Tears for Views: Reality TV for Loved Ones Lost
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2016-08-23 05:19:35

Song Xianzhong is talking through the photos of his grandchildren that hang above the bed. “This one is my granddaughter. Everyone says she looked like a boy when she was little,” he laughs. Then the 55-year-old gets to a small photo frame that hangs facing the wall, and his smile disappears.

“I can’t bear to look at this one,” Song says, tears building in his eyes. Turning the frame around, he gazes briefly at the plump 3-year-old boy who stares blankly out of the photo. He is Song’s grandson, Yuxi.

“Everyone here knows about our child’s disappearance,” Song says of the residents of Songzhuang, a tiny, dusty village that sits in the east of China’s central Henan province. Eighteen months after Yuxi vanished while he was following his older sister to the village store, his fate is still unknown. But everyone seems to know what happened. Yuxi was trafficked, Song says, kidnapped to be fed into China’s massive adoption black market.

Faced with what they consider to be too lenient a legal system and inefficiencies in the local police force, Song’s family is close to exhausting its options, and is now turning to “Dengzhe Wo” — or “Waiting for Me” in English — a state-backed, tear-jerking show that has been criticized for exploiting the tragedies of its guests for the sake of bigger audiences.

Song Xianzhong poses with his son Song Pengpeng outside their home in Songzhuang, Henan province, Aug. 1, 2016. Owen Churchill/Sixth Tone

Song Xianzhong poses with his son Song Pengpeng outside their home in Songzhuang, Henan province, Aug. 1, 2016. Owen Churchill/Sixth Tone

The government has never released figures on the number of children reported missing each year in China, but Chen Shiqu, director of the national human trafficking office, said in 2015 that the number of reported cases is declining, while the number of solved cases is rising. The most recent figures available show that 13,000 abducted children were rescued in 2014, though the number of actual kidnappings is likely to be much higher. Victims are sold to those either unable to bear their own children or desperate for a son — most victims are boys — and unwilling or financially incapable of going through the proper channels of China’s stringent and under-resourced adoption system. 

If [the police] have no leads, then they won’t do anything for you, they won’t be proactive.

Like an estimated 60 million others in China, Yuxi was a “left-behind” child, his parents having left Songzhuang soon after his birth in search of work that paid better than what their village’s tiny economy could provide. His father has since returned to the village, but just as it was Yuxi’s paternal grandfather Song — a teacher at the village elementary school — who took the reins in Yuxi’s upbringing, it is also he who has taken the lead in the search.

The county police visited the village soon after Yuxi’s disappearance, but have refused to update the family on any developments in the case. “We’ve pushed them for details, but they are so secretive, as if they are not at liberty to divulge,” Song says from his perch on the edge of a bed in the family home. “If they have no leads, then they won’t do anything for you, they won’t be proactive.”

The family’s frustration was compounded when Song found himself on the receiving end of China’s notorious city management officials — the chengguan — last summer during a demonstration calling on the authorities to be more proactive in cracking down on child trafficking. “[The chengguan] wouldn’t let us put up missing person notices, banners, or posters,” Song recalls. “They thought our actions would cause the government to lose face.”

Song Xianzhong poses at home with the missing persons notice of his grandson Song Yuxi, Songzhuang, Henan province, Aug. 1, 2016. Owen Churchill/Sixth Tone

Song Xianzhong poses at home with the missing persons notice of his grandson Song Yuxi, Songzhuang, Henan province, Aug. 1, 2016. Owen Churchill/Sixth Tone

A glimmer of hope came in April this year, when Song was approached by Shanghai-based, social media-driven video platform Yitiao TV, which periodically broadcasts the stories of the parents or guardians of kidnapped children in talking-head form.

Soon after the video was released, Song was contacted by a woman who said she had spotted an infant at a kindergarten elsewhere in Henan province who resembled Yuxi. Song wants to pursue the lead, but he has also received tips like this before, and a mixture of dead ends and attempts by opportunistic scammers to monetize the family’s desperation have tempered his hopes. Now his eyes are set on a bigger platform with a bigger audience. TV show “Waiting for Me” is a Tuesday night hit attraction on state broadcaster China Central Television that invites people like Song on stage to share their stories with an audience in the tens of millions, according to its producers. 

Besides tugging at the heartstrings of its viewers, the show seeks to help participants track down their lost ones in partnership with a missing persons charity called “Baobei Huijia,” or “little one, come home.” Each guest’s segment culminates in the opening of a large double-door, behind which stands either the loved one they’d been looking for or a police officer who explains why the search has been unsuccessful. In the vast majority of cases, it is the former.

The show has been criticized for putting its guests through unnecessary emotional trauma and for “buying TV ratings with tears.” In one 2015 episode roundly condemned on social media, the father of a girl who went missing 23 years prior broke into hysterics when a policeman, rather than his daughter, walked out through the double-door. After 45 agonizing seconds of tears and chest-thumping, he was finally told that his daughter had been found; she had just been unable to attend the show that evening.

It’s a tender, emotional show, so of course there is bound to be some sensationalism.

In another episode, 18-year-old Lei Feifei hoped to be reunited with his mother. As the words “Will mom turn up today?” appeared on the screen, Li was told that she had been found but was not willing to see him because he was the child of a marriage she had been trafficked into. “Today is not a sad day,” host Ni Ping told a stunned, expressionless Lei. “You might not be able to see her, but she’s been found. Don’t resent her — do you understand?”

A still from the CCTV1 program ‘Waiting for Me’ shows Lei Feifei (r) and host Ni Ping waiting for the doors to open. Words on the right read ‘Will mom turn up today?’

A still from the CCTV1 program ‘Waiting for Me’ shows Lei Feifei (r) and host Ni Ping waiting for the doors to open. Words on the right read ‘Will mom turn up today?’

Song shares the opinion of the show’s detractors: that it capitalizes on the guests’ personal trauma and wrings out as much emotion as possible for the sake of entertainment. “Everyone in our position says that ‘Waiting for Me’ just does everything for show,” he says. Citing the experiences of those he knows who have participated, he even harbors his own theory that guests “have to say what the directors want them to say,” an accusation that the show’s producer Yang Xingang vehemently denies. “We would never, for example, tell someone to cry upon seeing their father,” Yang tells Sixth Tone, “because it is truth that lies at the heart of our program.”

At the same time, Yang does not deny that the show plays up the emotions of its guests. “It’s a tender, emotional show, so of course there is bound to be some sensationalism,” he says. “It’s like a TV advert, and adverts are most effective when they are seen by a lot of people.”

Song is willing to bury his reservations about the sincerity of the show’s production if there’s a chance it could help him find his grandson. “As to how they would make us talk, as long as it helps us to spread the message, [we don’t care].” 

Song’s nephew applied to “Waiting for Me” in the days following Yuxi’s disappearance, and Song says that he himself has maintained direct communication with one of the show’s producers. Song was successful in posting a missing persons notice to the show’s website, but, he says, they were not willing to invite him to take part in the show itself because there were no viable leads in Yuxi’s case. “They told me, ‘If you came on the show, it would be in vain,’” he says.

Yang admits that the show shies away from cases it deems unlikely to be solved. “People ask us why we don’t broadcast more failed cases, but this is a question of the greater good,” he says. He would like to help everyone by giving them screen time, even if their loved one had not been found, but said that people come to the show because they think it has a high success rate. Only with the trust of viewers, he says, will more people want to participate — and only then will the show be able to help more people.

As long as I cannot find my child, I will never be able to wash this pain away.

Someone who doesn’t buy into the show’s high success rate is Xue Jie, whose son was snatched by someone riding a motorbike just meters away from her 13 years ago. “Everyone asks me, ‘Why don’t you go on “Waiting for Me”? The people on that show always find the person they’re looking for,’” says the 39-year-old delivery worker from Minquan, 20 minutes’ drive from Songzhuang. “But it’s not like that. … They’ll only let you on if the person has been found.”

Nevertheless, Xue, who says she cannot bring herself to watch the show because it reminds her of her son, has signed up five times, and five times she has been rejected. Beside spreading information about her lost son, she intends to use the platform to call on those who buy children to have mercy and give themselves up. She also hopes the government will tighten legislation and increase sentences for those who buy trafficked children. “Without buyers there are no sellers,” she says.

Xue Jie looks through chat groups for families of missing people on her phone, Songzhuang, Henan province, Aug. 1, 2016. Owen Churchill/Sixth Tone

Xue Jie looks through chat groups for families of missing people on her phone, Songzhuang, Henan province, Aug. 1, 2016. Owen Churchill/Sixth Tone

In August last year, though, the government did pass an amendment — to Article 241 of the criminal law — that focused on holding those who buy trafficked children more accountable. Previously, if “adoptive” parents cooperated with the authorities and there was no evidence of abuse, they could expect to avoid any prosecution. With the amendment, any evidence of having bought a child constitutes a punishable crime, no matter the circumstances. 

Zhang Zhiwei was one of the lawyers who drafted the amendment. On paper, he tells Sixth Tone, human trafficking is one of the most heavily punished crimes in terms of sentencing, with the most serious offenders facing the death penalty. Yet prosecutions rarely result in such severe sentences, in part due to the difficulties in proving all instances of trafficking for multiple offenders. Zhang is hopeful that tightening the screws on those who buy children will stem the trade at its roots.

“Without trade there is no slaughter,” Zhang says, borrowing a slogan most often used by animal protection agencies. “The demand is just too high.” He has faith in the value of a legal deterrent, but he also believes that more needs to be done to counter the perception among rural citizens — who make up the vast majority of buyers — that boys are necessarily more valuable than girls. Many of the trade’s “clients” buy children because, in a society that favors males, being able to guarantee the gender of one’s child is a valuable thing.

While changes to the law and changes to people’s mind-sets may have a positive effect in the long run, it is unlikely they will help Xue or Song, whose loved ones — they suspect — are already in the hands and homes other families.

“As long as I cannot find my child, I will never be able to wash this pain away,” says Xue. Her torment is compounded by the fact that her son will not remember her, and that he may well be unaware of his past. But it is a truth she is coming to terms with. “I have no expectations that he would return to live with me,” she says, “just as long as I can see him once before I die.”

With contributions from Wang Lianzhang.

(Header image: Song Xianzhong sits before photographs of his grandchildren at his home in Songzhuang, Henan province, Aug. 1, 2016. Owen Churchill/Sixth Tone)