One day in 2011, 12-year-old Lei Xiaoxia left home to bike to school in Datong, Shanxi province. That was the last day anyone saw her. Her parents contacted the police, put up fliers, spoke to media, and posted information about her online, but to this day they have no idea what happened to their only child.
“The feeling of losing your child, it’s like being hopeless, we are living with dead hearts,” said her mother through tears in the documentary Living with Dead Hearts. “If we can’t find our child our lives are meaningless.” The film follows three families in China whose children have been kidnapped, a fate that befalls about 70,000 of the country’s children.
The kidnappings are especially heartbreaking in a culture that highly values children, with the one-child policy capping the number of offspring each couple can have. Blogger Charlie Custer of Chinageeks.org made the film after seeing children begging on the side of the street. A friend, who was a former policeman, said many of them were kidnapped and sold into begging gangs.
The topic is also less politically sensitive than others in China: “I thought about doing a piece on censorship in China, or political dissent, but the government and those who defend it have a rationale behind it,” Custer told The Wall Street Journal. “Kidnapping of children is one of the China social issues that everybody, at least from a moral perspective, agrees should not happen.”
The kidnapped children are sometimes sold to other families. One man interviewed in the film said he was kidnapped as a baby and sold to his “adoptive” family, who always wanted a son. He doesn’t remember the town where he was taken, but now with a family of his own, he is using the internet to look for his birth parents.
Other children are sold to orphanages, where kidnappers can get $500 per child. Because of the high fees for international adoptions, government officials are willing to fudge paperwork to show the children are abandoned. Some of those children are then adopted by families in the United States. Children also can be sold into begging gangs, prostitution, forced marriages, or factories.
One father interviewed in the film said his teenage son disappeared one day while working at a construction site. He believes his son was kidnapped and sold into a “black kiln,” an illegal brickyard where owners torture their slave laborers. He and other parents who have lost children go from city to city, looking for these kilns and their children. On the way, they have helped free other kidnapped workers, but the man has yet to find his son.
The film takes a close-up look at the pain the parents go through—the guilt they bring on themselves for not preventing the kidnapping, the futility of searching, and the fear of what could have happened to their children. Often parents find little help from the police. In Lei’s case, officers didn’t question any of her classmates, nor did they check the security camera in front of the school, which was pointed directly at the gate where she was last seen. The frustrated parents can do little, as local officials follow them to make sure they don’t cause too much trouble or petition higher government officials.
The film, which Custer made with $7,500 in donated funds, is available online for free. “Our main goal was to make [the film] emotionally affecting enough to create some more consciousness,” Custer told The Wall Street Journal. “Hopefully, the more people get to think about it and engage with it, the better the chance that more solutions may come up.”