Tag Archives: living with dead hearts

Examining the PSB’s 2011 Kidnapping Report

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?

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.

Announcing “Living with Dead Hearts”

UPDATE: I didn’t expect this to happen so soon, but Foreign Policy has published a freelance article I wrote on the problem of kidnapped children in China. I think it’s a good primer on the issue in general and some of our subjects in specific. You can check it out here.

Longtime readers of the site have probably been aware for some time that some of the folks behind ChinaGeeks have also been working on a documentary for the past year or so. Today, I want to share with you a bunch of new information about that work.

We’re still in the process of shooting it, but we’re a lot further on than we were the last time I updated you here. The film now has an official title — Living with Dead Hearts: The Search for China’s Kidnapped Children — and we’ve even put together an early trailer which you can watch below to get more of a feel for what it’s going to be like when it’s finished (the trailer starts at about 0:30).

As you can see, we’re raising money again to help us continue production, and also to help out our friends at the Xinxing Aid center. We’re raising the money ourselves this time through Paypal so that we can give 20% of it to Xinxing rather than using Kickstarter and having to fork over a percentage to them and to Amazon payments. We’re looking to raise about $4,000.

We’ve got a new website for the film set up at www.livingwithdeadhearts.com but I thought I’d also lay out a little but of information for you here. We may not be using Kickstarter, but we will be running things the same way they do, in that donors can choose how much they donate and are eligible for rewards based on their donation (you can also opt out if you don’t want the rewards).

    • Donate $1 or more: Your name goes in the end credits of the film and you get access to exclusive donor-only content like desktop wallpapers.
    • Donate $15 or more: All the above, plus access to our monthly production updates via email.
    • Donate $30 or more: All the above, plus access to production stills.
    • Donate $50 or more: All the above, plus access to exclusive video clips and a DVD copy of the finished film once it’s done.
    • Donate $100 or more: All the above but now the DVD is signed and accompanied by a personal thank you letter from the director.
    • Donate $250 or more: All the above, plus contact our producers to ask your own questions to our interview subjects and get their responses translated for you.
    • Donate $500 or more: All the above, plus you’re listed as an Executive Producer and an invitation to one free dinner with the director the next time you’re in Beijing.
    • Donate $750 or more: All the above, plus personalized updates on the film’s progress straight from the director, who you can also chat with on Skype about the film’s progress.
    • Donate $1000 or more: All the above, plus exclusive early access to the finished film and the chance to record an audio commentary for the soundtrack.
    • Donate $2000 or more: You are incredible. You get everything listed above, and anything else you can think of that we can feasibly provide. Talk to us about how we can make you a part of the film.

    Some pretty cool stuff, no? Hey, how did this button get here…

    You may recall we did this last year, and were pretty successful, so it’s quite reasonable to be wondering why we have to do it again. The main reason is that my computer simply isn’t going to be able up to the task of editing hours and hours of HD video. A dual-core processor and 2 GB of RAM would be pretty suspect specs under the best of circumstances, but of late it’s also been corrupting files and has outright stopped recognizing the AVCHD files that make up about half of our footage. Probably there is some kind of software fix for that, but given that the battery, power cord and optical drive are all broken, it seems like a better idea to buy a new computer so we can do our work on a system that’s reliable.

    Additionally, we’re having to travel quite a bit more than we originally expected, and travel is costing more because in several cities we’re being forced to stay in three-star hotels because the cheaper hotels aren’t willing to book a foreigner, which we hadn’t anticipated because it’s never been an issue for me before.

    Of course, there’s much more to say, and you may have questions; there are lots more details on the official site so go check that out. I’ve also created a special section of ChinaGeeks dedicated to the film and the problem of kidnapped children; you can check that out here.

    Anyway, if you enjoy ChinaGeeks I hope you’ll consider making a donation. If you can’t make a donation, I hope you’ll at least consider passing the link around to your friends and family or tweeting it to your followers on Twitter and Weibo. Even if you’re not willing to do any of that, keep an eye out for the film which we’re hoping to have finished by late 2012.