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China: “Do you have memories from before you were kidnapped?”

A girl plays the violin at a train station in Beijing

A girl plays the violin for change at a train station in Beijing. Screenshot from documentary trailer shot in November 2010

If you’ve ever visited a Chinese city, you will see children begging or performing with musical instruments near train stations or on crowded streets for spare change. What you’ve witnessed is the tip of a serious and tough problem in China – the kidnapping and selling of children.

In early 2009, the public security authorities in China have implemented an anti-kidnapping campaign. At the end of 2010, official figures (not necessarily reliable) showed that 9,165 cases of trafficked women and 5,900 cases of trafficked children were uncovered; 9,388 children and 17,746 women were rescued, and 3,573 criminal kidnapping gangs were destroyed.

The true number of kidnapped children is likely to be much higher than the number rescued. According to some estimates, as many as 70,000 children in China are abducted by gangs each year.

What is fuelling this child kidnapping? Thanks to the one-child policy, and Chinese traditions placing huge pressure on families to have sons, stolen children are often sold into new families. On the other hand, kidnapped girls are often sold into areas where there is a surplus of unmarried men. Still many others are sold into street performance, begging or prostitution.

Telling their story

The child kidnapping issue is the theme of an upcoming documentary called “Living with Dead Hearts: The Search for China's Kidnapped Children” by Charles Custer.

Custer is an American strongly interested in China. Currently based in Beijing, he runs the successful blog ChinaGeeks, which offers translation and analysis of the China blogosphere. For his documentary, Custer wants to go beyond statistics and analysis. By focusing on the personal and emotional side of the stories, he wants to attach real faces to these social problems.

At the end of last year, Custer launched a fundraising appeal on Kickstarter to make the documentary. Following generous responses of more than 100 people, the project has successfully raised more than $8,500, and Custer has since then spent much of his free time tracking, interviewing and filming parents and kidnapped children.

This month, the film crew has put together an update together with an early trailer of the film:

Their goal is for viewers abroad to be able to relate to Chinese people as individuals after watching the documentary. They would be able to see, for example, how the parents of kidnapped children feel with questions like, “When did you discover your daughter was missing? Could you tell us more about your daughter’s character and hobbies? What methods have you tried to look for her apart from reporting to the police and the school? How do you plan to keep looking?” Or how kidnapped children feel as adults: “Do you have memories from before you were kidnapped? Do your current “parents” remember from whom you were purchased? And how do they feel about it now?”

If you care about this issue, you can see how Custer is progressing on the documentary at the dedicated website www.livingwithdeadhearts.com, or learn more about kidnapped children in a special section of ChinaGeeks.org. If you wish to show your support, visit the Chinese charities Baby Come Home and Xinxing Aid, which support kidnapped and street children in various ways.

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