China's Stolen Children, the latest in HBO's documentary film series, is a masterful exercise in guerrilla film-making. Filmed in China's Yunnan province without the knowledge of the Chinese government, the film's crew posed as tourists, switched hotels every few days, and swapped SIM cards out of their mobile phones after every call. The result is unprecedented access into China's human trafficking trade and the birth control laws conducive to its success.
The film investigates human trafficking panoramically, following everyone from the traffickers themselves (both reformed and active), parents searching for their kidnapped son, parents trying to sell their daughter, a boy who himself was kidnapped, and the detective who's working a seven month old case with few clues, no witnesses, and no leads. But the most pervasive of any facet of the trade is the furtive Chinese government, which does everything in its (far-reaching, for sure) power to silence the families of over 70,000 children a year who are being "snatched from the streets."
Many cultural phenomena are inexplicable, their origins too psychological to be tied to any one social policy or national zeitgeist. The flourishing human trafficking is not that kind of abnormality: China's Stolen Children lucidly and convincingly ties thousands of kidnappings to the country's One Child Policy, which prohibits couples from having more than one child, with penalties for not doing so ranging from fines (usually five years' salary) to forced abortions (in one instance, in the 8th month of pregnancy.)
Under the Policy, before becoming pregnant, prospective parents must file for a birth permit. Without a birth permit, parents are unable to receive a birth certificate for their child, and the child is designated with "non-person" status.
One "non-person" is Chen Jie, the kidnapped five-year-old son of two young parents who have sought out the help of Detective Zhu, an ex-policeman who tracks down missing children with mild success -- he's been working for 10 years and has rescued 100 children. Like any classically noir detective, Zhu is never without a cigarette and his clothes are perpetually more wrinkled than the last time you've seen him.
Life, for Chen Jie's parents, is always spoken of in the subjunctive: "What if he comes back in 20 years?", "If the police lost their sons, they'd be working harder", "When it's raining, I wonder if he is getting wet." There's no one to blame, really, and nothing to do -- literally, as the government forbids parents to put up Missing Child posters or speak to the foreign press -- besides hope for Zhu's success.
Chen Jie's parents pleas to no one in particular that they'd give their own lives if their son could return again is juxtaposed with another young couple who've had their daughter without a birth permit but cannot afford to pay the fines. They've decided to sell her (they explain it's their only option), and call upon a human trafficker to facilitate the transaction.
The trafficker is Wang Li, who entered the business in 1985 after selling his own girlfriend. (Li would later sell his youngest son after his wife died.) Upon meeting the young couple and their daughter, Li coolly asks about the baby's age and weight, as a drug trafficker might inquire about the purity and chemical composition of a strain of cocaine. Girls sell for about half as much as boys, and poor families are charged more than rich families, since parents don't want their children going to poor families' homes. Looks and perceived intelligence of the child play a factor too.
The human trafficking underground and its participants (both willing and unwilling), achieve justice -- or some approximation thereof -- through vigilantism and side-stepping the Chinese government. And thanks to night-vision and hidden camera devices, we're made privy to its inner-workings; for instance, a successful rescue mission by Detective Zhu and the negotiation of the price of a child between Li and prospective buyers.
But the heroism of Zhu and others is no match for the One Child Policy, and the imbalances it's initiated and the values it's glorified. Historically, in Chinese culture, family lineages end with daughters and continue with sons, so when a daughter marries, she effectively becomes a part of her husband's family and leaves her own. Naturally, this has resulted in a higher demand for male children, and the evidence is in the numbers: over 40 million baby girls have been "selectively aborted" in the last 30 years. Of course, this also leaves 40 million males without any prospective wives, so families are forced to engage in bridal auctions or purchase baby girls to raise and then marry off to their own sons.
In interviewing everyone from helpless great-grandparents to grieving parents to one boy who himself was kidnapped, the film expertly illustrates that human trafficking and cultural by-products is a pan-generational problem. But for all the bereaved families and illicit births, the Chinese government has only issued a statement that any connection between One Child and human trafficking is "ignorant and simplistic."
Chen Jie's parents are of the opposite opinion, they hold responsible One Child and the birth control officers who turn a blind eye when children disappear and appear out of nowhere. As Chen Jie's mother and her own mother wander around a pigsty in the countryside (where Chen Jie was delivered, as to avoid any doctors reporting the birth), they hold each other and cry out in desperation for Chen Jie's safe return. His grandmother asks rhetorically, "Why so much darkness in his destiny?"
China's Stolen Children premieres tonight at 9 PM on HBO.