China has a bride trafficking problem. The country’s longstanding one-child policy and preference for boys created a huge gender imbalance. The difficulty many Chinese men now face finding wives, combined with a lack of protections in China, is driving a brutal business of selling women and girls from neighboring countries.
The Chinese government’s main response for many years seemed to be simply to ignore growing allegations about authorities’ complicity in these crimes. But the problem is becoming too big to ignore; the government’s stonewalling is gradually being replaced by a mixture of criminal justice and propaganda responses, neither of which get to the real issue of gender discrimination.
The one-child policy, in force from 1979 to 2015, prompted many parents to feel that if they were permitted only one child, that child should be a son. This was driven in part by the expectation, particularly in rural areas, that daughters marry and join their husband’s family, while sons stay with, and support, their parents. Over generations this policy drove a demographic disaster: China now has 30 to 40 million more men than women.
Human Rights Watch investigated bride trafficking from northern Myanmar into China. Many women and girls in that part of Myanmar belong to an ethnic minority that is vulnerable due to a long-running conflict and displacement in the region. These women and girls are typically tricked by brokers who promise well-paid employment across the border in China. Once in China, they find themselves at the mercy of the brokers, who sell them for around $3,000 to $13,000 to Chinese families. Once purchased they may be held prisoner and pressured to produce babies as quickly as possible. Similar stories have been documented by journalists and researchers in Cambodia, North Korea, Pakistan, and Vietnam, among others.
For years, it was easy for China to ignore the issue. The women and girls being trafficked are often ethnic or religious minorities, from impoverished communities, or, in the case of North Korea, on the run from their own abusive regime. Violence against women and girls is often a low priority for governments. And all of the affected countries have complicated relationships and deep power imbalances with China. The consequence has been that their own governments also often show little concern about the fate of women and girls trafficked to China.
That may be changing. There has been growing attention to bride trafficking in the media, and there is a growing list of home countries of victims becoming more aware, most recently Pakistan, when evidence emerged earlier this year of trafficking. Problems with China’s huge infrastructure and investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have triggered tensions between China and some partner governments, and bad publicity over bride trafficking has sometimes complicated relations further.
China’s recent responses vary. In June, the Ministry of Public Security, China’s police, said that in the previous year it had rescued 1,100 Southeast Asian female trafficking victims and arrested 1,322 suspects, including 262 foreigners. The Chinese government appears to have cooperated with Pakistani authorities to quickly arrest some suspected traffickers in Pakistan. Officials in China’s Yunnan province, which borders Myanmar, recently shared some data on their efforts to combat trafficking.
At the same time, the Chinese government also seems to be responding by peddling propaganda to improve its global image. In Myanmar, Human Rights Watch met an activist who had participated in a study tour to China for Myanmar women’s rights groups. In one session, a professor explained to the visitors that the problem was not trafficking but that, as the activist recalled the explanation: “Myanmar women don’t know Chinese culture. Once they learn Chinese language and culture, their marriages are fine.” The expert asked the participants to, “Tell your government the Chinese government is doing very good things for Myanmar women.”
A recent article in a Chinese government-funded publication in Myanmar similarly described the “happy and pleasant road” a Myanmar woman had experienced after marrying in China.
The Chinese public is not widely aware of bride trafficking. Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the government has tightened its grip on the media and the internet. Speaking critically of the government has often resulted in police harassment and arrest. Combined with a continuing crackdown on women’s rights activists and civil society groups, it has become increasingly difficult for them to raise awareness and assist victims.
China in 2016 replaced its one-child policy with a two-child policy — a change that leaves in place restrictions on reproductive rights that violate international human rights law. Whether its strategy is to stop the traffickers, promote China’s image abroad, or block the public from learning about trafficking, the bottom line is that the Chinese government is still failing to take on the real solutions to its human trafficking problem — ending gender discrimination and violations of reproductive rights.
Heather Barr is acting co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.