Cases of human trafficking are continuously popping up in the Chinese media, forcing the government to pay attention to a phenomenon it has otherwise largely overlooked. Now, the rise of social media is making authorities listen even more to citizens, after several kidnapping and human trafficking incidents were picked up on Weibo, China's version of Twitter.
Officials fearing social unrest driven by the service's more than 300 million users have been forced to act, recognizing that Weibo is often an outlet for the demand for reforms that citizens want. That means most of all better respect for basic human rights.
As the nation's human rights issues persist -- with exiled political dissidents, press censorship, religious restriction among other problems -- China's population is increasingly impatient with the government's promised reforms. And one of the things that haven't changed yet is the risk for many of China's poor children of being kidnapped and turned into forced labor.
On Dec. 4, one Weibo user from Sichuan province publicized the case of seven elementary school girls kidnapped from their school and forced to work in a toy factory. The girls were reportedly lured into a van with promises of money, and have been missing since. One child managed to contact home and say that they were working in the toy factory. The area of Sichuan where the seven missing children are from is particularly poor. The average income per capita in rural Sichuan is 5,140 yuan, a little more than $800, compared to almost three times that figure in Shanghai. The poverty-stricken area is particularly vulnerable to traffickers looking to exploit child labor.
News blog The Shanghaiist reported that authorities did not act on the case until the next day, after the Weibo post had gone viral, being reposted and forwarded thousands of times. Many responded to the post, angered that the only action that had been taken at the time was a public announcement that the girls had been abducted, with no plan for action.
"Zhaojue Education Secretary, a task force led by the deputy governor and the Public Security Bureau have long been in Guangdong [where the factory is located], yet they did not receive the message of the missing children," the original post said.
Finally, the local government of Zhaojue County stepped up the search, but it took three days.
Some users expressed their disappointment: "Three days? This is an emergency situation!" one posted.
Another put his feelings on China's continued trafficking problems simply: "Human trafficking, kill it!"
One Weibo account created last year by Yu Jianrong, a professor at the China Academy of Social Sciences, really draws attention to how extensive the problem is. Yu wanted to bring the attention of China's web users to the plight of China's poorest children, vulnerable to kidnapping, and of parents who have had their children taken. Yu has gained hundreds of thousands of followers on his account, which posts pictures of street children in the hope that their parents will see the photos and find them. As of last year, six children were found as a result of the Weibo campaign.
When the account was initially opened, it created a lot of mainstream media buzz and had many supporters in China, until officials realized it put a magnifying glass on the problem.
The state-run Global Times newspaper released an article condemning the campaign:
"The real side effects of the online campaign against child abductions have barely been mentioned in the media, which is overwhelmingly applauding the effectiveness of the blog-based effort. A few well-known scholars have actually privately voiced their concerns on this campaign, but they seem reluctant to openly express their views."
After expressing vague disapproval for the campaign, they newspaper then goes on to explain why such initiatives should be stopped:
"Chinese society has paid heavily for lessons over ideological clashes. Similar tragedies must be prevented in the cyber world."
The not-so-subtle nod to China's past "ideological clashes" is a likely reference the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, in which millions of people died, which is hardly comparable to a campaign to reunite kidnapped children with their parents.
It is unlikely that Internet attention on China's persistent kidnapping and trafficking problem will create such an uproar that it will result in another Cultural Revolution. But social upheaval is not out of the question. China's watchdog Internet users do have the power to mobilize hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people if the government does not answer to the netizens' pleas for social reform.