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[Some of the descriptions in the following are graphic and some of the things that are described are extremely unpleasant.]

Two weeks ago the YouTuber Nick Crowley posted a video with the title “TikTok’s Most Disturbing Mystery.” Crowley had gotten hold of a superb scoop, a story from China that no Western journalist or documentary maker had profiled before. The story had originally emerged on Douyin, the Chinese TikTok, before travelling to Twitter in Hong Kong and thereafter to Reddit, where Crowley had presumably spotted it.

As we shall see, this story appears to arrive in the form of some shocking “found” footage. Inhabiting the mystery and moving about within it will nonetheless require seeing with the imagination rather than with the naked eye. Indeed, I have spent most of my time researching this story with my eyes closed.  

The footage was uploaded to Douyin by a user called Beanbag Adventure, in February 2022. Where it was filmed has yet to be identified once and for all. Although Crowley situates the location “somewhere in rural China,” Ma Youtie, a Twitter user, sounds confident in instead nominating the northeast city of Changchun:

I have been to this place before. It is located in Changchun City, Jilin Province. It is an underground air-raid shelter of the Bethune Medical College of Jilin University. The adjacent houses are laboratories.

Beanbag Adventure is an urban explorer. You will be no doubt aware of what this entails. Such a person will visit a ruined building, normally in the dead of night, and they will celebrate the atmosphere. These videos often possess a hollow or strangely sterile quality, because nothing that happens in them can ever live up to their atmosphere. In the first of three videos that were filmed by Beanbag Adventure, however, the atmosphere has suddenly met its match.

He is inspecting a ruined medical facility. The sweet smell of death is in the air and it only gets more cloying and unbearable. Beanbag Adventure adventures down into the basement, where he comes across a concrete pool that is filled with either greasy water or a formaldehyde solution. In it he films the remains of dozens of children.

“The things you see next are all props,” our man on the scene announces. They are not props and he is merely saying this to avoid getting his video taken down. After filming the bodies, he vomits.

Ten months later. Beanbag Adventure returns to the facility for another two tours. Many of the bodies have since crumbled down to their skeletons. For a little light relief, our man also films discarded children’s clothes, foetuses in jars and the skeletons of adults. After his new uploads there was some disruption to his channel, conceivably because he had this time forgotten to clarify that the bodies were “props.” The entire channel was removed and when it was back the three videos of the facility were missing. After this it seems that his regular urban-exploration uploads had resumed as before, without any further acknowledgement of the ghastliness at the facility.

In researching this review, there are boundaries that I feel extremely uncomfortable about crossing. Yes, there is no way that I am ever looking at TikTok again. In addition I am not going to watch the raw footage of the charnel house. I imagine that the sadness of Beanbag Adventure’s videos would hit me hard in the pit of the stomach. I have also no eye for assessing the veracity of human decomposition. Amongst commenters on Reddit, the critical consensus is that the children’s remains are life rather than art. This is Jessica_e_sage:

I am someone who is very seasoned and desensitized to gore and decomp, I’ve seen it firsthand. Those were not props. They were real deceased human children. You could see every wretched detail. You could see each body was intricately riddled with insect damage. Each body was completely different, meaning each one would be made from scratch rather than a mold of some kind. I don’t think an SFX [special effects] master could replicate that, and if they could, it would take an ungodly amount of time and money and highly advanced skill to create them…                 

She speaks for the majority here. Those commenters who hold that the bodies are “fake” or “models” had been generally watching earlier, lower-quality versions of the videos. But this is an interesting take by Gh0stly_Galaxy:

No, no. As a forensics major, those are pretty real. There are a few scattered in there that may not be, but those are very real corpses.Decay in water looks different than it does on land. Poor kids.

Keep in mind this picture of the cocktail, or of human remains mixed with models. It might turn out to be useful. Clearly there is a common sense of some heft behind the belief that Beanbag Adventure has flushed out authentic human remains. An industry leading special-effects artist would have had to be recruited to create such a lavish spread of decomposition. They would not have volunteered this for an amateur TikTok channel, for negligible remuneration, and just to decorate three largely senseless clips.

So is this a crime scene and were the children murdered? Crowley entertains the theory that these children might be the victims of organ trafficking:

…and in the minds of many, this wasn’t just being done by some random group and instead they believed that it was being carried out by their country’s own government… The organ trade in China is quite the rabbit hole. But to make things simple, China has one of the lowest percentages of organ donors out of any major country. But despite this it’s somehow known as one of the easiest places to get an organ transplant, especially for wealthy individuals. People even travel there from other countries, to get life-saving procedures…

China certainly has far shorter waiting times for organ transplants than in comparable countries. Moreover, its government has been widely accused of timetabling the executions of prisoners from religious minorities in response to the demand for organs. Within this scheme of things children would have to be a separate case. State orphanages would have to be complicit in handing over deceased children to the organ traffickers or, even worse, live ones. In 2015 there were seven-hundred-thousand children housed in China’s state orphanages, many of whom had been left in “baby hatches” by parents who were too poor to care for them or who did not want their “one child” to be a disabled one.

This nightmarish interpretation of the footage disconcerts me. What does it say about China and what does it say about us? Let us begin, though, with what it might say about Beanbag Adventure. Maybe the man isn’t totally all there. But if he has really rumbled a load of organ traffickers, then his videos fluctuate dizzyingly between bravado and unconcern.

 On the one hand, he returns on two further occasions to an active crime scene in an isolated area, seemingly without a weapon to defend himself and without any friends or family knowing of his whereabouts. Having taken this extraordinary risk, he next uploads the footage to his own TikTok channel, along with images of his own face and recordings of his own voice. If I was in his shoes, I would have anonymously gotten the footage out of the country, and distributed it to foreign media outlets. On the other hand, why the ten-month gap? If children are being killed at this site, shouldn’t there be a spot more urgency to his investigations? And why doesn’t he appeal to any chance help from other people on Douyin, by simply identifying the location?

Crowley speaks as though Beanbag Adventure’s videos had excited commentary across “the nation” of China. But he actually fails to establish the true scale of the original reaction to the footage. It is hard to see how anyone outside of China could measure this. Crowley might be influenced by the sharing of the video on the @minshengbaitai Twitter account, which aggressively pushes an organ-trafficking narrative. This account purports to operate out of Hong Kong and it has only nine-thousand followers. Ma Youtie, whose comment is quoted above, will have needed to get around China’s Twitter block if she is writing from Gansu.

It is implied in Crowley’s video that no commentary from China can be salvaged and quantified because the state is controlling and manipulating the media. It could be that there is no commentary for the same reasons that no Western media organisation has run this story. Because they are too inefficient to pick it up or because they cannot confirm that the footage is genuine or because its location cannot be identified. Likewise it is implied that Beanbag Adventure has been sinisterly silenced and pressurised into deleting his videos. It could be that he has fallen silent for the same reasons that we might do in his circumstances. Because a channel called “Beanbag Adventure” is hardly the most suitable place for airing footage of people’s dead children.

China has an authoritarian government that intimidates, harasses and imprisons political dissidents. It is wise to remember this when considering Beanbag Adventure’s footage, but we should make equally sure that, in our horror, we do not unthinkingly tip over into racist clichés. When the Jews had been the Other, libels had been repeatedly spread in which they had kidnapped and ritualistically murdered children and, in some instances, hidden their remains in wells. When Catholics had been the Other, the allegory of the Vampyre had arisen, in which inhumanly passive peasants would accept the losses of their children as a kind of tithe. People studying Beanbag Adventure’s footage should be careful that they do not see flickers of this defunct imagery.

A little of this racism has crept into Crowley’s video:

Due to this video having been posted in 2022, this automatically rules out the idea that this was part of China’s one-child policy, as that was abolished back in 2015. Plus, that policy wouldn’t have matched anyway, as some of the children seen in that water were, well just that: children. None of them were infants…which seems to immediately rule out this explanation.

As if under the one-child policy, it was routine for dead babies to be left lying around in piles. As if the Chinese are this inhuman!

Real evil has been caught on camera by Beanbag Adventure. The remains of children have been dehumanised and treated with a vicious disrespect (this is one of the reasons why I won’t watch the footage or link to it). And it is upsetting to think of children being carried across this oceanic distance from parents who will miss them and who will have loved them. But I suspect that Beanbag Adventure has filmed an evil akin to the “banality” that had been described by Hannah Arendt. An evil that is ultimately an absence, of imagination and of the empathy that results from imagination. A carelessness, in short.

Two commenters beneath Crowley’s video, Thalatash and Pierangelo Tendas, come up with a plausible reason as to why children’s bodies could be in the basement. The latter writes that:                  

If those bodies were from victims of a Government-sponsored organ traffic, they would have most likely been disposed of by cremation. On the other hand, the variety of remains (from jars of fetuses, to kids, to fully grown adults) makes me think of some illegal cost-cutting disposal operation by an overcrowded morgue, anatomy lab, mortuary, or the like.     

What we are seeing in Beanbag Adventure’s videos might be therefore basically flytipping. This can feel even more chilling than the organ-trafficking narrative does, because human beings have been treated as if they are valueless and just garbage. At an overflowing morgue, children’s bodies would be liable to be disposed of like this because they are easier for a single person to move by themselves. Perhaps an old medical facility was selected as the dumping ground because it was thought that the bodies would “blend in” more or attract less attention at such a site. Mixing them up with anatomical models, in a formaldehyde tank, might have been a sloppy attempt to hide them, by a morgue worker who was too uneducated to know how medical facilities are really meant to be organised.

The depredations of rats might explain the opened chest cavities amongst the children. Accounting for the missing heads is rather more of a challenge. If the children are “waste” from a medical school, then heads would have been removed for dentistry classes and chests would have been opened for educational dissection. Intestines, with their vast bacterial colonies, could have been removed to better preserve anatomical specimens.

Here in the West, human remains are sometimes treated with a startling overfamiliarity by medical students. I can remember a trainee doctor telling me a story about a man who had visited the Edinburgh University morgue to collect a corpse for dissection. In one corridor he had stood dumbfounded with horror. As a practical joke, a human nipple had been stuck to the button on the wall beside the elevator.

The dumping of human remains in Beanbag Adventure’s footage should be a scandal that is howling to the rafters. The fact that it still isn’t might represent a failure of the infrastructure of YouTube documentaries and a broader reneging upon citizen journalism. In Crowley’s video, the sensationalist presentation, complete with sinisterly kitsch stock footage of children’s dolls, barges between the viewer and the story. Clichés are thus encouraged to trample all over the real horror. The mainstream media will be less inclined to run a story if it is polluted with this silliness. Far from being ruthlessly spiked, Beanbag Adventure’s footage was up for ten months on Douyin, where it may have attracted scant attention only due to its links to urban exploration. 

It is worth noting too that commercial big tech has played an active role in suppressing this footage. Douyin appears to have taken it down once it became aware of its graphic nature. In the West, YouTube penalises the investigation of gory and disturbing mysteries. Maybe this explains why the Western mainstream media is yet to notice such a remarkable story.

[Previously on Tychy: “Podcast Review: Unearthed (The Real Bloody Mackenzie).”]