I write today in support of a documentary that is currently under production, Living with Dead Hearts: The Search for China's Kidnapped Children, which chronicles a tragic and widespread problem. It is directed by Charlie Custer, of ChinaGeeks fame, and he has written some excellent background articles for Foreign Policy and China Hush. Jim Gourley has also put up a piece on this sad topic.
Child-rearing is central to the Confucian project of creating and reproducing ren - 仁 - "humanity" or "humaneness" or "benevolence," the highest moral accomplishment. When asked what is his "greatest ambition," Confucius (5.25) replies: "To comfort the old, trust my friends, and to cherish the young." Indeed, conscientious care of children instills a moral sense that radiates outward to society at large; it is one of those interpersonal practices which, when done properly by enough people, add to a greater social good. When we take good care of our children, we contribute to creating a better world.
Mencius gets at this theme when he discusses how the great sage-king Shun disobeyed his parents. His depraved father would not permit him to get married, which Shun understood as a filial crisis of sorts: if he did not get married, he would not be able to raise children and, thus, he would fail at the trans-filial obligation to extend the practice of humanity - 仁 - into the future. And so, famously, Shun disobeyed his parents, got married without telling them, and went on to have children. I always find this passage from Mencius to be quite moving (5A.2):
A man and a woman living together is a great bond of humankind. If he'd told his parents, he would have foresaken that great bond, and that would have been an act of hatred towad his parents. That's why he didn't tell them....
A "great bond of humankind," or, as Irene Bloom has it, "the greatest of human relationships." Although children are not explicitly mentioned in this passage, I think it is safe to say that it is understood that marriage would lead naturally to child-rearing, and that the mutual project of caring for children is a central aspect of that "great bond of humankind." (I also think that all of this can be extended into gender neutral terms, but that is an issue for another day...)
With this understanding, we can see that losing one's child to kidnapping is a deep and abiding tragedy from a Confucian point of view. Kidnapping destroys crucial apsects of humanity: a parent's relationship to a child and the interrelationship of parents themselves. It is a harm of the greatest magnitude, certainly unjustifiable.
We might pause to ask, in a utilitarian or consequentialist sort of way, if any particular kidnapping might be tolerable if it allowed for a couple who would not otherwise be able to raise a child, and produce the humanity inherent in that process, to do so. But the answer would clearly be "no." The harm inflicted by kidnapping on the child and parents (both of which are poignantly demonstrated in the trailer of the film) cannot be outweighed by the happiness produced for the new "parents".
There are, of course, regular avenues for adoption, which are certainly allowable from the perspective of Confucian ethics, that can produce humane outcomes for all. The key is intention and commitment. If birth parents realize that they cannot, in good conscience, raise the child they have just brought into the world, they can and should seek adoption in the best possible circumstances. But if they fully intend and commit themselves to raising the child, which is the case for virtually all victims of kidnapping, then their bond with that child should by no means be permitted to be broken by kidnapping.
In that, then, we see how the horrible extent of kidnapping in China - somewhere in the range of 20,000-70,000 a year (compared with 200-300 annually in the US) - is a sign of Confucian moral failure on the part of the PRC government. What is evident in the trailer for the film is that government officials just do not respond to the kidnapping crisis with sufficient attention and concern. Most likely, power and wealth and status overwhelm the clear moral exigencies. Most victims of kidnapping are not rich and powerful people and so their plight does not command the attention of the authorities, local or national. If Jiang Zeming's grandson or granddaughter were kidnapped, you can bet it would be top priority for police forces all over the country. But it shouldn't be that way. If the PRC government was guided by Confucianism, which it is most evidently not, it would recognize the kidnapping of any child as a horrendous wrong that must be righted as soon as possible, regardless of the social standing of the parents.
And finally, the plague of kidnapping tells us something about the un-Confucian aspects of Chinese society more generally. It is a business, driven by profit. Kidnappers seize children and then sell them for various purposes: young girls are sold into marriage or prostitution; boys and girls both into slave labor or begging; and some are illicitly channeled into various sorts of adoption for profits schemes, both domestically and internationally. Money is the ultimate goal. And that, for a Confucian, is a profoundly immoral purpose. Confucius and Mencius both are famous for their warnings against profit, against alllowing it to corrupt humanity.
The Master said: "If profit guides your actions, there will be no end of resentment." (4.12)
We could add to Confucius here and say there will be much more than resentment. There will be pain and anguish and inhumanity.
The very first thing Mencius says in the book that carries his name is: "Don't talk about profit!." He goes on, in 6B.4, to point out that when interpersonal relationships - parent and child, elder brother and younger brother - become infected with the pursuit of profit, "...the nation is doomed to ruin."
Kidnapping is a sign of the ruination of Confucian culture and Chinese society. Anyone who values Humanity must struggle against it. Let's hope those with power, the very people Mencius was so famous for challenging, will come to realize just how humanly and socially and culturally damaging the problem is and turn their power to finding a solution.
Contributions for the film and the cause can be made here.