in other areas as potential beggars from 1993.
Elderly villagers told the radio network that children either kidnapped or deceived away from their parents would be abused and disabled before being taken to big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to beg.
The children would be maltreated during a fortnight to a month’s training at ringleaders’ homes.
“Kids will be locked in cages like animals at night, in order to make them obey their ringleaders. They will be beaten cruelly if they resist,” the report said, citing villagers.
“To make these child beggars look more pitiful so they’ll be able to beg for more money, kids will be forced to hang their legs around their necks. Many children couldn’t do that, and ringleaders will pull and twist kids’ legs to their necks, making them disabled.”
Villagers said many ringleaders cut the children’s faces and limbs, or used sulphuric acid to disfigure their faces and make them look more pitiful.
“Child beggars will be fed in the morning and left on streets to beg, while ringleaders will wait and watch secretly nearby. Child beggars will be beaten up and not given any food if they cannot beg enough to satisfy their ringleaders, who can make good money by controlling several child beggars,” villagers said.
Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post cited the village’s former party boss [as saying] that a ringleader could earn up to 200,000 yuan (HK$236,000) a year by forcing disabled children to beg, and some village cadres were also involved. A farmer in Fuyang, by contrast, earns about 1,500 yuan a year.
Another worthwhile comparison to make would be that a kidnapped child, when directly sold to a new family, brings in around 5,000-15,000 RMB, part of which the kidnapper must give to the middlemen who make such arrangements and find families looking to buy. Younger, healthier boys obviously go for more than older boys or girls of any age, but a trafficker making more than 15,000 selling a child is, according to my understanding, rare. It’s not difficult to see how the appeal of making 200,000 a year would lead some traffickers to consider alternatives.
Moreover, the people on the ground — the ones who deal with street kids every day, the ones who cared about this issue before one month ago — are telling us that the majority of the street kids they see have been kidnapped. In the absence of hard numbers on either side, I’m inclined to trust the seasoned professionals over these columnists and bloggers who don’t interact with street kids on a daily basis.
Months of research for our film has led me to one conclusion: there are children who have been kidnapped and forced into begging. Period. Exactly what percent of child beggars they make up is unclear. They’re not a huge majority, but they are not insignificant, either.
If rescuing kidnapped kids requires inconveniencing a few beggars with DNA tests when parents think they recognize their lost loved ones, that’s a sacrifice society should be willing to make. And if the beggars affected really are parents, I suspect they will understand that there is no length a parent won’t go to to rescue their child.
There’s more to say on this issue, but this post is already way, way too long, so I’ll leave the rest out for now.