China doesn’t need the West in loco parentis

The C4 documentary, China's Stolen Children, showed that there's a patronising streak in some of today's handwringing concern for Chinese kids.

Nathalie Rothschild

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How China treats its children has long been a source of consternation in the West. With numerous news reports and documentaries focusing on stories of Chinese parents dumping their babies in filthy orphanages, aborting female fetuses, putting children to work in factories or disciplining them in strict physical training regimes, we in the West have become used to seeing China portrayed as a brutal and bleak place for children. China’s Stolen Children, a documentary shown last night on Channel 4 in Britain, claims that China’s strict one-child policy has led to an ‘epidemic of kidnapping’ in the vast country. Reportedly, poor people sell babies which they cannot afford to keep, or which they had illegally, while other families are keen to buy young boys if they fail to have one naturally.

What lies behind the continued Western obsession and fascination with childhood in China? It seems China’s Stolen Children and other portrayals of ‘damaged’ Chinese kids encourage a politics of pity, allowing Western viewers to feel both upset and superior in relation to China. Chinese adults are typically portrayed either as cruel child abusers or as hapless victims of an oppressive regime. And the logical conclusion is that they need the West’s charity, pity and protection.

In the mid-1990s, the investigative documentaries The Dying Rooms and its sequel Return to the Dying Rooms exposed repugnant conditions in Chinese state-owned orphanages, where, the filmmakers claimed, unwanted children were being dumped and abused or simply left to die. They said the mass abandoning of children, in particular girls, was a direct consequence of China’s population-control policies. The response to the films was dramatic, sparking a diplomatic row between China and the UK. The makeshift name of the little girl who starved to death just days after the film crew left, Mei Ming (‘No Name’), became entrenched in the consciousness of thousands of viewers.

In China’s Stolen Children, Jezza Neumann, who was on the production team of The Dying Rooms, returns to the subject of the one-child policy and how it affects Chinese families. At the heart of the story are the parents of Chen Jie, a boy who was kidnapped at the age of five while helping his grandmother at her market stall. The couple hires detective Zhu, a former police officer who specialises in finding abducted children and women. Throughout the film Chen Jie’s devastated parents give tearful and anguished interviews. At one point they take detective Zhu’s advice to put up ‘Missing’ posters with their son’s photograph – even though the authorities forbid it. As their desperation grows they pay hard-earned money to place Chen Jie’s photograph in a deck of cards of missing children. We never discover what happened to Chen Jie.

We also meet a man who sold his youngest son and who makes a living from being a ‘trafficker’, though he describes himself as an ‘agent’ for couples wishing to sell and buy children. One young couple, expecting a child, but under the legal age for marrying and thus unable to apply for a child birth certificate, seeks out his help. Knowing they will face heavy fines if the authorities find out about their child, the girl hides at home for the duration of her pregnancy and the couple decides to give their baby up as soon as possible.

They later find out that a girl fetches less money than a boy (around £250 v £700) and that they can earn more money by selling her to a poor family who will be in a worse bargaining position. A cute child, the trafficker explains, is typically easier to sell, and it is hard to get a good deal for a newborn infant since they require more care. Boys are popular because they will continue the family line and will not, like girls, move to their in-laws when married off. Yet marrying off a son is an expensive affair, so some families with one son buy a female child so that she can be wed to their son when they both grow up.

Often what is referred to as a ‘trade in human beings’, ‘trafficking’ or ‘buying and selling’ children looks more like informal adoption systems. Of course, adults who abduct children or put women up for sale against their will deserve punishment; detective Zhu and a small boy he helped to rescue both said that abductors are frequently violent. Yet it is important to point out that it is precisely because many Chinese live in poor conditions and under the oppressive one-child policy that so-called ‘traffickers’ can step in and fill the role of informal adoption agencies. It is not surprising that rural families cannot afford to use official adoption agencies or that China’s orphanages are not up to the standards of Western ones.

Zhao Shangsen, press counsellor to the Chinese embassy in London, wrote to the programme makers, claiming that the film is ‘deeply flawed, ignorant and simplistic’ and that there is no link between child trafficking and China’s one-child policy. Shangsen pointed out that trafficking occurs in countries which do not have state-imposed birth control, too. He may represent a government which imposes authoritarian and inhumane policies to regulate family size, and which imposes heavy fines on families that breach the stringent birth control laws, but he does have a point: the film is rather simplistic.

How come kidnapping, enforced prostitution and arranged marriages occur in countries that don’t have the one-child policy? Are there wider economic and cultural factors, beyond the one-child policy which was introduced in 1979, that can explain why children are treated differently in China than in Britain, say? Boy-preference, for instance, has been intrinsic to the survival of Chinese rural society for generations – long before 1979. The one-child policy is deeply authoritarian and puts extraordinary pressure on families; but there are also problems of poverty and inequality in China which impact on the way that children are talked about and treated.

It is striking that much Western coverage of China seems singularly obsessed with how it treats its children. In her 1992 book What is a Child? Popular Images of Childhood, the film and photography expert Patricia Holland argued that images of children in situations of war and hardship can be both pleasurable and distressing for Western viewers; indeed, footage of suffering children is often used to bolster the idea that the West is more caring and civilised than parts of the East. Children, said Holland, are seen as archetypal victims and as they ‘reveal their vulnerability, we long to protect them and provide for their needs’. She argued that non-white countries are ‘regularly presented as if in themselves they lack potency, and it is among the children of the developing countries that we find most frequently pictures of childhood suffering’. When looking at such victimised children, ‘viewers recognise themselves as both adult and Western, as individuals with the ability to change a child’s life for the better…. The appeal is to the competence of Western civilisation, seen not as the controlling father, imposing the harsh disciplines of international finance, but as the nurturing mother, the Mother Countries.’ (1) China’s Stolen Children, too, comes across as an attempt to mother China. However well-intended, the film patronisingly side-steps both the problems and the agency of Chinese adults.

The Dying Rooms documentaries in the mid-1990s allowed Britain to claim a moral highground over the ‘primitive Chinese’ and to pressurise China to abide by standards set by the West. China’s Stolen Children comes at a time when China is under scrutiny for everything from its human rights record to its pollution levels. Appropriately, one of the opening shots of the documentary is of the Chinese 2008 Olympics logo, signalling somehow that we in the West need to scrutinise what lies behind the façade that the Chinese authorities are busy painting. Once we’ve wiped the tears off our faces, the filmmakers seem to say, it is up to us to guide the Chinese people out of their shady society and into the light. In truth, the many problems of Chinese society are best tackled by the adults who live there, rather than by Westerners acting in loco parentis.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked. She is producer of the film strand at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Read on:

spiked issue: TV.

(1) What is a Child? Popular Images of Childhood, Patricia Holland, Virago Press, 1992

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