Individual Empowerment Through Chinese Internet: Pursuing Family Reunification

This is a paper I presented at the 2016 Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs held at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Introduction:

Imagine taking a child to the grocery store, loosing sight of him for just a moment, and turning around only to discover he’s already gone missing in that brief amount of time. This horrifying situation is not uncommon in China, where the U.S. State Department estimates around 20,000 children are abducted annually.[1] Xunzi Zhijia, a nonprofit organization that supports parents of kidnapped children within China estimates this figure is actually closer to 200,000 children per year.[2] One possible reason cited for the high rate of child trafficking in China is the infamous One Child Policy, enacted in 1979, which has led to an increase in kidnappings for the purposes of prostitution and adoption.[3] Now imagine a young Chinese adoptee, looking for a window to her past and hoping to someday meet her first parents. In a country as large as China, with such restrictive policies on adoption, the likelihood of ever finding these answers seems nearly impossible.

Lately, however, the despair derived from these two situations of loss and family separation has been addressed via the internet. China achieved full internet connectivity in 1994, though access was limited to a select few.[4] The internet has since reached a much wider portion of the population and has a wide array of uses from entertainment and social media to literature and journalism outlets to online activism. All of these avenues of internet usage empower people to be both producers and consumers of media. Through in depth readings of interviews and online news articles, as well as direct research on existing websites used as family reunification mediums, I argue that the internet can provide users in search of family members with a significant sense of individual empowerment, especially when offline channels of support or authority have been inaccessible or directly failed them.

This paper is broken into five sections and will begin by discussing the current critiques of internet empowerment in a Chinese context, negotiating the interaction between the limitations and freedoms online. I will then investigate the idea of empowerment through an analysis of family reunification via the BBS forum, Baobeihuijia and social media site, Sina Weibo. This section will be followed by a discussion and conclusion, showcasing the significance of the Chinese internet to individual empowerment in the case of family reunification.

 

Comparative Online Empowerments:

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With the ability to share ideas and values through these alternative channels, manyWestern scholars assumed that the internet in China could be used as a force for democratization, liberalization, and civil society.[5] The general consensus by scholars in the field such as Rebecca MacKinnon, Guobin Yang, and Jens Damm is that internet in China will not lead to widespread democratization or large scale social change.[6] Furthermore, according to a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “most Chinese internet users seek out entertainment online, not hard news or serious political discussion.”[7] Thus, with this more lighthearted perspective of the internet and no viable offline movement, the likelihood of the internet being used for radical political change and large-scale empowerment is, in reality, quite low.

One form of online social critique that often fits within the confounds of China’s lighthearted, entertainment centric internet is egao, “a popular online strategy which comically subverts and deconstructs the so-called normal through the use of language, picture, and animation, ”[8] For this context, Xin Yang and Haomin Gong argue that the internet provides an imagined empowerment for netizens, “who can for the first time, intervene in the formation of an institutionalized narrative.”[9] The internet’s heterotopic spaces grant people with new temporal and spatial relationships, forming an imagined community.[10] Yet, despite whether or not these same communities exist outside of the internet, the interactions that take place can be very real. And while the change is perhaps minuscule when compared to a broader context, for the individuals affected by the online world, it is very real.

For those who want to do more than simply critique the status-quo through art or parody and see actual change, Guobin Yang, an internet scholar, suggests that online communities are important, new forms of civic action.[11] There are many sites dedicated to addressing social ills and citizen rights that simultaneously avoid directly challenging state power. The nature of these types of community forums and websites encourage netizens to be “pro-sumers,” both internet content consumers and producers, contributing to the internet economy.[12] Due to the ease of internet usage and the increase in accessibility, this is very manageable. A recent survey showed that nearly 66 percent of China’s internet users have contributed to content to more than one internet website within a year’s timeframe, whether it be in words, video, or photographic form.[13] Participation in China’s online discussion and activist groups has been able to address some key issues and encourage social pressure and accountability. Moreover, this type of online activity has been attributed to a change in citizen’s attitudes about power and personal response, and therefore contributes to a sense of individual empowerment.[14]

Individual empowerment is especially important to netizens in places like China, where there is a general distrust of the established systems, including the Chinese government.[15] This suspicion has motivated people to create their own networks of information sharing and grassroots activism that has particularly high value when and where professional mediums fail them.[16] When citizens take individual action, instead of relying on existing institutions, they promote increased transparency and have assurance that their personal interests are in consideration.

 

Case Study: Baobeihuijia and Sina Weibo

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The BBS forum, Baobeihuijia, which translates to “Baby, come home,” is the first of it’s kind on mainland China.[17] Established in 2007 by Zhang Baoyan and her husband, Qin Yanyou, the site is a free advertising service, dedicated to helping families who have lost children reconnect after separation, mostly due to abduction and kidnapping.[18] Zhang’s motivation for starting the website was inspired by the experience of her 4-year-old son, who went missing while shopping with his grandmother in a shopping mall. Fortunately, her son was found several hours later, but she was truly able to empathize with the parents of children who were still missing, and wanted to be able to make some impact.[19]

Due to sheer desperation, some parents have spent nearly 600,000 yuan (U.S. $98,198) putting up posters searching for their children. Other parents have spent more than 3 million yuan (U.S. $490,990) traveling across the country to personally look for their children.[20] But what about migrant workers, whose children are especially vulnerable, or other families who cannot afford to spend this much money in a search or quit their job in order to look for their child? More and more people are now turning to the internet because of its easy accessibility. While historically Chinese internet users were the middle to upper class folks, the ever-expansion of the internet and growing prevalence of smart phone technology is allowing the internet to become increasingly accessible to people of various socio-economic statuses.[21] The latest statistics indicate that some 44.1 percent of all Chinese citizens have access to the internet, including some 8.07 million migrant workers, as well.[22] The website Baobeihuijia serves as a source of individual empowerment for these families, firstly because so many people already have regular access to the internet, and secondly, because the service is free. In just four simple steps, families can register a profile for their missing child, join a community of other families in search, and be connected to a network of volunteers who search and advocate on behalf of these families.

Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 7.33.31 PMMore than just resolving a wealth barrier, Baobeihuijia is also a place of empowerment due to its ability to correct damages by established system failures. On October 2, 2014, in Xinyang, Henan Province, a 13 year old boy named Wang Zhiqiang went missing.[23] The police found him the next day, but his father was not notified until six months later, after the child had already died due to malnourishment and negligent care. The local government carried out an investigation and found a total of 18 people, including police officers, shelter staff, and hospital doctors all responsible for mishandling Wang’s case.[24] These fatal errors included not informing the district bureau promptly after receiving Wang’s parents’ call that their child was missing, as well as the police station’s failure to conduct a DNA test and pass the information on to a central database.[25]

The case of Wang Zhiqiang is an absolute tragedy that should not be the experience of any family with a missing child. As of December 06, 2015, the website, Baobeihuijia, showed that there were still 23,172 families looking for their children and 17,603 children looking for their parents in China.[26] Through Baobeihuijia, these families in active search of their children can take action into their own hands to try to ensure that their children’s fate will not be the same as Wang Zhiqiang’s. After enrolling in the site and creating a profile, users can create a generic file with their missing family member’s information. This includes the tracing category, name, gender, date of birth, place, time, and location of missing status, distinguishable features, and any other relevant information. While the site focuses on helping missing children under 16 years of age come home, there are some domestically adopted young adults seeking their birth families as well as older separated siblings in search of each other.

Ma Ping, for example, was born in 1993 and was immediately adopted to another family.[27] She posted a her profile, sharing personal photos and contact information including her phone number. Her post garnered over one hundred views in the first few days of publication. Just a few of the viewers, though, left comments. The comments were fairly minimalistic, simply linking the URL to their personal Weibo accounts and indicating that they shared the link with their followers. This, however, is how modern day news spreads the fastest. Zhu Ruifeng, a self-professed citizen journalist who has launched several freelance campaigns told the New York Times in an interview, “We used to say that when you have a problem, go to the police. Now we say when you have a problem, go to the netizens.”[28] This statement is indicative of how the internet has changed personal legal strategies and empowered individuals to play active roles in their personal struggles when the current systems fail them. Zhu’s quote, furthermore, shows the general distrust of institutionalized systems in multiple facets of society, including the news stations, information collection, and the legal system.

In addition to the purely informative profiles of their children, many of the families who use Baobeihuijia post pleas to the online forum section in hopes that their children will see their words or others may view the page and help spread the message. A user named Bing Yuhuo published a piece in late November of 2015 where he personally addresses his missing child. In it he writes in an almost journalistic or personal letter style, questioning the child, “李元帅,你在哪里,家人们都赶到了威海,你怎么不出来见我们啊 ? [Li Yuanshui, where are you? Your family members all hurried to Weihai. How could you not come out to see us?]”[29] This post has been seen 126 times in the four days since publication and will probably have many more viewers in the coming days. The more people who see this post, the higher the likelihood that their child, Li Yuanshui, could be one of the viewers.

Whether it be video gaming, social media, or uploading and sharing photos or video media, much of the internet is used for drawing connections between people, both friends and strangers alike. Chinese internet users have a particular affinity for interpersonal communication via the internet, argues Jens Damm, a China Studies professor at the Freie Universität in Berlin.[30] A recent survey suggested that between 34 to 39 percent of Chinese internet users stated that they favored online chat as their favorite web activity; another 18 to 19 percent stated that they preferred BBS to other methods of online chat.[31] This is significantly higher than users in the Western hemisphere.[32] BBS forums, like Baobeihuijia, are “characterized by many-to-many communication and thus provide an ideal place not only for discussion but also for building virtual online communities.”[33] The community on Baobeihuijia has 228,803 contributing members.[34] Despite its large size, this intimate sense of community through BBS forums is essential for families in search of their children, allowing individuals to open up very personally through narrative telling, poetry sharing, and free writing. Thus, in a sense, Baobeihuijia users are merging the private and public spheres in these heterotopic internet spaces.

Community building on Baobeihuijia is constructed through supportive comments on posts in the forum and 社会新闻 (society news) sections of website. Following a post regarding three missing girls, an anonymous user (匿名) empathized with the original poster with the simple comment, “痛痛痛痛痛 [ pain pain pain pain pain].”[35] Another user named, 大妈 (dama) said,“难过,夏季来了,也许这样的悲剧会更多,还是希望各位家长都多留个心眼吧! [I feel sad. Summer is coming, so perhaps this kind of tragedy will increase. Nevertheless, I hope all of the families persevere in their heart and conviction.]”[36] While the vast majority of the comments are short and offer only sentiments of surprise and support like the above mentioned examples, the affirmation people receive on Baobeihuijia is uplifting for families grieving so deeply. Finding this type of community in specific online forums encourages these vulnerable families to turn to each other and know that they are not alone in their struggles. While it is a similarity that no one should have to share, experiencing something with others is collectively rewarding and individually empowering.

Sites like Baobeihuijia may be empowering for individuals without missing family members, as well. Other users on the website include dedicated volunteers who aid families in searching for their missing and abducted children. As easily as one can create a Baobeihuijia profile, in four simple steps, interested parties can register to be a volunteer. Individuals must first read the required materials that showcase guidelines, followed by inputting personal information, creating a profile, and completing the registration. Through this simple process, Baobeihuijia empowers anyone with access to the internet to make a difference. The opening statement of the volunteer registration page reads, “作为志愿者:如果您平时上网条件便利、时间固定,并且不影响到您的生活和工作,那么您可以加入宝贝回家志愿者QQ群,进一步的参与志愿者工作。[You may become a volunteer if you have convenient access to the internet, regular time, the volunteering wouldn’t influence your work life, and you can join the volunteer group on QQ.][37] Since the requirements for volunteering are so vague, individuals from essentially all walks of life to be able to get involved, including those with little to no background in the field, as well as lower income people. While internet access was previously a sign of wealth, today nearly half of the population in China has regular access to the internet, and this is the greatest requirement for volunteering.[38]

An additional rewarding element for volunteers on Baobeihuijia is having direct involvement in challenging the effectiveness of the official power by taking their own concerted efforts. There is widespread distrust of the established systems in China, and Baobeihuijia effectively incorporates this phenomenon in their initial volunteer guidelines. The website states that Baobeihuijia “offers caring volunteers an opportunity to hold a unique position in the legal system through helping others find their family members [是独具法人资格的地方性非营利社会公益团体.]”[39] This incentive hints to the Chinese people’s disillusionment with the current legal system. The organization continues to describe their primary objective, which is to support and care for children, and secondly to build harmony together (“本协会的宗旨是:关爱儿童,共筑和谐。”).[40] Through challenging the effectiveness of the legal authorities and working towards harmony, volunteering for Baobeihuijia is a prime example of how the internet helps promote counter public spheres that can provide individuals with a new and empowering sense of what it means to be a citizen.[41]

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Another widely used online method for finding family is through Sina Weibo, which is similar to America’s Twitter. Users on Baobeihuijia have the option of signing into the the website through their already established Weibo account, much like the way many Western websites are linked to Facebook. Weibo is considered to be a major gateway website by many and is China’s leading news website.[42] On Weibo, users create an account and can post 140 character blurbs, as well as share images, videos, and other online forms of media. Anyone who chooses to share family searching posts one Weibo is like a volunteer in a sense – only without the application process. With just the click of the share (转发) button, users can feel that they, too, are part of this larger family reunification process. This means that despite a lack of free time or the restrictions of an intense career, Weibo users are empowered to become civically engaged online, even if they can’t manage the time offline.

Sina Weibo further empowers individuals in the midst of family searches to get their message out to the public. While the community on Baobeihuijia is comprised of thousands of people, there are some 500 million microbloggers, over 56% of China’s population on the internet.[43] The most popular microblogging website is, without a doubt, Sina Weibo.[44] The high prevalence of microblogs shows the need for the Chinese population to have a public space where they can express themselves.[45] This sheer number of bloggers in China is a clear benefit of using microblogging mediums, like Weibo. Through the inclusion of personal contact information and public hashtags, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that people are intending to reach out to other users who are not necessarily friends or acquaintances online. Marginalized people often times include the @username of celebrities or journalists in hopes that these popular opinion leaders will pick up their story or respond in some way.[46] The expanded network of people these posts will reach only amplify the voices of individuals and increase the chances of the lost family members being found.

Taking action into their own hands through microblogging, people are continuously posting and fighting on behalf of important issues. One Weibo, the search term, “找亲生父母 (find birthparents)” garnered 12 pages of results. “寻人启事 (missing person announcement)” had 20 pages, and “宝贝回家 (baby come home)” resulted in 22 pages of posts. A post by 王于京 Wang Yujing under the search term, 找亲生父母, had just eight comments but nearly 100 shares. This was reposted by 深圳龙岗交警 (the Shenzhen Longgang police), 中国新闻网 (China News Network), 新浪四川 (Sina Sichuan), 南充播报 (Nanchong Broadcast), and 微成都 (Wei Chengdu), where the post attracted the attention of hundreds of new readers. This type of new networking technology is what Teng Biao calls, “the power of the powerless.”[47] In this example, the individual was able to successfully connect to larger institutions with a greater number of followers to further disperse the message.

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【帮尿毒症女孩找亲生父母!24年未见,只想见最后一面】24年前,一对四川仪陇夫妇,因生活窘迫,将女儿交给成都的程慧敏,女孩随后到了眉山,取名陈春梅。去年,女孩患尿毒症,亲人是最好肾源,但她说:“我不指望亲生父母出钱、换肾,只想在生命最后见见他 . ” http://t.cn/RUlrsre”%5B48%5D

[Help uremia woman find her biological parents. After 24 years without seeing them, she just wants to meet them. 24 years ago, a couple in Sichuan got married. Due to poverty, they sent their daughter to Chengdu. The girl soon after went to Meishan and was named Chen Chunmei. Last year, the girl suffered from uremia. Close relatives are the best match for a kidney, but she says, “I don’t hope for my biological parents to pay money or donate their kidney, I just want to finally meet them.”]

This Weibo post urges readers to help the young woman reunite with her birth parents. The mention of her medical condition garners an additional emotional response. After being moved by this snippet of her story, Weibo users can follow the link to a longer article about her. There are also a host of comments on some of the subsequent shares, most of which are in support of her, while a few are negative. A few selected comments read, “帮转,希望可以实现她唯一的心愿 (Hope she can achieve this wish),” “那么年轻就得这病 (She is so young to get this illness [crying emoji]),” and “希望你可以找到他们 (Hope you can find them [ heart emoji]).”[49]

A Weibo post like this shows individualized empowerment in several ways. The platform, Weibo, empowers individuals from all walks of life and from various socio-economic backgrounds to become civically engaged. Weibo can be accessed from both desktop computer as well as smartphone, and in less than a second, a simple 转发(share) can be done by those with the busiest of schedules. This post is more importantly empowering for the individual involved in the search. Weibo is a free medium in which people can promote their cause and have the chance of their post being widely shared or even picked up by a celebrity or news channel’s account. While it doesn’t have the same sense of common community like Baobeihuijia, Weibo users create community by who they choose to follow and who follows them. The support via shares and encouraging comments is uplifting and empowering to the individuals who turn to Weibo as a means of family reunification.

“In the olden days, Chinese waited for the benevolent official of myth and fiction to come and deliver justice: Today people wait for microblogs to apply pressure, administering some semblance of justice,” argues Zhang Ming, an online journalist.[50] This is significant in that the internet, more specifically microblogging, grants people a newfound space to articulate their ideas, concerns, and personal matters. Microblogs like Weibo allow people to express themselves in ways that were previously kept private or among close friends. The internet has thus empowered users to connect and bear witness to problems in society, and it is this sense of “grievance sharing” through visibility that has motivated microbloggers to become involved in these larger matters like family reunification.[51] Moreover, it suggests that perhaps the name given to information and communication technology as the “liberation technologies” is fitting for individuals who utilize the web for cyber activism and civic engagement.

 

Discussion:

Cyberspace as a whole can be considered as a heterotopia, and within it exist even more heterotopias.[52] BBS forums like Baobeihuijia and other social media sites may be heterotopic spaces with required registration processes and selective online communities, but we should not mistake their otherness for irrelevance to the offline world. Since the start of Baobeihuijia in 2007, the hardworking volunteers and online users have located over 1304 children.[53] This in itself indicates significant offline implications of online activity.

While these websites have done wonders for families as a medium to relocate loved ones, Baobeihuijia does not push netizens to think and act on the larger issues in relation to family separation, such as child abduction and domestic or international adoption. The website Baobeihuijia is very congruent with the apolitical nature of the Chinese internet because it doesn’t challenge the government, address the question of why children are being kidnapped and abducted, or directly defile police and local or national governmental response to missing children. In other terms, Baobeihuijia is not a preventative measure. Instead, it serves as a response to a horrifying situation.

Unlike Baobeihuijia, the website Sina Weibo does provide a slightly more political platform for users, despite the carnavalistic atmosphere of the Chinese internet. Many users on Weibo have written posts in the hopes of persuading the government to take a stronger stance against child trafficking, advocating harsher consequences for both traffickers and the buyers of children, even promoting use of capital punishment. There were some 37 pages of results just under the search “人贩子 死刑 (human traffickers death penalty).” 用户3645675531 says, “人贩子抓到就应该判死刑,这比杀人还要恶劣,为什么判刑如此轻? [Child traffickers should be arrested at once and sentenced to the death penalty. These murders are evil, why are they sentenced so lightly?]”[54] Another user, 湘南唐宗骏, writes, “死刑是人贩子最好的归宿!因为人贩子没成功做案一次就会破碎一个家,对社会的破坏性极大! [The death penalty is traffickers’ best kind of return because they didn’t succeed in their case and they have smashed a family to pieces. They are enormously destructive to society].”[55]

These are some of the more passionate views on Weibo. Many others simply ask to see buyers of trafficked children punished, as well. Under the current Criminal Law in China, child abductors face a sentence of just five to ten years in prison.[56] In some more serious cases, such as abducting more than three children, causing death or serious injury, or selling a child overseas, the traffickers face prison terms of 10 years to the death penalty.[57] The conversation about suitable punishment for those involved in child trafficking became a trending issue on Weibo in June of 2015.[58] While the national debate over the death penalty continues, progress has been made in regards to punishment for buyers of abducted children. As of August of 2015, a recent amendment to the Criminal Law now makes the buying of children punishable by law. This concrete change due to online activism demonstrates that individual empowerment does have the potential to reach a wider scale.

On a less concrete, but perhaps equally important level, the possibility of family reunification through the Sina Weibo and Baobeihuijia provides individuals with a sense of hope that wasn’t available even a decade ago. The registration page of Baobeihuijia paints this tearful image of a family in pain and despair after losing their child:

“爸爸的牵挂好多好多,妈妈的思念好苦好苦,为了找回宝贝,爸爸不惧风霜雪雨,妈妈不惜倾家荡产,可父母的力量终究是有限的,绝大多数的家庭至今仍没找到自己的宝贝,那种断肠碎心的思念,那种撕肝裂胆的痛楚.”[59]

[Father has many concerns; mother’s longing is so painful. In order to try to find their baby, the father doesn’t fear the wind, frost, snow or rain. The mother doesn’t hesitate to lose her fortune or property. But parents’ power in the end is limited. The overwhelming majority of families so far still have not found their children. That kind of heartbreak fragments the heart’s thoughts, those kind of tears splits the liver splits and the gall bladder pain.]

This kind of grief is something no family should have to experience, yet it is the reality for too many families in China. Where there is a general distrust of the government and established entities, like the police force, the internet can provide an alternative source of hope for struggling families. Not only can families turn to each other for support online, individuals of all walks of life can have some agency in the search process for their missing child through producing their own internet content and posting notices of their own. Additionally, families know that there is a dedicated team of volunteers working on their behalf. The volunteers at Baobeihuijia say they will gladly shut down their service and hope for that day to arrive soon.[60] In order for that to happen, no more children would go missing and no more families would experience the pain described in the above passage. Zhang, the founder of baobehuijia, confidently says, “But before that, we will continue to be determined to contribute our efforts.”[61]

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Conclusion:

The internet in China is a critical way for netizens to interact with each other, share news, and find entertainment. Moreover, the internet has proved the ability to bring about individual empowerment. Using family reunification as a specific lens, it is clear that the websites Baobeihuijia and Weibo are changing they ways in which separated parents and children look for each other by empowering people to be active players in their own searches. The internet in this case is used as a correctional tool when the established systems fail Chinese people.

Due to unfeasible costs and lackluster police reports, finding family members was even more challenging during the pre-internet era. The internet in China is significant because it has brought an alternative sense of hope to the thousands of parents and children separated from each other. As one of the 80,000 girls adopted from China to the United States, I personally have found a renewed sense of hope through visiting Baobeihuijia and Sina Weibo and knowing that there are people dedicated to reuniting family members and loved ones.[62] While the internet in China is not having the large-scale democratization and bottom-up empowerment effects that certain Western scholars first thought possible, the internet in China is most certainly bringing about an individualized empowerment. In a New York Times report, Clive Thompson, a Canadian journalist, stated his belief that internet communication is, in fact, bringing a revolution to China, “not with dramatic changes in ruling party or governance, but with a revolution experienced mostly as one of self-actualization: empowerment in a thousand tiny, everyday ways.”[63] To the families who have reunited with loved ones and the remaining people who now have hope through these alternative online channels, these “tiny, everyday ways” are not only revolutionary, but they can be life altering.

 

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晓, 冰. “[女孩] 1993年09月27日出生即被遗弃在湖北省枣阳市第一人民医院厕所门后的 马平寻亲157151.” 宝贝回家. November 29, 2015. Accessed December 15, 2015. http://bbs.baobeihuijia.com/thread-253670- 1-1.html.

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4 responses to “Individual Empowerment Through Chinese Internet: Pursuing Family Reunification

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