Shanghai’s Smuggled Children

This MSNBC story on child abductions in China prompted me to write up a recent experience. Earlier this month, my girlfriend and I celebrated my birthday over Japanese teppanyaki on Nanyang Lu (南阳路) in Shanghai, right behind the Plaza 66 shopping mall and Ritz-Carlton hotel.

We had managed to ignore the old man peering in through the window, beckoning alternately to sell flowers to us,  have a glass of our plum wine, or just for a cash handout.  But as we headed for the exit at 11pm, the stirring activity outside caught my peripheral vision.  I put my girlfriend on notice ~ if they accost us, I’m not backing down.

About 10 steps out onto a road, a boy who looked about 2 and a half (but turned out to be 5) came up begging for money.  Shooed him away a few times wasn’t working.  Then  I froze and looked around.  Where the heck is his adult handler?   There is no adult.  That’s it!

Next thing we both knew, the little boy was hoisted up in my arms.  We’ll either find out where the adult is or we’ll walk him to the police station.  Either my Mandarin or my muscles are about to get a workout.

Turned out to be both.  After we turned the corner, a lady of 50 years old or so emerged, grinning big and shadowing from a far distance.  That’s her I knew, but I kept my direction toward the police station.  She got closer, and so I started shouting at her why she was using this little boy to beg for money, and why the heck he’s not in bed! The boy was sobbing all the while and, as if in a trance, uttering “xie xie, xie xie” over and over and over.  As we walked on, the lady got closer, asking to have the kid back.   My girlfriend, a non-Shanghai Chinese, was a hero and tough, repeating to the little boy that we were going to the police station and ordering me not to try and talk reason to the beggar woman.

We walked 20 minutes down Shanghai’s Beijing Road, a major thoroughfare.  Lots of rubbernecking at the site of me, a white foreigner and my girlfriend taking turns carrying this little boy, with the beggar lady trailing.  No one even came close to intervening or trying to mediate the situation, which is all too typical for China (I’ll note here that picking up the boy and carting him off is not a good or respectful thing to do to him as a person, and I know that.  Open use of children night after night for panhandling just get to me after a while.)

About 25 minutes after we began this journey, we reached the police (turned out my gf had to call them.)  Two patrol cars and 4 officers, who took turns discussing the situation.

Amazingly, as we explained what was going on to the police, none of them tried to take the sobbing child from my arms.  The beggar woman consistently positioned herself to keep eye contact with the kid, mouthing words to him, which of course I couldn’t see as I was looking forward and he backwards over my shoulder.  The police asked me several times if my complaint was that I suspected the child was not the woman’s.  Although he called her “ayi” (auntie) and not mom, that wasn’t where I was coming from.  I told the police that it’s nearly midnight and this kid is being used for panhandling.

The Shanghai police told me that Chinese laws are different than foreign laws.  I had no choice but to shrug and accept that.  I had played the cards well throughout the saga, telling the boy within earshot of the police that he was brave and could grow up to be a good hero like these cops.  The police assuaged the situation by putting the woman and child into the patrol car “to check their IDs”.  So ended a perfect night…

Two nights ago, on the same road and 2+ weeks later, I saw that boy begging a group of men for cash, and the woman holding roses for sale.  She got one look at me and immediately called out to the boy (who were about 150 meters apart), and together they ran down the street away from me.  Booking at full speed and not looking back.  Last night, I was on the road again with my girlfriend, and another older lady beggar approached.  My gf said to her, “don’t you know who we are?  We’re the ones who got the cops involved.  The beggar stepped back in shock, speechless, and staggered off.  I conclude that whatever the cops did that night disrupted the beggars business for the night, and made for quite a story.

The next night, businesss again as usual.  Except now they keep their distance from me.

5 Replies to “Shanghai’s Smuggled Children”

  1. Wow, you are amazing. I don’t know what to say. I’m surprised the police didn’t charge you with kidnapping, because basically that’s what you did. Your intention was right but I question your action because basically at the end of it all, you didn’t accomplish anything, except now “they keep their distance from” you.

  2. John, I accomplished not being harrased as a special target for aggressive panhandling on account of being white. Given that the police allow open child abuse in this manner, are you really “surprised” that they didn’t charge me? Welcome your suggestions on what to do to alleviate the child abuse problem.

  3. I don’t have a solution, nor you; but I have the feeling that kid was abused later that night by that woman after the encounter with you. Don’t get me wrong, like I’ve said, your intention was noble, but don’t tell me that was your solution of alleviating that child’s abuse problem. I don’t know the backgrounds, but I’m sure there’s reason why that woman and kid is begging, perhaps they needed money to eat or pay for shelter. I don’t know so I can only guess; but from that perspective, begging is their job and working late is what they have to do.

  4. In interviews I’ve done with other panhandlers over the years, there are frequent admissions that they live in the outskirts of Shanghai and take a bus home at the end of the long night (morning). These beggars are on that street for a very clear reason – lots of well off drunk people who will give them money, more than they can earn doing honest work.

    As for the boy, the abuse he faces is being coached by adults to run after strangers to beg for money. If he was specially abused after the encounter with me, which I doubt, then that underscores how bad the problem of child abuse by these beggars is.

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