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Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit

By Zuo Likun (
Updated: 2011-02-16 12:27
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Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit

Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit


Soon after a grass-roots Internet campaign was launched by Professor Yu Jianrong, urging Web users to take snapshots of children begging on the streets and post the photos online in the hope that family members will see them, the whole country has galvanized into a collective enthusiasm, flooding a Twitter-style micro blog with thousands of photos.

So far, six abducted children have been reunited with their families, including a dramatic case. (Links in this page may not be in English)










Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit


News Analysis: Thus, at first blush, there seems indeed every reason to cheer for the snapshot campaign that emboldened the public fever of participation so efficiently and rescued six abducted children so swiftly that it put government agencies to shame. The grass-roots Internet operation, single-handedly initiated by a civic-minded professor by virtue of the 21st century tool of social networking, set off a chain of civic-spirited public discussions over a broad range of topics, including child beggars and its roots, children's right to beg, child kidnapping and its causes, concerns over individual privacy, civic and independent journalism, accountability of police and relevant government officials, as well as the role of NGOs.

Following are some highlights.  

Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit

 The Target is Abduction Not Begging  


An undercurrent of the campaign has been its blunt and rude cry for action to call the police whenever there is a child beggar. Informed scholars and savvy netizens quickly pointed out the danger of this over-simplified tactic as it missed the original target of child abduction. It also threatened to leave the public momentum in danger of being wasted in chaos and, more important, to backfire the civic spirit with a jitteriness about any tentative grass-roots initiative in the future. 

Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit

 Kidnapping for Beggar Exploitation Rare  


Latest reports in Chinese media have confirmed - to the wonder of photo-shooting, police-calling campaign fanatics - a counter-intuitive fact that most child beggars are indeed victims of poverty, asking for life's mercy on the streets with, not greedy kidnappers, but their parents or relatives. The already suffering beggars would only be more insulted if forced to endure the unsolicited Internet exposure, the unauthorized portrait publication, the unlooked-for police interrogations and DNA tests, in the end only to be released onto the streets again. (Such measures cost lots of labor and money, which could better help the poor more directly.) The public indignation over kidnapping alone doesn't vindicate such an ill-considered expediency that injures the already suffering. 

Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit

 Abduction Mirrors Welfare Absence 


The question - who is buying the stolen kids and for what? – sounds disarmingly simple but is tough to crack. To put it simply, China lacks a comprehensive public welfare network, especially in the rural areas, where the age-old tenet, "Rear son for help in old age," is still deeply ingrained. Translation: If you don't have a son, buy one. And arguably, the country's family planning policy may have helped worsen the situation as tradition holds that a family has more than just one offspring. So where to come? All these factors may partially explain why there is a market for human trafficking in China (women are also victims, though that's another issue). So, without a systematic improvement in China's public welfare, and just targeting its fallout of kidnapping, it's almost guaranteed that the die-hard abductors will just keep at it.

Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit

 Lack of Government Commitment  


The grass-roots campaign has succeeded in rescuing six children. But like it or not, this is an uphill battle that civic forces alone can't fight. The government, with its commanding power to deploy ample resources, has a central role to play in the cause. However, no a blame game,  the inconvenient truth is that, there is a lack of commitment from officials (do we have to call the police 11 times to invoke a response?), a lack of information sharing among public agencies (we actually have a national DNA database for lost kids, but it's underused, and maybe underfunded too), a lack of recognition of and willingness to work with a mobilized, dedicated popular mass (how come the swift rescue now, but not before?). Rightly, the government is now urging the public to alert police whenever they suspect kidnapping. But something more must be done now. GDP growth can't cure all. The government must come up with better measures than relying on such an intangible hope as waiting for another three decades of economic boom to solve all the problems in one stroke. 

Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit

 Child Has A Right to Beg? 


This is perhaps the most conflict-ridden argument so far in the debate. Polarizing opinions, out of different approaches to defending basic rights and human sympathies, are relentless in their attacks on each other.

The pro coalition insists that begging, arguably one of the oldest occupations, is no doubt the last resort of survival for any human being, be it child or not; denying the alms bowl is not merely hypocritical but cruel, particularly in areas without a sound social welfare system. The con camp disputes that children shouldn't be the subject of a right to beg on the street issue but subject of a right to learn at school and thus object of welfare protection; insisting on children's right to beg is a shameless inaction and hypocritical irresponsibility.

To reduce the vitriol, both arguments have their flaws. The pro camp should emphasize and suggest more about what the government and the public could do to help the beggars; the con camp may be a bit too rosy on the efficiency of public welfare and could be accused of being less callous if it voiced more support for the equally desperate beggars who are handicapped.

In fact, the begging-right debate, if taking a back seat to the anti-abduction rescue operation, would have attracted less vitriol for the campaign and contributed more by focusing on its ultimate goal, to summon up more public support to save the coerced beggars and eradicate the kidnappers, and to enhance the public awareness of civil rights. 








Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit

On Jan 17, a letter asking for help to find a missing boy reached Professor Yu Jianrong, who then posted the message on his Twitter-style micro blog, which went viral on the Internet.

On Jan 25, Professor Yu created a micro blog, "Street Photos to Rescue Child Beggars," urging more public participation to save abducted children beggars. Snapshots began to flood the micro blog.

What followed has been largely spontaneous rather than organized.

First, micro blog celebrities, Yao Chen (with over 5,900,000 followers), Wang Fei (2 million followers), and others forwarded the message and turbocharged it into an Internet sensation.

Then, at a time of hyped public fever, opinion leaders, including popular bloggers, scholars, lawyers as well as columnists joined the public debate and steered the movement to more in-depth and broader discussions.

On Feb 10, public security authorities pledged to increase their efforts to rescue abducted child beggars, seeking more information from the grass-roots campaign.


Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit


1. How do you think the campaign will end?

· Save many abductees and deter kidnappers
· Lost in wrongly targeting beggars
· Force kidnappers to flee and hard to track
· Don't know

2. What do you think of the campaign?

·A justified and glorified endeavor
·A call for a more responsive government
·A model of grass-roots society
·A passing fad of Internet sensation
·Don't know

3. What can be done about child beggars?

·Ban it; house them in govt agencies
·Boost public welfare to subsidize the poor
·It is a pity, but can't be eradicated
·Don't know

4. What major barriers hinder the rescue?

·Kidnappers are hard to track
·The cause is underfunded
·Government isn't committed
·The punishment is toothless
·A poor kidnapping DNA database
·The market for kidnapping


Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit





































































Conclusions: To sum up, first, the grass-roots snapshot initiative has been a brilliant Internet social networking try-out; its weaknesses and flaws shouldn't be used as an excuse for over-caution or jitteriness, but a source of imperfect precedent that could lead future civic attempts on social reforms to fewer setbacks, and perhaps finally a pinnacle of harmony. Second, the fact that abduction topics suddenly topped national TV and newspaper headlines is a subtle reminder of the micro blog's potential power to motivate, inform social forces for a mature citizenship. Finally, the firestorm of public attention is largely helpful for the anti-abduction cause, by renewing focus on an old sore in society and pressing government agencies to be more responsive to, not only the lost kids and homeless beggars, but also other unattended miseries.

Snapshot in Focus: Evolution of Civic Spirit

To keep the campaign's momentum on the right track, euphoria intoxicated netizens need more sanity now. Any grass-roots movement, by definition loosely controlled to make it more vibrant, has a tendency of wandering off the mark and trespassing into the wrong place. The ongoing snapshot campaign is no exception. The good news is, with the flaring outbreak of civic debates to check its flaws and conflicts, the campaign has a better chance to grow and mature.