Living with Dead Hearts – Interview with director Charlie Custer

Yesterday we introduced the problem of kidnapping in China, as well as Charlie Custer’s documentary on the subject, if you missed that it would be a good place to start

Tom: Where does your passion for working against kidnapping in China come from? Was it a single experience, or a gradual realization?

Charlie: Gradual realization, I guess. The first time you see a kid begging on the street it’s sort of shocking, and you could also say it all came out of that experience, but from there it was definitely a gradual process of learning about what was actually happening there and realizing the scope of the problem. But once you do get a handle on it, it’s hard not to be passionate about it, especially when you’re frequently in contact with the parents of kidnapped kids.

Tom: What is a typical kidnapping in China? And what happens to these children once they are taken?

Charlie: A typical kidnapping might unfold something like this: in a poor area (might be part of a second or third-tier city or a more rural area) a young child (1-5) is essentially grabbed off the street by men who bring the kid into a van and drive off. From there, the child will be taken on a journey, often several days long, during which they move between different handlers and different types of transportation — one of our subjects remembers trains, buses, and cars — and eventually they reach their destination, where they are sold to an ‘adoptive’ family that will then raise them as their own child.

That’s kind of the best scenario, actually. But there are a variety of “typical” cases that vary based on the age and gender of the child. Kids older than 5 or 6 aren’t generally sold into new families, but they may be sold into begging on the streets, or pick-pocketing gangs (especially in the case of children taken from Xinjiang). Boys above ten are often coaxed away from their home with promises of work that end up being lies, and they’re essentially enslaved for little to no pay in “factories”. Girls above ten are also often coaxed away from home with lies and then sold into prostitution or marriage.

Demographically, there are cases of kids being taken from almost everywhere, but poor areas — city districts and rural areas — have a greater incidence of kidnappings, or at least so it seems from our research. Ethnically speaking, there are plenty of Han kids kidnapped, but Uyghurs do seem to be disproportionately affected; our contacts at Xinxing Aid — who we’re giving 20% of the money donated to us — say that nearly 100% of the kidnapped kids they find on the street in their area (Shaanxi) are Uyghurs, often who were lured away from home with promises of good factory jobs and then forced into begging or pickpocketing.

Tom: Do you think that there are specific cultural or country specific factors that have made China’s kidnapping rate so high?

Charlie: Yes. The One Child Policy, in combination with the traditional Chinese preference for male children, contributes to the problem by creating an atmosphere where there’s a demand for male children and often it’s cheaper to buy one than it might be to just keep having daughters (and keep paying the OCP-related fines) until you finally have a son. Plus, if you don’t want additional daughters to feed, it’s easier to be sure you’re getting a son by buying one, and they don’t cost as much as you might think — between 5,000 and 20,000 RMB, generally.

A bigger issue, I think, is the culture of silence and the ‘it’s not my business’ attitude, though. This is very much in the public sphere of discussion at the moment because of all those people who walked past Yueyue, the girl who was hit by those cars, without trying to help her. But it’s a big factor in kidnapping too that works in favor of kidnapping gangs and the people who buy children. Especially in cases where a family buys a new child, everyone nearby knows what happened. Their neighbors, family members, school classmates, teachers, everyone. And yet often no one reports anything to to the police, because it’s ‘not their business’ or they’re afraid of causing trouble for themselves.

Tom: Was there a factor in kidnapping cases that surprised you?

Charlie: The police involvement, or lack thereof, has surprised me. Or perhaps it’s just incompetence. But with a lot of the parents we talk to, it seems like the police have really done more or less nothing to find their kids. Now, granted, tracking down these kidnapping gangs can be really, really hard. But sometimes it seems like there’s not even an effort. I’ll give you an example.

So, we are filming the parents of Lei Xiaoxia, a 12 year old girl who was kidnapped, apparently from right outside her school, in Datong, Shanxi. When she disappeared, her parents were told she had never made it to school. The police sent a patrol out to look for her, but did nothing else. They didn’t talk to anyone at the school, and they didn’t check surveillance tapes at obvious places like the bus or train stations to see if the girl appeared there. Later, the parents got in touch with a reporter, who actually talked to some of the girl’s classmates and discovered she had arrived at school that day, and that the school also had surveillance cameras which — again — the police had failed to check. Of course, by that time it was too late to check as all the tapes had been automatically deleted. It took one reporter to figure all this out, in just a day or two, but the police department hadn’t bothered to look into any of it!

Tom: What are some of the actions being proposed by victims of kidnapping to help stem the epidemic?

Charlie: Obviously the parents want police to work harder than they are but ultimately it needs to be something that society is aware of and condemns. Not condemns as in ranting about how they hate human traffickers on Weibo, but condemns as in actually doing something and reporting cases of kidnapping they’re aware of, photographing and reporting kids they see on the streets if the circumstances seem suspicious, etc. Only the police can arrest kidnappers but society can make their “work” much, much harder if everyone had the guts to speak out and take action when they saw things. To paraphrase something one of the parents we’ve interviewed said, of course the parents hate kidnappers but sometimes you just have to blame society.

Tom: What has been the biggest obstacle for you in making this film?

Charlie: Time and money, really. We all have “real” jobs, so we can only shoot on weekends, and our subjects are all outside of Beijing, so that often involves long (and expensive) train rides, hotels, and all of that. Thus far, the cost of travel has forced us to move at a pretty slow pace as we can only afford one or two trips a month, and of course with regular life to contend with, sometimes there are things that get in the way of us leaving even on the weekends.

I guess another obstacle has been learning our way around the gear, in terms of learning how to properly operate cameras on manual mode, learning about all these different technical aspects of digital video, codecs and the differences between 4:2:2 and 4:4:4 color, editing techniques and all that. But that’s been fun to learn about too, so it’s been sort of an enjoyable obstacle, and we’re still learning.

To date, we haven’t had many issues with interference or anything like that, which is sort of surprising, but of course you never know when something like that could start, and we still have a long way to go, so who knows. I hope we can continue to avoid it because really, this isn’t that political an issue, and we’re very much approaching it from the a personal perspective.

Tom: How can readers of Seeing Red In China help combat this heartbreaking crime?

Charlie: I’m assuming most of your readers are foreigners in major cities, so they’re not too likely to come directly in contact with kidnappers or to be aware of families who bought a kidnapped kid. But what they can do is take photos of street kids to post on Weibo or on Baidu Xunren (if they don’t speak chinese they can email the photos to me and I will do it for them: custerc at and also report those kids to police and insist that they do something. A lot of times there’s not much that police can or will do, but an insistent foreigner can sometimes inspire some action.

I’ve heard stories from people who have taken it further and done things like grab kids off the street and run to the police station, or wait around until the evening when the kids’ handlers show up and confront them, or follow them to see where they go. I’m not sure I would advocate doing that unless you’re very sure of what you’re doing though, as you might be breaking the law and also because some of these kidnapping gangs are really quite dangerous and 99.9% of people really aren’t going to be fully aware of the kind of situation they might be putting themselves into.

Aside from that, you can also urge your Chinese friends to pay more attention to the issue, and also donate to organizations like Baby Come Home (Chinese) or the Xinxing Aid center we’re working with, that do good work that’s related to the kidnapping problem in one way or another.

To learn more about Charlie’s film, Living with Dead Hearts, and how you can help advocate for China’s abducted children visit the website 

9 responses to “Living with Dead Hearts – Interview with director Charlie Custer”

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I live in a small northern Scotland town and we had a case of a local Chinese family buying a son in Hong Kong as their children were all females. The boy was three years old and brought into UK as “a relative”. Unfortunately, the family quickly discovered he had learning difficulties and they rejected him. The local Social Work Department had to take him into care and he was raised by a Scottish foster family. I still see him around town, he is working in sheltered employment. I often wonder whether he was ever reunited with his own family.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Forgot to say that I was working for the local Social Work Department at the time.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Good interview. How did you happen to get it?

    • Tom says:

      Charlie contacted me a few weeks ago about helping him promote the film. His site,, is pretty well known, and we’d chatted a few times before this.

  4. Yaxue C. says:

    This is the first time on this blog when i just don’t have a word to say! I have two young children (10 and 4 respectively), and I can’t begin to imagine the fate of those adducted children and what kind of pain the parents are living with.

  5. […] one we’ve covered before on the blog, and if you’d like to learn more about it, read my interview with Charlie Custer, who is directing a film on the […]

  6. Julia says:

    I look forward to this documentary. Baby Come Home helped my son find his birth family in 2009. It was heartbreaking to learn the little boy I adopted in 2001 had a family that had been searching for him for the past 11 years. He had been kidnapped and transported east and sold to another family, but somehow ran away and ended up on the streets and then in the orphanage. It took only 30 days for volunteers with BCH to find his birthparents 11 years after the kidnapping. The police need to do more to help families of missing children.

  7. […] legal loopholes that allow for children to be abused by teachers and family members, and a seeming lack of concern over child abductions, one begins to wonder whether children are valued by China’s legal system. This seems […]

  8. […] Most at-risk to be trafficked in China: rural migrants, the disabled, refugees, infants and children. […]

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