China's Stolen Children

For his remarkable documentary, filmmaker Jezza Neumann spent three and half months posing as a tourist in order to obtain undercover footage of victims, traffickers, and buyers.

China's Stolen Children

Airtime: Monday, 9pm ET
Cast: Zhu, Chen Lung, Chen Li, Wang Li, Way Ling, Ben Kingsley (narrator)
Network: HBO
US release date: 2008-07-14
I think there must be something wrong with treating children as goods. But I can't figure out what it is.

-- Trafficker Wang Li

"He took me away," says a small boy. "There were some other kids in the car, maybe three." Now reunited with his father, the child is recalling the day he was kidnapped. "I asked him who he was. He said he was a trafficker. He said he was going to sell me." Here the boy's face, preternaturally composed until now, begins to crumble into soft sadness. "I thought mommy and daddy had sold me."

This devastating scene, which comes almost 40 minutes into China's Stolen Children, makes a couple of crucial points. First, this boy so plainly loved by the father seated with him on a simple sofa, was able to imagine his parents would do such a thing, a logical result of living in a nation where some 70,000 children are stolen each year. Second, the father embodies the desperation of parents caught up in the crisis: when he exhausted his own options (papering the city of Kunming with flyers, searching on his own) and the local police were unable or unwilling to follow up on his missing son's case, he and about 30 other parents traveled to Beijing where they lobbied the Public Security Bureau, who finally sent agents to find the boy, by that time living with the couple who bought him, whom he calls "Guandong mama and papa" and who regularly beat him when he went "out to play."

While some traffickers and their clients make such efforts to hide their activities, the film shows the practice is widespread and culturally acceptable, tracing its cause to China's One Child Rule. The effects of this policy, in place since 1979, are multiple and interrelated, including a precipitous decline in female births (as parents are using universal access to abortion to select their babies' gender), financial hardships for couples (fines must be paid for second children, as well as for those born without birth permits, which are only available to married couples), and increasing class-based and ethnic discriminations. Narrator Ben Kingsley notes, "The Chinese government said it is ignorant and simplistic to suggest there is a connection between the one child rule and human trafficking," even as the documentary reveals repeatedly how the system favors the upper classes and authorities who are "making money."

For his remarkable documentary, filmmaker Jezza Neumann spent three and half months posing as a tourist in order to obtain undercover footage of victims, traffickers, and buyers, footage the government reportedly tried to suppress (as it continues to focus on PR for the 2008 Olympics). The film illustrates the many facets of human trafficking, beginning with the story of Chen Jie, five and half years old when he was taken. As the film begins, his parents, Chen Lung and Chen Li, hire a former policeman, Zhu, now devoted to recovering stolen children. While he has been "working in counter-kidnapping" for 10 years and has rescued over 100 victims, he confesses to frustrations. Not only is it exceedingly difficult to locate children (they can't make phone calls or write letters, he notes, and most often can't comprehend their new situations), but he is also increasingly daunted by the disappointment of those families he can't help. While Zhu does his best to locate Chen Jie, at the same time, he also tries to prepare the parents for bad news.

In fact, they are exceedingly aware of the odds against them. Repeatedly, they go over possibilities, imagining meeting their son again in 20 years. "He won't have feelings for us," the father says woefully, but he might want to meet them, "out of curiosity." The camera lingers excruciatingly on Chen Jie's mother and grandmother as they weep in the pigsty where the baby was born -- in secret -- their bodies pitching slowly in opposite directions, their faces contorted in agony, their knees buckling. "Why is there so much suffering in this destiny?" wails the grandmother. Again and again, Chen Jie's parents seek order, some reason for their loss. When they visit the park where they spent time with their boy, the film frames them to show what they see: other children and parents, fences and trees. "It's all in the hands of god," says Chen Jie's heartbroken father. His wife responds grimly, "I don't believe that. It's all in the hands of men." '

Wang Li is one of these men, a trafficker who explains without remorse how he goes about his business. Kingsley explains that Wang Li "has been trading in human lives since 1985," when, desperate for cash, he sold his then-girlfriend for a few thousand RMBs. Looking back, he sees how the market has changed, as young women are no longer easy to seduce and trick with sex ("Some girls these days are too smart and fashionable," he says, "Buyers worry they'll run away"), so that today he selling "mainly just children." The film shows his dealings with a young couple, too young to get a marriage license and so unable to get a birth permit of certificate for their baby girl (she will therefore be a "non-person, not legally recognized"). Wang Li promises her parents he will find a nice family, though he warns that girls fetch lower prices than boys, and that poor families must pay more than rich families (the logic here is that parents giving up their children prefer to send them to wealthy homes, to alleviate their sense of guilt).

Wang Li sees no moral wrong in what he does, who says he is "just an agent." He allows the camera to follow him to various deals, to the park to bargain with a couple who need to sell their son, to a hotel room where a purchasing couple insists that ideally, they want a healthy boy. He also grants access to his young son. The boy remembers that his father sold his little brother several years before, "I thought my dad was very bad to do that," he says, his hands restless on the wooden table before him. "I felt very sad. At the time at the time, I really hated him. You shouldn't break up families."

And yet, breaking up families has become so typical that this child, like so many adults in China's Stolen Children, must confront it on daily. If his father sold him now, the boy says, he would know how to find his way home. The fact that he can now disrupt the deal, he believes, keeps him "safe" at his father's house.

PM Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.