Hi guys!

First of all, proof:

My personal twitter account

The film's official twitter account

Those are both pretty public and widely-known to be me, but if you need anything more by way of proof let me know and I'll see what I can do.

Second of all, yes, I'm also the guy who did the AMA about having been a servant for a rich guy a year or so ago. It was fun, so I figured why not do one for my current work?

I directed a documentary film with my wife (who also once did an AMA through my account, actually) called Living with Dead Hearts. It's about the families of kidnapped kids in China and what they go through to try to get their kids back. It's really fucking depressing. You can watch it for free here. (And you can also buy DRM-free downloads on that site if you're feeling supportive).

You also might have come across an article I wrote last week on the website of The Atlantic or ChinaFile. It's a long read about US-China adoption, trafficking, and adoption fraud, and it seems to have caused a bit of a stir in the China adoption community.

Other things I've done that may be interesting:

  • I'm currently an editor at Tech in Asia, a startup tech blog that covers tech (mostly web/mobile) throughout Asia, so I know a fair amount about China's internet.

  • I founded and wrote the China blog ChinaGeeks, although I haven't updated it much recently, so I spent several years looking at and translating essays and news articles related to Chinese social issues and political problems.

  • A couple years ago I got into a very public spat with Chinese TV host Yang Rui, who threatened to sue me and said publicly that the police should "investigate my background" because I was probably a criminal. That was fun.

  • I've met and talked to a lot of other people, from farmers to dissidents, for other China-related media projects.

I'll be working today as usual (I work from home) and I also like to take some time to compose a thoughtful response, so I may not respond to your question immediately, but I will get to all of them eventually. Seriously, if you ask a legitimate, relevant question that has not been answered elsewhere, I will answer it.

Comments: 115 • Responses: 54  • Date: 

cornicher8 karma

What's the reaction to your story and film been like, in China and in the US? Is it positive or negative? Have you been surprised by it?

custerc9 karma

Well, we just made the film public for the first time last night at 9PM EST, so it might be a little bit too early to say for sure. And so far, we have only released the English version; the Chinese version is still upcoming.

That said, what we've heard so far has been pretty positive. Obviously, it's not a pleasant film to watch at all but people have been pretty supportive and have been helping to share it around, which is good.

What might be a more interesting answer to your question, or at least a question related to yours, is how people responded before the film was released. In general, the foreigners (i.e. non-Chinese) that I know were all supportive of it, but some of my Chinese friends and family responded basically with: "Why the hell would you want to do that?"

I had been living in China for a while when we started work on this film in 2011, so I wasn't particularly surprised by that response. The whole don't-stick-your-nose-where-it-doesn't-belong attitude is strong in China, and some people (especially older people) saw us doing this as just asking for trouble, potentially pissing off gangsters connected with the kidnapping rings, etc. Then there was also the argument that it just didn't seem to some people to be a great use of our time -- why would you want to spend your weekends carrying a bunch of camera gear around the country filming people crying?

I never really had a great answer for that, beyond that I felt like more people should see what happens to these families once the kids are gone. But I will admit it was a pretty draining thing to do and in terms of my career or mental health, there were probably lots of better things to do with my weekends...

Damnifino1 karma

Did any Chinese disprove of what you were doing because they saw it as a foreigner embarrassing China or "meddling in their internal affairs"?

custerc2 karma

Yeah of course, but that's pretty much par for the course for any foreigner doing any kind of media thing (writing, radio, film, whatever) about China. My general response is that if China wants to be a world power, it's going to have to stomach some interaction with the world.

Damnifino1 karma

I know exactly what you mean but damn, I find it pretty depressing Chinese would get offended over someone trying to bring light to a horrific issue such as this just because he's a laowai.

custerc2 karma

Yeah. The whole "face" culture is scary sometimes.

tclay31 karma

Could you clarify what you mean by 'face' culture?

custerc1 karma

Chinese culture places a lot of emphasis (more than most) on the concept of "face" (in the sense of "losing face"). In this particular case what I mean is that some Chinese people dislike it when problems like this are reported or shared outside China because that causes China/Chinese people to "lose face" with the rest of the world (in other words, it's embarrassing). Many Chinese believe quite strongly in "don't air your dirty laundry in public" and feel all of these problems should be kept quiet and solved internally.

crecips5 karma

As the adoptive parent of a Chinese daughter, this is my biggest nightmare.

custerc5 karma

I hear that a lot

MyOptimism3 karma

What event (if it can be singled out) gave you the inspiration to dedicate yourself to this?

What is the most shocking thing you have experienced?

custerc3 karma

What event (if it can be singled out) gave you the inspiration to dedicate yourself to this?

Well if I trace it back all the way to the source, I guess it was just seeing kids on the street selling things (as one does) the first time I lived in China. At the time I had a Chinese friend who was an ex-cop, so he was sort of my guru and I would often ask him about stuff because he knew -- and was willing to tell me -- what was actually going on behind the scenes.

So, when I asked him about the street kids, he said that many are just from poor families like you'd expect, but that some are actually kidnapped and sold into these gangs, where they're basically controlled by adults and forced to beg or sometimes pick pockets. I thought that was completely crazy, so the issue was on my radar starting then.

Then, in late 2010 we were looking for some topic that would work well for a documentary and I came across an article in Time Magazine about adults who were kidnapped as kids trying to find their parents. It occurred to me that that search -- the search for missing kids or lost parents -- was an angle that we could use to approach making the film without attracting too much police attention (we hoped) and without needing footage of kids actually being kidnapped (which, needless to say, is pretty tough to get).

What is the most shocking thing you have experienced?

Well, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the film, but if you mean in general, the thing that first comes to mind was my wife being called a "race traitor" by an old man at the great wall. My family (we're white) had come to visit my wife and I in Beijing and they hadn't been to China before so we took them to the great wall. There are some vendors around the base of the wall section we went to, and for whatever reason this one guy apparently was offended by the fact that my wife was trying to help my family get a good deal on things rather than letting them get ripped off, so he called her a term in mandarin that's roughly equivalent to "race traitor" (汉奸).

In retrospect, there's not much shocking about this in general -- I knew those attitudes existed and we'd come in contact with them before -- but I just wasn't expecting it on a fun day out with family at the Great Wall. We cursed at the guy for a bit, as one does, but I spent the rest of the day fantasizing about coming back down the wall and kicking him squarely in the face. (I did not do actually do that, obviously. He was gone by the time we came down).

wisty3 karma

FWIW, 汉奸 is closer to "Quisling" or "collaborator", as it's strongly associated with Chinese who collaborated with the Japanese during WWII. I don't think "race traitor" is a strong enough translation.

custerc2 karma

Yeah probably not, but it was as close as I could think of without having to add a bunch of historical explanation about that.

suspicious_sausage1 karma

offended by the fact that my wife was trying to help my family get a good deal on things rather than letting them get ripped off, so he called her a term in mandarin that's roughly equivalent to "race traitor" (汉奸).

My wife had this exact same exchange, for the same reason, with a vendor & my family at Simatai a few years back. It's sad, but I suspect we're not the only ones.

custerc3 karma

Yeah, I'm sure it happens all the time. Really gets the blood boiling when you're trying to have a nice day and it happens to you, though.

Xaxl1 karma

You go around filming street children and that's the most shocking thing you've experienced?


custerc3 karma

That stuff is horrific but not really shocking to me, although I know it shocks many others. I'm honestly not surprised by most of the horror stories we heard at all. Had been in China for long enough/seen enough by the time we started to expect the worst.

xninex2 karma

I haven't watched the documentary as I'm at work (I will) so I'm sorry if the question is answered in the film.

While doing research and interviews for the doc, have you come upon any instances of families who had sold their children into sex slavery but then labelled it as a kidnapping? Is this common in China?

Also, how far world wide do are Chinese children sold? Do they stay mainly in Asia or are they sent to Europe and the Americas? I hear a lot about European/American/South American children being trafficked but little about Asian children. Why is that?

custerc2 karma

While doing research and interviews for the doc, have you come upon any instances of families who had sold their children into sex slavery but then labelled it as a kidnapping? Is this common in China?

We didn't come across any instances of that. I'm not sure it happens much because it's pretty easy to sell your child and get away with it without needing to call it anything. One thing we did see over and over in our film is that local police don't give a shit about missing children, and even if they do ask you can just say you sent the kid to live with his uncle or something; they're almost never going to bother to check into it.

Also, how far world wide do are Chinese children sold? Do they stay mainly in Asia or are they sent to Europe and the Americas? I hear a lot about European/American/South American children being trafficked but little about Asian children. Why is that?

Well, I have to state first that there are no real, reliable numbers on this so it's hard to say. That said, my best educated guess is that the vast majority of Chinese kids who are kidnapped are also sold domestically within China. There's enough of a market there for everything from babies to adopt to prostitution/forced marriage that there's really no need to traffick or sell kids outside China, though I'm sure it does happen sometimes.

That said, the film and my article in the Atlantic do get into the US-China adoption angle a bit, and there are documented cases of kidnapped children being sold into the international adoption market. Basically what happens is kidnappers get a kid, and then Chinese orphanages buy them for about $500 a piece. Then they forge the paperwork to make the kid look legit and when it gets adopted by a foreign couple looking to adopt a Chinese baby, the orphanage gets a mandatory $5,000 donation from the couple. That definitely happens, but it does seem to be a minority of the overall number of kidnapping cases. Most are still sold into domestic adoption or other domestic situations.

grant02 karma

Do you speak Chinese and if so, how did you learn Chinese? What's the reaction like as a white guy in China speaking Chinese?

custerc5 karma

Yes. I started learning it by studying in college. Basically my learning trajectory went like this:

4 semesters college Chinese > 1 summer intensive immersion in China > 2 semesters college Chinese > living in China

It was somewhere in that summer that I was first able to speak fluently, not in the sense that I understood everything but in the sense that I could communicate almost anything I wanted to easily and quickly in well-pronounced Mandarin. But of course that's just the beginning, really...

What's the reaction like as a white guy in China speaking Chinese?

Depends where you go. In Beijing or other expat-heavy areas, people aren't too surprised by it anymore. In more remote places, though, it can be pretty shocking. My wife's hometown is very remote, and when I go there people tend to assume I'm from Xinjiang (China's western province, which has an ethnic minority called Uyghurs that looks much more white than most Asians). And I have scared the crap out of a few cab drivers at night who thought I was Chinese until they looked in the mirror (although I actually usually sit in the passenger seat if I'm alone in a cab).

To be honest though it can be pretty great. It's like having a superpower sometimes; people around you all think you can't understand them as long as you don't speak. So it's very useful in China for haggling, for example. I just hang out and listen to the price the shopkeeper gives a local. Then when I ask for the same item and he asks for 10x the price, I politely point out he just sold it to those people for 1/10 that, and there's not much he can say...

kunomchu2 karma

I'm ABC and I don't speak the language fluently but I do get my tones down. I have white friends who know the language vocabulary almost 100% but still speak roboticly. Do you have that problem? Is it a western accent of chinese? Or is it too hard to speak fluidly?

custerc4 karma

To be honest, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I really don't have that problem. When on my A game I can (and have) passed for a native Chinese person on the phone before, in part because my pronunciation is good and in part because my speech is very colloquial. This is not to say it's perfect; in an extended phone conversation I'm sure I'd make enough mistakes to make it clear to any native speaker that I'm not one. But my personal weakness is actually my relatively small vocabulary. Because I can speak well and fluently, I've been able to sort of talk around holes in my vocabulary. This caused big issues for me when I was still studying; for example when I did the spoken tests for the immersion program I did in China they tried to put me in their highest level classes despite the fact that I had only the bare minimum number of classes to even be in their program to begin with. But despite how good I sounded, I really wasn't near ready for those classes and would probably have failed all of them.

Having also taught Chinese (I taught Chinese at a US high school for one year), I think a lot of the problem is really the teachers. I was fortunate in that my first and second year teachers in college were fantastic and very strict about tones and pronunciation. Then in the immersion program, we had a daily 2 on 1 class that was purely about pronunciation -- no vocab, no grammar, just pronunciation, repeating the same stuff over and over again every day for an hour until it's flawless. I hated the class at the time but it was HUGELY beneficial to me. I also listed to recordings of all the diagloues we studied religiously over the first few years, so I would just parrot their intonation exactly, and eventually you can take those rhythms and those patterns and work them into sentences yyou've constructed yourself.

Unfortunately, not everyone has teachers that are as pronunciation-heavy as mine were. And many people start studying in high school, where the standards of instruction are absurdly low and there are a bunch of foreigners with shit Chinese who are "Chinese teachers".

Case in point: when I quit my job, the school brought in 4 successive candidates to replace me. One of them was some guy with 12 years of experience teaching Chinese, and he was awful! His tones were all over the place, and he literally couldn't even speak at a full pace; I tried to have a conversation with him in Mandarin and he clearly had no idea what I was saying. The school offered him a job anyway. Why? Because, like most high schools, the administration doesn't have a good way of judging how good someone's spoken Chinese is, and even if they did, they don't understand just how important tones and pronunciation are, especially early on. Thankfully he turned it down and ultimately the school ended up with an excellent new teacher with very good pronunciation and fluency. But they really dodged a bullet, and that guy did get a job somewhere else!

I think especially if you start off on the wrong foot with pronunciation and tones, it gets progressively harder to correct as you go on bcause you just form more and more bad habits.

TheCoasterfreak2 karma

Hi there, do the Chinese notice anything from all the censorship going on in their country ?

custerc3 karma

Not sure what you mean by this. Are you asking if they notice the censorship itself? Or are you asking if they notice other problems like kidnapping even though news about them is censored sometimes?

TheCoasterfreak1 karma

The first one

custerc6 karma

Yes, it's quite obvious and everyone is aware of it. There are lots of jokes about it. One of my favorites, because it's very true, is that China's evening news show (which has been the same basic format for years) is that regardless of the news, every single episode of the show is the same, and has 3 parts:

  • Foreign countries are very chaotic

  • Chinese leaders are very busy

  • Chinese people are very happy

If you start watching it with this in mind, it's pretty much right on the money most nights. (Not that I'd ever recommend watching it...)

Only_In_The_Grey1 karma

Is there anywhere that a english translation is put up of that broadcast? Even just one or two? I'd totally be interested in watching a bit of it.

custerc2 karma

Hmm. A quick search didn't turn up any with english subs. The show is called 新闻联播 though if you're interested in searching for yourself. It's usually quite dull so I'm not sure anyone would take the time to translate a full episode...

prenders952 karma

my questions have already been asked but what is your documentary called and what website can i watch it on??

custerc2 karma

It's called Living with Dead Hearts

You can watch it on livingwithdeadhearts.com

someuniquename2 karma

How much does a child cost on average?

custerc5 karma

Depends on the age, gender, ethnicity, etc. A healthy Han male infant can cost quite a bit ($5,000-$10,000 or even more, which is a lot of money in China), but that's about as expensive as they get. Obviously a 3 year old girl with special needs is going to be worth a lot less.

r00t1-8 karma


custerc14 karma

Apologies if it sounded kind of heartless. I've been researching this stuff for three years; my heart is already dead.

Charlieuk2 karma

From what you've experienced, do families ever get re-united with their kidnapped children? If so, how did they find them, considering the lack of interest from local police in missing children?

custerc4 karma

It does happen, but it's not common. In the time we were shooting the film and since, none of the families we were in contact with have found their kids. But it does happen. Sometimes people get their kids back as a result of police raids (every now and then the national task force breaks up a kidnapping ring and rescues hundreds or even thousands of kids all at once); more rarely the parents find them themselves through searching, social media, their own networks, and nonprofit organizations like baby come home (宝贝回家)

kathryn132 karma

Do you or your wife worry about backlash from government officials? What did you shoot on? I shot in China for a week and a half in Beijing and Shanghai. I found local folks fine with me pointing my camera at them and shooting - with a few exceptions. One being I shot with a group at Tiananmen Sq and had no problems, but when I shot a morning sunrise near the flag raising there by myself I had a police officer standing next to me holding my passport the whole time. The other exceptions were mainly older folks. I'm also a "nonthreatening" girl and I think that helps sometimes. How long have you lived in China and have you found a change in attitude among the locals? Are folks more willing to participate in something like this then they used to be?

custerc2 karma

Lots of questions!

Do you or your wife worry about backlash from government officials?

We moved back to the US last summer, but before that, yes it's definitely something we worried about. As a foreign national, I wasn't too worried -- they tend to just deport foreigners for political offenses in the worst case -- but my wife is a Chinese national so I was much more worried about her. For this reason, I went alone on a couple of the riskier filming trips. But ultimately not much happened.

What did you shoot on?

We had a Panasonic HMC 153 (the Asia version of the 150) and a Canon 60D with a few lenses. Ended up using the 60D for the vast majority of the shots because indoors it was too dark to shoot much without the big sensor and fast lenses of the canon, and outside it was easier to go unnoticed with a little DSLR than with a big pro video camera.

How long have you lived in China and have you found a change in attitude among the locals? Are folks more willing to participate in something like this then they used to be?

I lived in China on and off, but collectively it adds up to about four years I think, first starting in 2007 and then ending last summer (in fact, almost precisely one year ago) when we moved back to the US. But I'm not sure whether attitudes about being on camera have changed much, as we didn't really get into doing any film projects until late 2010.

In general I've found people are pretty accommodating though. Often after a while they just sort of ignore you (which, for a documentarian, is pretty ideal).

what were you shooting?

kathryn133 karma

I used a Sony Ex-1 which is similar. It's small and with the viewfinder I could be transparent with others about what I was shooting if they were curious. I found that was important - if people saw what I was shooting and then I was friendly and smiled, they ignored me. Wireless lav and I was good to go. It was commercial work for a College in the states.

Are you concerned that any of your interviewees like Liu Liqin are going to have some serious backlash from officials? In your Atlantic article you mention that he lied to officials that came to his door to question him about your presence at a rally. Do you stay in touch with any of these folks?

And I ask because I think the work you did/do is really important. I would love to do something like this. I would struggle with the unintended consequences that might happen to the subjects that spoke on camera. Obviously, they have a message they want to get out and you're helping them with that. Thoughts on that or is it too much for an AMA?

custerc2 karma

No, that's a great question and it's probably the single most difficult thing about doing any kind of documentary in China. It's also something I'm very sensitive to, because I did an interview with a dissident for an earlier project. He was later detained and interrogated for nearly a month, and they asked him specifically about that interview, among many other things. That scared the crap out of me in a number of ways.

At the end of the day, though, I think we tried to just be as honest and forthright with everyone as we could about what the possible consequences might be, and then let them make their own decisions about what to do and say. We also tried to err on the side of safety so, for example, one of the parents in the film actually wanted to be a lot more confrontational with the local police, but we decided not to because even though he felt comfortable with the risk, we didn't feel comfortable putting him at that much risk.

About what Liu Liqin said specifically, I worry about that too, but there's really no way around it. He's in the film speaking directly to the camera, so obviously he knew who we were; if the officials see the film they're going to know he was lying to them and that he was cooperating with us regardless. I do worry about what the repercussions could be, and the parents probably do too, but as you can imagine, most of them have the attitude of "what can they do to me that's worse than losing my child?"

It's also probably worth mentioning that we spoke to many parents who were NOT willing to speak on camera for precisely this reason. Nothing you can do about that except thank them for their time, delete any record of your correspondence with them, and move on.

TL;DR it's a huge problem and something that's constantly on your mind, but at the end of the day I think all you can really do is be totally honest and transparent about what you're trying to do, what the risks might be, and then let your subjects decide for themselves what they want to say or do.

kathryn131 karma

Thanks so much for your response. Being transparent seems to be the key. Your article in The Atlantic was great. It's brought up some interesting dialogue in the comments already. I imagine when folks are willing to risk themselves to be a part of your documentary there's a lot of pressure on your end to make sure the documentary gets seen...and the hope that it can produce awareness/change. I'll watch it when I get home and spread the word. Thanks for taking the risk and making the film.

custerc1 karma

Yes, we definitely want to make sure it's seen as widely as possible, so help spread the word!

hornet11112 karma

What actions has the PRC government taken against child trafficking and to what degrees of success?

custerc9 karma

The PRC government at a national level is pretty active about fighting kidnapping. There is a national task force that combats it, and in 2011 they rescued more than 8,000 kidnapped children (which is both impressive and fucking terrifying). The problem is that these cases generally involve a lot of movement from place to place by the kidnapping gangs, and that means lots of local police really have to be involved and cooperative for an investigation to be successful. In my experience, most local police vary from general indifference to actively impeding investigations because they're being bribed by the kidnappers. So the national government is fighting both the actual crime and the entrenched local interests that help to perpetuate it.

antiquing_2 karma

That is truly impressive AND terrifying as you said. Was it all done in one rescue mission or is it a culminating figure? I'm not sure if there was but was there any reporting done in the Western Media to announce that rescue mission? Or are we being fed with so much media-biased that we don't hear about it? I mean, just today there was a report on the FBI rescuing 105 children.

custerc2 karma

Was it all done in one rescue mission or is it a culminating figure?

That was the collective figure for a bunch of raids over the course of the entire year. The biggest single raid numbers I've seen have been in the hundreds

I'm not sure if there was but was there any reporting done in the Western Media to announce that rescue mission? Or are we being fed with so much media-biased that we don't hear about it?

Honestly, it's not really media bias, it's just that there's no market for it. Americans only barely care about news from foreign countries at all anyway, and this sort of thing is very "niche". To give you a different example, it may be a bit better now, but as of a few years ago China was having deadly mining disasters every WEEK that would have been front page news if they'd been American mines. Here's a fucking terrifying infographic I made a few years ago about coal mining deaths in China over the past decade.

But I'm guessing you had no idea that was happening, right? It's not that the media doesn't report it, it's just that it's never top/headline news because Americans simply don't care.

antiquing_1 karma

Thanks for the info. It's just I find my news from websites like BBC news and CBC. I'm Canadian and I guess our news is constantly swamped with American news. I see what you mean about niche, since Canada is right next to America, we are generally fed with their news. Would you say things are improving in a broad scale? In terms of safety, competence of the officials to catch IP thefts (if you know anything about it?) etc?

custerc1 karma

The IP theft situation has definitely improved quite a bit over the last five years, although there's still a ton of ip theft. Other stuff is mostly the same. It'd hard to say whether overall there's broad improvement or not

Gravis882 karma

Most US-China adoptions right now are of children with special needs. Do you have any evidence of special needs children being trafficked?

custerc3 karma

It's very possible some of their paperwork is forged, but in most cases they're much less likely to be trafficked as traffic in special needs kids is less profitable and there's plenty of legitimate "supply" (to use the rather crude market terminology).

edit: That said, special needs kids are just as likely to be confiscated or de-facto confiscated by officials if they're in an area where police are enforcing the OCP in irregular and illegal ways, which is not uncommon. Parents are sometimes forced to give their child away because they can't pay the fines or, in the case of SN kids, because they can't pay for the operations the kid needs and the state won't pay for it unless the child is in state custody. I think straight-up kidnappings of special needs kids are extremely rare, though.

wisty2 karma

Practical solution - could a database of lost children's faces (maybe with an ageing model) be used with facial recognition to find lost children?

I'd imagine it would work better than a paper trail, at finding if children are legitimately abandoned, and it could wreck the business model of corrupt orphanages. If potential adoptive parents could go online and see if the kid they are adopting is in a database, it could make things very hairy for the agencies.

Of course, it wouldn't be 100% reliable, but it could shake the industry up a bit.

custerc3 karma

It could, and there are indeed databases of photos of missing kids, but a few practical issues:

  • Getting Chinese parents and foreign adoptive parents to all agree to use the same platform could be tough as they tend to have vastly different desires in terms of UX design.

  • These kids tend to come from families that are pretty poor and not in the most developed areas. Often, they learn about the internet and how to use it only as a result of having lost their child and eventually meeting other parents in the same situation who teach them about the web. So I think often it's possible the children could be adopted and gone by the time the Chinese family that lost them is tech-hip enough to be on the database, at least unless there was a VERY vigilant army of volunteers watching the media and reports all over the country to catch these families and help them as soon as the kidnapping happens.

  • my guess is that facial recognition is tough to get right with infants, especially given how rapidly their faces change

There is a DNA database though; it's a relatively new thing but I'd be in favor of mandatory cross-testing for all adopted kids and for all kids begging on the street.

raforther1 karma

Could you name all of the Triad or Tong criminal organizations involved in the trade?

custerc2 karma

No, there are a shitton. Here's a list of some, not all of those are involved in child trafficking but some certainly are.

raforther1 karma

Can you name at least 5 of the bigeest involved?

custerc1 karma

No. Our film is about what happens to the families after the kids disappear and how they search for them, not about China's criminal underworld.

yyx91 karma


custerc2 karma

What made you pick China? I assume this type of thing is happening all over the world, specifically the middle east and yes, even Africa

I lived in China. I came at this from the perspective of a journalist who writes about China and wanted to try making a film, not a filmmaker who was looking to do a film anywhere.

What's the motivation to "sell" the children? I know they're getting paid, I mean what makes someone decide to go into child smuggling and not, say, drug smuggling or making really shitty rebarb that gets buried in cement so they're no way to run quality control on it.

Well, I agree the real (safe) money is in making shitty rebarb. But kidnapping is done by gangs that are often involved in a lot of things, potentially including drug smuggling. As to what makes someone want to do that, I honestly don't know; the money must be very good but even so, the PRC frequently sentences convicted child traffickers to death (and in China, there's no waiting around on death row for years of appeals). Yet people still do it.

What made you want to get the word out about this?

Seemed like somebody should, and I felt like I could, so I did.

About how much did the film cost you to create?

All told, probably around $20,000. We raised about $13,000 of that through Kickstarter and a Kickstarter-style fundraiser we did through our own site. But to be honest I'm not sure how much it totally cost; we ran out of Kickstarter money pretty quickly and after that just used my own disposable (or not-so-disposable) income for stuff like all the train tickets.

What's your favorite thing about China?

The food! Or the people. Despite the fact that some of them are child traffickers, many of them are awesome and I met a lot of very cool and interesting people in China (including my wife, who helped make this film).

yyx91 karma


custerc2 karma

I heard China has mobile execution vans they use to finish the death sentence, is that true?

Sort of. China does have mobile execution vans, but their purpose is sometimes misconstrued in the West. I've seen people suggest that they're used to snatch people off the street and execute them instantly, but that doesn't happen as far as I'm aware; it's just a way of executing convicted criminals without using a firing squad.

Hopfrogg1 karma

Glad to see it finally come to fruition. I'm one of your original backers on kickstarter (a cheap one), and despite the email updates (changed my email about a year ago and stopped getting them) was feeling like it was never going to come to fruition.

Congrats on getting it released and I look forward to watching it soon.

My first question is... do you miss China? Are you happy with your decision to move back to the states and do you foresee not living in China in the future? The whole Rang Yui tussle seemed pretty silly to me and I suspect that is completely behind you now.

Film related. My reason for backing was based on how many children beggars I witnessed in China. When you see your 5th dirt drenched little girl rolling around on a wooden board, the one like Eddie Murphy used in Trading Places, in a matter of a few blocks, you start wondering what's behind all this. Any idea, percentage wise, how many of these kids on the street are being run by gangs (ala Slumdog Millionaire) and how many are legit beggars from poor families? As much as I wanted to throw some RMB their way, I always felt it was the worst thing to do as it perpetuates a lot of the kidnappings and exploitation for money. Very important film imo, and I hope it gets the attention that this topic desperately needs.

custerc1 karma

do you miss China? are you happy with your decision to move back to the states and do you foresee not living in China in the future?

I do miss China sometimes. Mostly I miss the people, both locals and my expat friends in Beijing, although many of them are already gone too or seem to be headed that way. And I do miss the general excitement of life in such a fast-paced and crazy country. That said, I don't miss the pollution, the poison food, the slow, censored internet, or any of that other nonsense. At this point just based on the health issues alone I can't imagine myself living in a major Chinese city long-term again unless they've somehow cleaned up.

If I was going to move back to Asia, I think it'd be one of these options:

  • Live in the Chinese countryside for a year or longer, as part of a book or documentary project probably. I've often thought about this and if I could find a place that was suitably remote but still had the internet (not an easy task yet but getting easier) and that would have me, I might well do it if I could swing it logistically somehow.

  • Move to Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore. AKA. China Lite. Singapore has its own political problems, and it's probably too hot for a northerner like me to stand, but it does seem like a very interesting and diverse city from the times I've been there.

Any idea, percentage wise, how many of these kids on the street are being run by gangs (ala Slumdog Millionaire) and how many are legit beggars from poor families? As much as I wanted to throw some RMB their way, I always felt it was the worst thing to do as it perpetuates a lot of the kidnappings and exploitation for money.

I could give you a percentage, but it'd be pretty made up. However, my general impression is that straight-up kidnapped (as in snatched from the yard) kids are pretty rare. Legit poor kids are common, but kinda-kidnapped/manipulated kids are also quite common.

(For example, a kid meets some guy who says that he can help them find a job on the east coast and help their parents. Sometimes it's even a relative who says their parents know about it. The kid says OK, I want to help my parents, and they're basically sold into some pickpocketing/begging/panhandling gang with a bunch of other kids. They're told the money they earn is helping their families but often it isn't and their families may not even have any idea they're there. I suppose this is still kidnapping; I'm just making the distinction between 拐卖 and 拐骗 because the Chinese go. I think straight-up 拐卖 kids are rare on the street, but 拐骗 or otherwise manipulated kids are quite common.

AllezCannes2 karma

the poison food


custerc1 karma

China has had a ton of food safety problems and scandals over the past decade. For example, check out this website. You can google translate it and see that giant list of foods, all of which are foods that have had REPORTED safety issues over the past decade. Some of them (like milk) have had hundreds. And that's just what's been discovered and reported in the media...

Hopfrogg1 karma

My feelings about living in Asia kind of mirror yours. No way in hell would I live in either the Jing or Shanghai. Great places to visit though. Would def go second tier or lower. I've heard Singapore gets boring pretty quickly, but Taiwan and HK have interested me as well. As a simplified character learner, the traditional stuff in Taiwan is a bit intimidating, though my wife seems to have no problem with it and assures me you can pretty much guess most of the characters with a solid simplified background. Good luck man. Sounds like you aren't ready to put down permanent roots yet :()

custerc1 karma

Having done third-tier cities before (Harbin) I don't think I'd do that again either. As for the others, they're all options but at the moment I'm happy in the US and we're sort of planning to be here for the forseeable future so I don't anticipate a permanent move back anyway. Would like to visit Taiwan sometime though; of those places it's the one I've never been to.

patrick8881 karma

What steps does the US government take to ensure that the children being trafficked into the country have not been kidnapped from their families?

custerc3 karma

By trafficked here I assume you mean adopted; I don't know of many Chinese kids who are actually smuggled into the US.

That said, it's something I get into more in the article in the Atlantic linked in the original post, but the simple answer is pretty surprising: the US government does not consider kidnapping and sale for adoption to be "trafficking". The US legal definition of that term includes sale for things prostitution, forced labor, and other kinds of exploitation but not for sale into adoption. (The UN has a broader definition that would arguably include adoptions, though)

Also, China is one of the signatories of the hague agreement on adoption, which seems to be more or less good enough as far as the US government is concerned. You can read about this in more detail in my article, but in my opinion the TL;DR answer to your question is that the US really doesn't do very much at all to ensure that, because it doesn't consider kids sold to orphanages for international adoption to be trafficked in the first place.

patrick8881 karma

the TL;DR answer to your question is that the US really doesn't do very much at all to ensure that, because it doesn't consider kids sold to orphanages for international adoption to be trafficked in the first place.

This strikes me as a huge loophole. If someone wants to import slaves, they just do it through an orphanage and it is "legitimate". It is almost like slave laundering.

custerc2 karma

Well, yes and no. If you were "adopting" kids and then using them as slaves in the US, while the adoption itself might be considered legitimate, if there were documented cases of that happening my guess is that from a legal perspective there would be SOMETHING the government would do to step in and stop it. But I don't know of any instances of that happening; what makes the issue some ethically complicated is that even when these cases are resolved, the kids have been adopted by living parents in the US, who they lived with for years.

So...what do you do if you find out the kid was kidnapped? Do you send them back to their original parents, who are probably quite poor and most certainly living in a country whose language the kid doesn't speak and whose culture the kid doesn't know? Or do you tell the birth parents to fuck off because even though their child was stolen from them against their will, they no longer have rights to her? Do you try to work out some kind of compromise? Do you let the child (if they're old enough) decide? It's quite a dilemma.

goodkicks1 karma

Did you ever interact with these children directly?

custerc1 karma

Yes. Generally speaking street kids don't talk to anyone (they're told not to and probably punished if they do), but we went and spent a few days at a rescue center for street kids and talked to all the kids there quite a bit. For the film, we also spoke with an adult who had been kidnapped and sold to a new family as a child.

cmlglrslcrd1 karma

Kinda late, but oh well. I just got back from work and haven't had a chance to watch it yet, but this reminds me of a conversation I had with some HK friends. According to them, there was this whole kidnapping kids to become beggars, and I mean, I'm from South America. I know shit like this happens. Even though I don't see it, it is still an issue there. One thing made me sick to my stomach, though, and I'm sorry if this is covered in the documentary. They say that sometimes, quite often actually, these kids would be mutilated and turned into handicaps to appeal more to the tourists in big cities. Since there is a whole market for kids begging on the streets, competition rises and that was the way of "having a differential". They would mutilate, cut off limbs and stuff so you would be more willingly to give them money. Does that really happen?

custerc1 karma

Yes that does happen, although it's not common. I didn't cover it in the documentary because it's already horribly depressing and because documented cases are relatively few and far between, but it definitely can and does happen.

buuya1 karma

How hard has working in China been? Did any government interference have a debilitating effect on your documentary?

custerc2 karma

Working in China is tough sometimes but we didn't get a ton of interference in the documentary. The police asked about us once, and a couple other times seemed to be sniffing around, but nothing ever happened.

The biggest challenge is that they wouldn't talk to us at all, so it was very tough to get the official perspective into the film. We've done it where we could using official documents and such, but we asked a couple different police organizations to talk to us on camera or at least give an off-the-record or on-background comment for the film. No one would.

That's part of how China plays its victim card. The government will point to news stories and say "this totally ignores China's perspective!" But 9 times out of 10, that reporter called five different government offices and they all told him to fuck off or just left her on hold for hours on end.

buuya1 karma

In a way, that's what perpetuates their "victim" thing. But, almost no one outside of China believes it anyways. Also, is the general populace of the country supportive of their government?

custerc2 karma

Also, is the general populace of the country supportive of their government?

That depends what you mean by supportive. In my experience, most of the population that's above 30 (i.e., old enough to have seen enough shit that the propaganda bullshit they got in school has worn off) is pretty pessimistic about the government, is very aware that they are corrupt, that the censor things, etc.

At the same time, though, they're pretty conscious of the fact that economically China is much better off than it was 30 years ago, and most people have seen this materially affect their lives. Older people also remember the chaos and death that comes with nationwide unrest, so even though they may think the CCP are a bunch of bastards, they're not that interested in protesting or changing regimes because government corruption is preferable to Cultural Revolution-style chaos.

buuya1 karma

Thanks for the insight. So, how different are the logistical issues of a documentary as compared to a movie?

custerc1 karma

Well, I've never shot a feature-length fiction film, but my guess is extremely different.

On the upside, doing a documentary it's much easier to be mobile and to fly under the radar. We used only natural light for our film, which allowed us to travel with a "crew" of just two people and a (relatively) small amount of gear. And of course, the standards for production values are much lower in a documentary because people understand that you often don't have time to set everything up beforehand, script out each scene just so, etc. And of course, shooting a documentary is MUCH cheaper (though still expensive as balls).

But working in fiction would make a lot of things easier, it would make censorship and police intervention less of a risk (although still a risk in China), and it would have allowed us to get more of the "official" perspective into the film.

Part of me feels like the only way to do some issues in China justice would be with a fiction film.

buuya1 karma

An allegorical work perhaps? Which are your must see documentaries?

custerc1 karma

An allegorical work perhaps?

I've often thought of writing one. Hasn't yet materialized, though.

Which are your must see documentaries?

In general and in no particular order: Grizzly Man and most other Herzog documentaries, Dear Zachary, Deep Water, Man on Wire, Gasland was pretty inspirational to me just because it seemed to be made by a non-professional like me, American Movie, the Paradise Lost series, Anvil, the King of Kong, Jonestown, etc. This is a great list to start working your way through.

In terms of Chinese docs, Petition (上访) and Crime and Punishment (罪与非) are the two that jump to mind immediately. The former is incredible in terms of how much work and how much balls it took to make; I actually got to meet the guy in charge of cameras for it once and talk to him about all the difficulties they had in shooting it over a decade, it was insane and I have nothing but respect for those guys for taking on a subject even I wouldn't dare to (and as a foreigner, I'm much more protected). The latter is incredible for its access to the local police in a border town even as they slap people around and otherwise act like Chinese police often act when there aren't cameras around. I have no fucking idea how they managed to even get permission to shoot it, let alone how they got away afterwards without having everything confiscated.

Last Train Home is also a very well-liked Chinese documentary, and it deserves the praise it gets. Up the Yangtze, Manufactured Landscapes, Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, and High Tech Low Life are all also good.

viigyx1 karma

It's 2013. How can this type of stuff still be happening?

custerc4 karma

This may be a rhetorical question, but the answer is money + lack of independent oversight. There's a lot of money in kidnapping and selling kids. And that means that you can afford to pay off the local cops/officials to turn a blind eye to it, which reduces the risk significantly.

Moses_Scurry1 karma

What did you think of the movie "Trade of Innocents"?

custerc2 karma

Haven't seen it. Is it good?

Moses_Scurry1 karma

I liked it, but I am far from a competent movie critic. It's a indie fictional story with Mira Sorvino based on child trafficking in Cambodia. It was probably over-the-top a bit, compared to real life, but it sent a pretty powerful message.

custerc1 karma

I will check it out!

elfstoneprime1 karma

Is there any way someone could deal with a lot of these problems that would actually scare people involved? I mean some random trying to actively stop this might get the gangsters angry but a rich powerful dude actively stopping things like this from happening, hiring people to find kids and gangsters, bribing the right people? Would probably make the gangsters/officials scared right? I'm just curious if something like this would ever work.

custerc1 karma

Hmm. I suppose a wealthy enough person could simply out-bribe the gangsters in a given location and pay the local police and officials more to seriously go after the problem. That would probably be effective just because most of them are in it for the money, not because they love working with a bunch of gangster kidnappers. However, that'd be expensive on a small scale and the bigger the scale the more exponentially expensive it gets.

The longer-term way to fix it involves some serious political reform to make corruption more difficult and this take away these incentives. The first thing that's needed is an independent judiciary system that can investigate and prosecute corrupt officials completely outside of the control or oversight of the CCP.

dantegus1 karma

My question is regarding the Americans who "adopt" the trafficked children and are therefore fuelling this trade in children.

What is their motivation? Are they doing it because they can't have children of their own? Because they think they are "helping" a child from a poor family?

Or is it less altruistic and they simply want a cheap servant/worker, for example to work as child slaves in the US agriculture industry or to operate as a child sex worker in USA?

custerc7 karma

Actually, it's really none of these. Most Americans who adopt kids from China have no idea this is even happening, or if they do have seen assurances that make them feel comfortable it hasn't impacted their child. Plenty do it because they can't have kids of their own or in some cases to help poor orphans, but they generally don't know the kids might have been trafficked because of how the system works.

Basically, it's very easy for a Chinese orphanage to buy an infant that has been trafficked and then simply doctor all the official paperwork to make it look like the baby was abandoned locally. In my article in the atlantic (linked in the OP), for example, I go through the story of a woman who adopted from China. She thought it was totally legit because everyone said it was, and she saw all the right paperwork, etc. Then when her daughter was 4 she started to wonder where she came from and in looking into it this woman actually went back to China to find the man who found her daughter according to her paperwork. Unfortunately, when she found that guy, he said he never found any babies; he was just a friend of the orphanage director so they'd used his name on the paperwork to cover the tracks of babies they had actually purchased, probably from traffickers.

So while most foreign adoptive parents may be guilty of a little ignorance, they generally have no idea that they may be supporting this "industry." And not much has really been written about it because once they have adopted, a lot of parents really just don't want to think about it since it's not like you can undo the adoption (or the damage) anyway.

I don't know of any cases of Chinese kids being trafficked for sex or forced labor in the US though. I'm sure there probably are a few, but it's much more common that children being sold for that kind of thing are sold within China.

kttngrl1 karma

How did you get into making documentaries? I love documentaries and would honestly really love making them as a career. Is it a hard path and what did you major in anything specific? Thank you !

custerc1 karma

Well it's not really my career, it's just something I wanted to do so I decided to do it and did it. Honestly, I'd recommend you do the same. These days, the equipment is very good and very cheap (compared to even 10 years ago) and there are tons of free resources online.

Honestly, I just bought a camera and started making little mini-docs about random stuff just for practice. For example, my brother graduated from high school, so I went back and made a little mini-documentary about that, with interviews with my parents and such. I didn't do anything with it; the whole thing was just for practice. Once I got to the point where I felt like I was good enough to make something watchable given a little funding and a lot of time, then we started working on Living with Dead Hearts.

If you want to get into making documentaries as a career, you should know that you're sort of taking a vow of poverty (it's very rare that a documentary does the Michael Moore thing and plays in major theaters or rakes in much money). Especially given that, I'd say avoid film school; take some film classes at your college if you can while majoring in something else, and mostly just buy a camera and learn by doing.

You can buy a Canon 60D body, a couple good lenses (the 50mm 1.4 is great for interviews, Tokina 11-16 is wonderful for wider stuff and handheld shooting), a Zoom H4N and a mic or two for well under $3,000, especially if you buy used (and you should as long as the goods are still OK). But honestly even if you're just shooting with an iPhone, the best advice is just to go start shooting mini-docs and learning about how to tell stories and communicate best in that form. Also watch docs and see what you like and don't like, what you think works and what doesn't. I don't know if my film is any good, but anything good in it is probably something I stole from other docs.

I found these two books to be very helpful, if you can only afford two:

Shut up and Shoot Documentary Guide - great basic overview of a lot of the basics, with illustrations. How to mic someone correctly, how to frame a shot properly, etc. All the practical skills you need to get started are here.

Directing the documentary - A film school textbook that covers EVERYTHING, from this history of documentary filmmaking to the practical stuff and, probably most importantly, the conceptual and ethical stuff. It's written as though you'll be directing a film with a real crew (you won't) and it's full of homework-style exercises like a textbook (some useful) but it's very worthwhile for the ethics stuff alone. As I've touched on elsewhere in this thread, shooting a doc can put you in some ethically tough positions, and you want to be sure you've thought out where you stand before you're sitting in someone's living room realizing you've just ruined their life.

kttngrl1 karma

Thank you so much for such a detailed answer. I'm watching the documentary right now and it's heartbreaking. Good job on it though.

custerc1 karma


tangfest1 karma

Hi there, as part of an Asian family,in the UK, it is not surprising to see this but it still gets to me every single time. Its mainly the sheer amount of dealing and trafficking that goes one that seems to so it.

Anyway my question (which is slightly off topic) is from what age the can the children be captures? I've heard stories of young baby girls being left on the street because their parents wanted a boy. So in reference to that, what happens to such babies and what's the youngest you've ever seen a child being trafficked? I would hate to see such children being used for sexual purposes.

custerc2 karma

It ranges the full gamut from infants to teens, but obviously what the children are being sold into is very different depending on their age. In general

0-3 years male --> sold into adoption domestically

0-3 years, female --> sold into adoption

4-10 years, male and female --> sold into begging or some other street situation

11-18 years, male --> sold into forced labor

11-18 years, female --> sold into forced labor, forced marriage, or forced prostitution

Obviously that's a very general picture and not every case fits this basic model, but yeah. In the film we follow the parents of three missing kids; one is an infant, one was an younger adolescent, and one was a teen.

RyanFire1 karma

Excluding large cities, does every city and town in China have an individual police department?

custerc1 karma

Pretty much yes

the-infinite-jester1 karma

My step-mother works with Vital Voices and has been to Cambodia to work with Mu Sochua and Somaly Mam, setting up guerrilla radio stations to help report sex-trafficking activities, and she helped to work on the Redlight documentary.

My family is very interested in getting as involved as possible in working to stop human trafficking. Assuming that money is no problem, but time is, what can we do to help? Then on the flipside, assuming that money is tight but time is no constraint, what can we do? And worst case, when money and time are both very tight, what is the minimum that we can do from home? What are some good organizations to support that work on stopping international trafficking- child, sex, and otherwise?

Thank you for what you do. Please feel free to PM me with any information you have also; my heart could not go out to your cause any more than it does.

custerc2 karma

International trafficking I know less about, as most of what I've done applies just to trafficking in China. (Even in the case of international adoption fraud, all the actual trafficking and fraud is still happening within China's borders).

I have a section on my site that tries to answer this question although the truth is that if you're not a Chinese speaker in China, it's hard. But I'll try to answer your questions:

Assuming that money is no problem, but time is, what can we do to help?

Donate money to organizations like Baby Come Home that try to help parents find and recover kidnapped and missing kids. Maybe also donate to organizations pushing for legal reform/an independent judiciary in China.

Then on the flipside, assuming that money is tight but time is no constraint, what can we do?

Well, if you speak/write Chinese, you could volunteer for any number of organizations including the aforementioned Baby Come Home. You could set up social profiles and share stories and photos of missing kids to spread awareness and to help parents find their kids. To be honest it's hard for me to think of much that can be done with time if you don't speak Chinese though.

And worst case, when money and time are both very tight, what is the minimum that we can do from home?

Probably just sharing the information you come across and doing what you can to spread the word so more people are aware this is even a problem.

What are some good organizations to support that work on stopping international trafficking- child, sex, and otherwise?

There are three listed on my site. There's an organization in Hong Kong too that I've heard of, though not worked with, but the name escapes me right now. If I remember it I will edit it in.

BeccaWatkins1 karma

Late but oh well.... The one child policy, do you think this helps "demand" ( for lack of a better term) in trafficking and illegal adoptions? Also as an adopted child are the orphanages and agencies not monitored in china like they are in the US? I have a file that has all the details known about my biological parents and so does my brother, does china not have these?

custerc2 karma

The one child policy, do you think this helps "demand" ( for lack of a better term) in trafficking and illegal adoptions?

Absolutely yes. Some people blame this whole problem on the OCP, which I think is simplistic, but it definitely contributes to both supply and demand. Supply because people are sometimes forced to sell their extra children -- or jus have their children taken away -- by overzealous family planning officials (this is not legal under the OCP but it happens anyway). And demand because people want sons but don't want to take the risk of just continuing to have extra kids and paying the fines each time until they finally have a son (which they might not anyway).

Also as an adopted child are the orphanages and agencies not monitored in china like they are in the US? I have a file that has all the details known about my biological parents and so does my brother, does china not have these?

It does, but the Hague convention that governs this basically charges China with setting up its own "central authority" to watch over international adoption, and as you might imagine, it's not as vigilant (and probably more susceptible to bribery) than the US version. The other problem is that it's pretty easy to forge the sort of paperwork you're talking about. I don't want to suggest your paperwork is forged, and if it has details on it that would be sufficient to allow you to actually track your birth parents down, then it probably isn't. However, often enough this documentation simply says that the child was found abandoned at address X on day Y. As you can imagine, this is extremely easy to forge; you just buy a child, then fill out a form with a random local address and a finding date, then get some friend to sign off as the person who found the kid, and boom. Legitimate (looking) paperwork for international adoption.

(This is, in fact, precisely what happened to one of the women I wrote about in that article in the Atlantic).

SM1boy-1 karma

If you had to have a big butterfly tramp stamp, or "I love Justin Bieber" written on your leg what would you prefer?

Note* You have to choose one

custerc3 karma

Either one would be fine. Probably the Justin Bieber one. Then I'd go back to a better tattoo artist and have them do a whole leg tattoo that cleverly covers it up so it's no longer readable because it's part of some giant dragon or something.