People who’ve been on Sina Weibo for a while may remember a small movement that came upon that service like a tidal wave earlier this year but was swallowed back into the sea before it ever impacted shore. Hoping to call attention to the plight of street children in China, CASS Professor Yu Jianrong started a Weibo account dedicated to posting photos of street children so that if they were kidnapped, their real parents might recognize them and save them.
The campaign grew with extreme speed at first, and Yu’s account gained hundreds of thousands of followers within just a few days. Soon, though, it was mired by controversy, and arguments against the campaign began to appear in the mainstream media as well as online. Eventually, the buzz disappeared. Now, with the dust settled (and Yu continuing to operate the account, although fewer people are paying attention) it seems like as good a time as any to look back on this campaign and how Weibo might be useful in the fight against kidnapping moving forward.
(You can read more about the arguments for and against the campaign here).
First of all, Yu’s account is still active, although he has only 200,000+ followers, a small fraction of Sina Weibo’s general population. His posts are now reposted by others between a few dozen and a few hundred times per post, meaning that they are reaching thousands of people, but not anywhere close to all of Weibo. The chances of parents happening to see the right message from Yu’s account at the right time about their child are extremely low. Still, they’re not zero, and so Yu marches on.
That’s commendable, and I hope that everyone will follow his account if they aren’t already, but there’s more that we could be doing with Weibo to combat child trafficking. In the process of conducting interviews for our film, I’ve learned that one of the things that makes kidnapping so simple is that in many areas of the country, parents who buy kidnapped children can count on their neighbors to stay quiet about it. In the case of one adult who was kidnapped as a child that we spoke to, for example, he showed up at his new "home" speaking a different dialect, and went around actively telling neighbors that this wasn’t his home, and telling them his real parents’ names. At school, kids used to mock him because he’d been purchased by his parents, and he got into fights often. Yet none of his neighbors reported his kidnapping to the police until over a decade later. By that time, of course, it was way too late to find his original family.
Part of the problem is the social attitude that it’s dangerous to get involved with other people’s problems, and while that will be tough to combat, Weibo can help at least for as long as they continue to allow registration without real-name verification. Neighbors should be encouraged to report kidnappings and suspicious activity to the police via Weibo, anonymously. This minimizes their risk and also makes it relatively easy for them to report, and combined with a nationwide education campaign designed to raise awareness of the kidnapping problem and the terrible repercussions that created by the child trafficking market, I think it could make some difference. Many local police forces already have a presence on Weibo, and making these reports anonymous but also public virtually ensures that the police would at least look into them.
Additionally, I’ve been telling the parents of kidnapped kids that we interview that Weibo is a useful tool for sharing their feelings. Most parents use it to broadcast primarily pictures and vital statistics about their kids: gender, age, date kidnapped, etc. And while these stories are moving, as a list of data they are still somewhat abstract, and less likely to be forwarded by other users than a heartfelt story that focuses a bit more on the emotions. What did the parents feel like? What was their child like before they were kidnapped? What do they fear may have happened? These are painful details to write, and I don’t blame parents who don’t want to go into them, but I do think this kind of emotion-based appeal has the potential to spread more widely on Weibo, where people are always looking for new stories, and ultimately for the parents, getting their child’s story and photo out there is the best thing they can do.
That’s also what we’re trying to do with our film. Humans respond to stories, and in many ways the image of a mother crying over her lost child is more powerful and more evocative than the knowledge that tens of thousands of kids are kidnapped in China each year. The latter is just abstract data, the former is a real person. I hope that we’ll be able to draw some attention to this problem when our film is finished (see the site for details on how you can help us make it), but I also hope that parents and concerned citizens alike can make good use of tools like Weibo that are already available to assist in the process of recovering kidnapped children.
To learn more about our film, our subjects, and how you can help, please visit a special information section at ChinaGeeks.
To learn more about the documentary film, which is currently soliciting donations to continue production, visit the film’s official site or watch the trailer below.