Risking Life for a Better Future in China: Bridal Trafficking in Asia
Bridal trafficking from neighboring countries to China is still an issue to date. Desperate to leave their unfortunate life at home and/or to help their families to improve their financial situations, women find themselves attracted to false promises of human traffickers.
As a result, only in the last decade thousands of women have been trafficked from Southeast Asian countries to China and sold to Chinese men.
Despair and hope for a better life as a driving force
A recent example from this year demonstrates the viciousness of bridal trafficking cases. A 16 year old Cambodian girl was deceived by a Chinese man, a part of shetou 蛇头 [snakehead] gang, who promised her a better and happier life in China. He persuaded her to go first to Hanoi, Vietnam, and then smuggled her illegally with other women to China. After arriving in China, she was sold to a Chinese man from Jiangxi province. There, she was forced into house arrest, living in inhumane conditions, where she was sexually abused. As a result, she contracted a venereal disease and experienced a general health decline. Her mother, in the meanwhile, was desperately looking for the girl, and the case was brought to the public by the media. Thus, the Chinese police, together with the Cambodian government, were able to identify the perpetrator and help the girl to get away. Despite her being a victim, she was held responsible for crossing the Chinese border illegally.
Another media report describes a severe trafficking case where 15 Cambodian women were used as sex slaves for Chinese men. On September 8, 2021, the Phnom Penh Court charged a Cambodian woman (a factory worker) with the abduction of 15 women and sentenced her to 7 years in prison. The woman claimed that the 15 victims voluntarily asked her to help them marry rich Chinese men so that they can improve their financial situation.
Job hunting fraud
Women who are trying to find better-paid jobs are also at risk. Looking for higher salaries in a more economically developed country, they are falling into the trap of human traffickers. However, in some cases, victims (especially in rural areas) are being contacted by ‘recruiters’ and invited to bigger cities in their home countries. Once they meet, a trafficking gang will kidnap them and bring them abroad with force.
Deprived of rights and protection
The cases mentioned above demonstrate the lack of preventive education that would inform women of the possibilities of human trafficking. Many victims are unaware of future hardships related to an illegal border crossing and undocumented stay in China. Once trafficked, women face a lack of legal protection. Thus, many are afraid of reporting abuses to the police. Moreover, the lack of a clear legal definition of bridal trafficking halts the process of finding an effective approach to deal with such cases. Even if the victim reports, the police often neglect such cases and regard them as domestic disputes.
Demographic imbalances and economic growth in China at the origin of the demand
China’s one-child policy and the preference for male babies have led to a massive gender disproportion. According to the Seventh National Population Census in 2020, the number of male inhabitants living in China was 723 million, while female inhabitants were 688 million. Many Chinese men, thus, face difficulties finding wives, which has led to a brutal business of bride trafficking where men order brides from Southeast Asia and other neighboring states. Moreover, the one-child policy, which was implemented from 1979 to 2015, stimulated many parents to believe that if they were allowed to have only one child, that child must be a male. This desire of having a son is explained by the belief that while a female child marries and joins the husband’s family at some point, the male child stays with and supports his parents.
Old traditions have also played a part in creating the bride trafficking situation. For example, matchmaking or arranged marriages where a man’s family has to pay a price for a bride to show his financial capability is common in many Asian cultures. As Lhomme et al. wrote: “In some cases, the female victim may voluntarily move to China for a marriage to gain a better financial status, only to later realize she was deceived after ending up in a poor suburban family. Thus, the concept of voluntariness in those transnational marriages makes it hard to find a clear boundary between a bride trafficking case and a simply unsuccessful arranged marriage […].”
The economic and political growth of China might have also contributed to the issue. Particularly the implementation of such international cooperation projects as the Belt and Road Initiative. Due to more relaxed trade and, thus, border regulations, traffickers could have been able to find ways of smuggling women into the country.
Studies show that the trafficked women and girls are often from ethnic or religious minorities, poor communities, or fleeing their own regime of violence. The fragile governments from where the women and girls are trafficked often neglect the rights of women and girls. Moreover, all the countries where women and girls are trafficked have complex relationships and deep power imbalances with China. Thus, the issue is growing gradually, and it is impossible to ignore.
Gaps in current regulations and cooperation
To combat the issue, the Chinese government produced regulations. Among them, the following can be found: cooperation and data sharing between the countries; public propaganda against human trafficking; stricter border control; education (only for Chinese citizens); screening of social media activities using such tools as word search; management of marriage registrations; conducting regular police check-ups; mobilizing social forces; striving for a balanced sex ratio of China’s population; and lenient treatment for victims. Although comprehensive, these official regulations refer to human trafficking in general. There is no specific approach for dealing with bridal trafficking which is partially due to the lack of a universal definition of bride trafficking. Moreover, there is still a lack of cooperation between the countries, the work of foreign NGOs is limited due to the law restrictions in China and local Chinese NGOs only voice the interests of Chinese citizens.
Call for more consistent action
Despite the general efforts between Southeast Asian countries and China to combat bridal trafficking, instances of selling women to Chinese men are still occurring to date. Through available materials online, it can be seen that such cases are dealt with after the women have been trafficked. Therefore, it is necessary to highlight the importance of establishing preventive measures and stricter border control to prevent traffickers from smuggling women, as well as harsher punishment for traffickers.
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