As a father of four young children it was not easy for me to watch the new documentary, Living with Dead Hearts: the Search for China’s Kidnapped Children.
Having said that, the film went in directions that I hadn’t expected, and I think it is much the better for it. I had assumed it was simply going to present a litany of tragic child kidnapping cases along with a few “expert” comments sprinkled throughout. Wrong. Not only does the film take us to meet the parents of missing children, it also gives us a lengthy interview with a man who himself had been kidnapped and sold as a child.
This particular interview becomes even more intriguing when he reveals that everyone in the village where he had been raised after his kidnapping knew that his new parents had purchased him from child traffickers. I found this revelation astounding, so very foreign compared to the way the average Western neighborhood would react if they found out that a kidnapped child was living on their street.
The work of first-time directors Charlie Custer and Leia Li, who describe themselves as long-time China watchers, the documentary asks important questions about the current state of Chinese culture and government structures. It makes a genuine effort to discover how such a serious problem (approximately ten Chinese children kidnapped every 90 minutes, according to the documentary) can continue largely unabated.
It is this particular aspect of Living with Dead Hearts that makes it a documentary really worth watching, because it opens up the door to the more pressing questions about issues such as China’s one child policy.
Surely it must make dealing with the loss of a child that much harder when your government places limits on your freedom to have children – and penalties if you exceed those limits. And if a person has gone down the path of the state sterilization program, the loss of an only child must surely become all the more devastating in its finality.
Dead Hearts also delves into the issue of Chinese corruption, and how, at both local and national levels, it is not only hampering solutions to this serious crisis and the investigation of individual kidnapping cases, but is also actually aiding it. Chinese family planning officials are openly accused of participating in child trafficking crimes during this documentary.
Even if the elephant in the room is never directly addressed, while watching Dead Hearts one cannot help but be drawn towards the conclusion that China’s communist system is a grave injustice that continues to serious harm to the common good.
It’s no secret that communism and corruption have been longtime bedfellows, but this documentary also highlights the layers and layers of truly burdensome and soul-destroying bureaucracy that plague the Chinese people. Subsidiarity (the principle that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralised authority capable of addressing that issue effectively) seems to be non-existent. Surely this has to severely hamper the Chinese state’s ability to effectively address the trafficking crisis within its borders?
It’s also hard to maintain solidarity with the marginalized and vulnerable in your nation if their plight is kept largely under wraps by oppressive bureaucracy, which in turn compounds the isolation and suffering of the families of kidnap victims.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether communism’s option for the collective over the individual, as well as its quashing of individual freedoms and initiative in favor of top-down authoritarianism is one of the factors contributing to the situation where a young man can end up being raised in a village where everyone around him knows he has been kidnapped, yet does nothing about it.
As a Westerner watching this documentary I found myself seriously challenged about whether my country’s involvement with China is truly bringing about positive change there, or whether it is merely a utilitarian partnership of economic benefits, with little real thought given to human dignity and the plight of the Chinese people.
I highly recommend taking the time to watch this film (it is about one-and-a-half hours long and can be viewed free online at livingwithdeadhearts.com). It is an engaging, thoughtful, and at times heart-wrenching film throwing light on a social system whose darker aspects are gradually being revealed to the world.
Brendan Malone lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, and blogs at The leading Edge where you can also find his Life TV videos.