Lu Xun’s short story Diary of a Madman, published almost a century ago, ends famously with the appeal: “Save the children!” In an age of social media the Chinese writer surely never envisioned, has this rallying cry found its most potent means and support?
One of the biggest domestic stories of the week in China has been a grassroots, web-based initiative to locate abducted children and reunite them with their parents. Dubbed the “take a picture” movement, the initiative calls on Chinese internet users to photograph children seen begging on the streets and post these photos with time and location on special community groups formed through Twitter-like “microblog” platforms (or weibo) at QQ.com and Sina.com. [Roland Soong is posting copiously on this story in China, and his translations are well worth a read].
So far the movement, launched by CMP fellow and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences professor Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), who has a reputation for uniting social research with social action, is credited with locating 6 children. In one of the first signs of the government grappling with the swell of opinion around this issue, the Public Security Bureau called yesterday on police around the country to “staunchly prevent such crimes from occurring.”
But while the response from Chinese citizens seems so far to have been overwhelming supportive of Yu Jianrong’s inspired idea, there are also isolated voices of dissent who are raising some very valid doubts.
On February 9, Hecaitou (和菜头), a prominent Chinese internet writer, provocatively likened China’s unquestioning internet masses to the children in the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who follow the piper right out of town. Everyone, in other words, is jumping on the bandwagon — and no one is asking some very basic questions.
Hecaitou takes issue with the logic and economics of one of the fundamental premises of the “take a picture” movement, the notion that children in China are being routinely abducted, then mutilated by their keepers to ensure they become more pitiable and profitable beggars:
Buying an abducted child happens because one lacks a child. Begging happens because one lacks a means of livelihood. No matter how you figure it, whether from the standpoint of risk or cost, abducting a child then handicapping them in order to turn them to begging is something that can only be a very rare occurrence. But now the whole country is up in arms, as though there is a class of people in China who are willing to spend years slowly creating handicapped children and dragging them all over the place. Moreover, [we suppose] this must be a very profitable business, otherwise why would this group of people dare to face the risk of exposure . . . ?
Hecaitou suggests by implication that it is much more reasonable to suppose the vast majority of abducted children are now living undetected with families that “adopted” them. That’s a tragedy social media will undoubtedly prove less effective in dealing with.
The rights and privacy of individuals are also recurring concerns in the rare instances of dissent over this hot-button issue. Is it right for web users to be photographing child beggars in every corner of the kingdom, then posting their photos online?
In a blog post yesterday, a Chongqing-based blogger writing under the alias “Flying Nuthouse” (飞越疯人院) — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? — argued that the justice-fueled emotions of China’s internet users are little more than a form of cowardice. It is the government they should be monitoring and pressuring, he says, not the poor street urchins and their (illegal) guardians.
The following is a partial translation of the post:
I’ve felt a bit uneasy these past few days, and it’s all because of this “microblog anti-abduction” campaign that has blown up on the Internet leaves me apprehensive.
The “microblog anti-abduction” campaign was launched by Yu Jianrong. This person is known to the world largely for his role in organizing the citizen investigation group that went and probed into the reasons for the death of [village leader and activist] Qian Yunhui (钱云会). The “microblog anti-abduction” campaign is said to have arisen after a woman from Fujian province sought help from Mr. Yu, saying that her child was abducted, turned into a cripple and forced to beg on the streets. Thereupon, Yu Jianrong used his microblog and called on internet users to take up their cameras, take photos of juveniles out begging, and post these on the web, with the idea that these parents might more easily track down their lost children. At the same time he urged internet users to report cases of child begging to the police.
I immediately harbored doubts about Yu Jianrong’s call. What if the child was not being forced in any way but rather was out begging of their own free will? Isn’t taking a picture of someone begging and then posting it on the internet an infringement on their rights?
As soon as I voiced these reservations, I was verbally attacked . . . They said that children shouldn’t be begging, and there was no such thing as children “begging of their own free will.” If a child could not meet the basic needs of existence, then the state should care for them, and they should not be left to beg on the streets.
There is of course of lot of reason in what these web users said. You could say they are entirely right. But this absolutely right response not only failed to dispel my doubts — it could not possibly explain why this photographing [of children] was warranted.
Imagine for a moment a child without means of subsistence — the famous cartoon character San Mao, for example — left to beg on the streets. Not only has the child not received assistance from the government, but their most basic level of dignity has been intruded upon by these internet users. Can this be called humane?
If internet users believe there should be no beggars in our society, and that the government should take responsibility for these child paupers, well then, ather than taking casual pictures of these begging children and post them online, what these internet users puffed up with a sense of justice should do is press their government to take on the responsibility is should have. But the reality is that it’s much easer to trample on the weak than it is to probe those in power. It seems to me that these justice-loving web users much prefer doing things that come easily.