Posted: 08/01/2008


China’s Stolen Children


by Jef Burnham

Now showing on HBO. Check your local listings.

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The American public is often waylaid by information coming from China of bizarre or otherwise tragic human rights stories. I remember rumors of China’s plans to harvest their prisons to provide organs for transplant to their free citizens, though I’m not sure how far that ever went. And what China’s Stolen Children brings to us is the depiction of a terrible crisis afflicting the Chinese people, which is the result of decades-old laws and is being covered up by the Chinese government. Nearly 70,000 Chinese children are being kidnapped and sold every year and the government is turning a blind eye.

The cover-up goes so far as to prohibit parents of kidnapped children from hanging up a “missing child” poster for fear of imprisonment, and in order to reveal this information to the rest of the world, this documentary had to be filmed in utmost secrecy. The filmmakers took great pains to avoid being detected by the Chinese government, including moving hotels every few days and switching out the SIM cards in their phones every time they made a call.

The film tells the story of two couples and two individuals caught up in the terrible aftermath of China’s policy of one child per family. We see the grief-stricken family of the kidnapped Chen Jie, who was five years old when he disappeared. Through Chen Jie’s family we meet Detective Zhu, who is a reluctant hero, having rescued over 100 kidnapped children in his career, but the stress and danger of the job is taking its toll on him. We also meet a child trafficker with a tragic story of his own and a young couple who enlists his aid in an attempt to sell their unregistered baby.

The reasons for the rampant selling of children are quite complicated and the documentary uses its entire running time to explain it, but I’ll try to give a brief overview here: China’s birthing policies not only prohibit families from having more than one child, but also having even one child without a birth permit. Families who birth a child without permit or birth a second child are subject to a fine that can equal up to as much as 10 years’ wages for an entire family, as with the family of Chen 20,000. The “20,000” in Chen 20,000’s name is equal to the fine that the 2,000 Rmb/year income family must pay for having the child without a permit. As a result, selling your child is often the only way to avoid everlasting poverty. Also, a family marrying their son to a local girl can cost upwards of 40,000 Rmb in the long run, whereas it would be cheaper by almost 30,000 Rmb to buy a trafficked girl and bring her up to marry their son.

Though it is unquestionably vital that this information be brought to light, you can’t help feeling, when the documentary comes to its conclusion, a severe sense of helplessness in the face of China’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of the problem. When you take into consideration that in Chinese culture the only way to continue your family line is by having a boy and this has resulted in the abortion of 40 million girls since the implementation of the One Child Policy, the plight of China’s children seems insurmountable. Perhaps this film will inspire our government to aid China in a permanent solution, but we all know the United States has also never been any good at acknowledging or taking action against foreign atrocities.

Jef Burnham is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago.

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