Police are investigating how a hundred people came to be missing recently in Handan County, Hebei. The disappeared aren’t protesters or dissidents, they aren’t journalists, they aren’t teachers; they haven’t been victim to a mud slide, a coal mine collapse or a flood. They are a hundred young Vietnamese women, brokered into marriage to Chinese men across the border mere months ago, and now gone.
Public, verifiable facts on the case are scarce; even on the barest nature of the crime. Are the disappeared women victims or co-conspirators with their traffickers? Did they move on willingly, clandestinely, or were they forcibly kidnapped? How could a hundred people remove themselves from their new husbands without a trace left behind?
One local official says it looks like the men were scammed by a marriage broker who had lived in the county for twenty years before disappearing with the women.
Wu Meiyu was herself a Vietnamese bride, moving to the county and raising a family there with her new Chinese husband. Wu is alleged to have travelled widely this year in search of lonely male bachelors to sell Vietnamese brides to. She successfully administrated one hundred illegal marriages to these men, importing each bride individually through associates in Vietnam for a hefty fee.
On the evening of November 20, all one hundred of these women disappeared en masse. They apparently told their husbands they were attending a dinner party, but none returned at evening’s end. Except, possibly, for one.
It has been reported that one of the brides returned to her home town and filed a police report. The report claimed that upon arriving for a dinner party she was told by an unspecified person that a new husband was going to be found for her. At some point she fell unconscious and after awakening managed to make her way back to her adopted village.
This incredibly vague, frustrating anecdote raises more questions than it answers, but if true, appears to imply that the women have been trafficked against their will. On the other hand, this is the only piece of evidence pointing to the forced nature of the disappearance. If it is untrue, the likelihood of the women being scammers themselves increases.
Whether these women are victims or co-conspirators, the scale of the movement of people involved highlights the robust, entrenched criminal networks involved in human trafficking in the region – and the suffering trafficking incurs for all involved.
Human trafficking in China is a huge, murky issue. Although absolutely illegal under PRC law, it occurs constantly: domestically – with victims being abducted and transported thousands of kilometers across the huge country, to unfamiliar surrounds – and internationally, with thousands of people being smuggled in from neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and nations further afield. In some parts of China openly marrying brokered, foreign brides has become local tradition.
Chinese police forces are enacting a notional attempt to stem the tide of trafficking crime, with most attention being paid to child trafficking, sexual slavery, and prostitution. However, given China’s skewed sex ratio and its growing demand for trafficked children and wives (the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates there could be up to 24 million more men than women of marriageable age in China by 2020) it remains to be seen if police can make any real inroads into the problem.
This particular police investigation into the hundred missing women is worth tracking for its unusual scale. Every day young vulnerable Vietnamese women are abducted from their homes by friends, family and strangers and sold into China. These damaged women rarely manage to return and are mostly voiceless if they do.
Local and regional policing efforts need to work effectively to achieve a solid outcome in this potentially high-profile case so that more attention can be drawn to the crimes of slavery and human trafficking in Asia. Source countries must also do their bit, but as a significant destination country China has a huge responsibility – and debt – to the many victims who wake up there daily in the dark: far from home, scared, and stripped of their rights.
Luke Corbin is an independent researcher.