A thoughtful and remarkably comprehensive examination of modern day human trafficking, Jezza Neumann’s China’s Stolen Children opens to a portrait of Detective Zhu, an overworked, former police officer who left his post in order to dedicate his time trying to find some of the 70,000 children who are abducted each year. With a predominantly poor clientele from remote villages, and a dispiriting child recovery rate of one in 20, Zhu’s caseload is equally overwhelming and heartbreaking. One of Zhu’s clients is a young couple from Kunming, migrant worker Chen Lung and his wife Chen Li who, years earlier, hid from the authorities in the farm of Chen Li’s mother to have their son, Chen Jie, unable to pay the fine for conceiving without a birth permit. Having only recently paid off their son’s compounding birth penalty fee after five years, their lives seemed destined for better times until Chen Jie is kidnapped from a farmer’s market while his grandmother sold vegetables nearby. Chen Jie’s story proves to be an all too familiar one for Zhu, as young boys, usually between the ages of five and six years old (an age considered to be optimal for fetching the best prices on the black market, where the children would require less care and attention than an infant, but would not be old enough to remember their way home) are abducted from rural villages and transported to larger, affluent cities where they are registered by new families. The bureaucracy involved in applying for a birth permit (which requires a marriage certificate and which, in turn, enforces the marrying age at 20 for women and 22 for men) has also led to unmarried couples like Way Ling and her boyfriend into seeking the assistance of traffickers like Wang Li in order to help place their children into good homes. Having given birth to a daughter, Wang Li reassures them of the good potential for selling girls as well, a thriving market created by rampant gender selection that has left a shortage of marriage-aged women. With an eye towards their sons’ future prospects, families have also begun investing in girls as a means of ensuring that their sons will have a wife when he is ready for marriage. At the core of Neumann’s bracing and unforgettable documentary is an unprecedented – though perhaps, not unforeseen – social catastrophe caused by the confluence of China’s “one child” birth control policy, its cultural preference for sons (who can provide for his parents in their old age, unlike a daughter who will marry and help care for her husband’s parents), and rapid modernization that has led to deep socioeconomic division between rural areas and industrialized cities. Framed within the context of China’s aggressive development, the harrowing stories of lost children and exploitation reflect a society disoriented by its dramatic transformation, precariously struggling between tradition and ideology, where humanity is reduced to a marketable commodity.
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