When I first visited China in 2006, my parents and I did a whirlwind tour of the major sites in a few weeks before I began my summer course at Beijing Language Culture University. I remember one sweltering morning in Suzhou, we were approached by two child beggars, they were caked in mud and wearing torn clothing. Without a moment of hesitation my mother reached into her purse, and dropped a few coins into their cup. For a moment we felt we had fulfilled our Christian duty, and could feel less guilty knowing that at least for today these children would eat.
Our satisfaction didn’t last long, as the children dutifully scampered back to their parent who was lounging in the shade of a tree. He reached into their cups and retrieved the coins. My mother was furious, and I’m confident that if she had known any Chinese beyond “ni hao” and “xiexie” she would have used it to curse this good for nothing man. On a hot summer day he was using his children to pull at our heart strings; it disgusted us. For the rest of the trip my mother, denying her own nature, turned beggars away, the memory of Suzhou sticking with her.
It wasn’t until several years later that I realized what I had actually seen, no parent would do that to their own children, the children were likely kidnapped and forced into a life of begging.
This is an issue all travelers and expats should be aware of, wherever we are. Sometimes our best intentions have unintended consequences (or read this gripping account from the late 1800’s). I personally try to focus my donations to local organizations that I know are working to address issues like poverty, homelessness, and hunger instead of giving to beggars on the street. I don’t always manage to follow this rule though. It’s hard to look another human in the eye and say, “No,” but when we give it should be a conscious act that takes into account the local circumstances (tourist areas are far more likely to feature child beggars that have been kidnapped, because the kidnappers know that foreigners are often generous to children), and it shouldn’t be done simply to get the beggar to leave you alone.
In China kidnapping is an epidemic, the US state department estimates that 20,000 children are abducted every year (more than 100 times more prevalent than in the US). These children are sold to families who long for sons, gangs who force the children to steal, and rural villagers who are desperate to find wives. The families who are missing children know that local police have put little effort into helping reunite them, and are increasingly turning to the internet as well as low tech solutions to try to find their children.
In early January 2011 there was a push by Yu Jianrong for parents to post pictures of their missing children, and for others to photograph children begging in an effort to reunite these families. At first these efforts were promoted by state media, Spring Festival was approaching and this was a shining example of Chinese society working together, but within a few weeks Beijing’s tone shifted. It was starting to become clear to the authorities that this problem went far deeper than they would like discussed, and the media insisted the netizens leave this work to the police (who have made little progress since less than 10% of the children rescued are reunited with their families). The final insult to the parents came a few months later when it was reported that after police were unable to find the families of rescued children, they returned them to the people who had purchased them for kidnappers.
This is an issue that deserves widespread attention and concerted efforts at home and abroad, and a great first step in this push is Charlie Custer’s upcoming film Living with Dead Hearts that focuses on several families who are searching for their kidnapped children. (Charlie runs Chinageeks.org)
Their budget has been stretched beyond their expectations and they are in need of your help to get this film completed. By making a donation to this project you would be helping force this issue into the spotlight, which will hopefully lead to concrete steps being taken to curb this crime that physically tears families apart. Additionally, Charlie is donating 20% of all the money raised to the Xinxing Aid Center in Shaanxi that works to protect and shelter homeless children. You can also combat child kidnapping by photographing child beggars in China and emailing the photo (with a detailed description of where and when they were seen) to CusterC at Gmail.com
I’ve interviewed Charlie about his film, and will be sharing that tomorrow.