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Chinese men turn to human traffickers for foreign brides

But actual gender imbalance from scrapped one-child policy questioned

TOKYO -- China has a problem with men, as in too many compared to the number of women. And according to an in-depth study authored by the China Population Association and others, this problem is likely to get far worse over the next 30 years as the number of surplus males grows by 30 million.

What is China to do? 

In 2015, Beijing scrapped its one-child policy introduced in 1979. Couples can now have two kids unconditionally. But as the policy dragged on over three decades, a significant imbalance in the country's sex ratio occurred, with males outnumbering females 113.5 to 100 as of 2015.

This gender imbalance is glaringly obvious and lies behind rampant human trafficking. 

In May 2016, a local paper in the province of Henan reported the case of a Vietnamese woman abducted while on her way to a child-care job. The woman was forced into a car by the same agents who arranged her 'job' then driven away, presumably to a groom in waiting. Luckily, she managed to escape and made her way to the police. Later in October, police in the city of Zaoyang arrested two Chinese women in connection with the case. The suspects are alleged to have smuggled four Vietnamese women through Nanning, capital of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on the Vietnamese border, to Henan. 

The suspects later admitted to have sold 22 Vietnamese women in Tanghe, Henan. Similar stories are becoming more common.

Some areas in China still practice dowry, with the man on the hook for the money to his betrothed. Owing to the dearth of eligible Chinese bachelorettes, the dowry has skyrocketed in some villages. Men often have to pay several times their annual salaries for the privilege of saying "I do."

Hence, it's no surprise that they turn to human traffickers to find a relatively low-priced, non-Chinese bride, many of whom are Vietnamese. The cultural similarities between the two countries make Vietnamese women a natural target, and are highly prized. This unfortunate situation is likely to persist, with Vietnamese women from farm villages continuing to be abducted. 

Traditionally, boys first

Chinese couples prefer having boys and, thanks to availability of medical advancements, can now ascertain their baby's sex well before birth. This has caused a huge increase in abortions based solely on the baby being female, a practice that is clearly evident among impoverished farmers.

My anecdotal evidence supports this. I visited a primary school in rural Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region some 20 years ago and was immediately struck by the gender imbalance -- 157 boys to 100 girls by my count. Little has changed over the years.

Chinese farmer with baby boy. Rural farmers in general mostly prefer boys to girls.

Chinese society is mainly patriarchal, but there is a practical basis for this preference, especially when viewed through the eyes of impoverished farmers. Not only would a son be expected to pitch in with the physically demanding work, but he would eventually be responsible for care of his parents in their dotage. On the other hand, a daughter would likely marry and leave the family for her husband's.

Possible remedies

The estimated gender imbalance in 2008 was 120 boys to 100 girls. While it has evened out somewhat since then, scholars remain concerned and have suggested solutions.

Mao Shoulong, a professor at Beijing-based Renmin University of China, wants to officially invite foreign women to China as future brides for Chinese men. This is likely to subject Beijing to criticism from countries whose young women were poached, and it would just transfer the gender imbalance to other regions of the world.

Meanwhile, a suggestion from Xie Zuoshi, an economic professor at Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics, is to allow polyandry, in which a woman can have more than one husband. This would allow poor men to live together and share a wife. But this suggestion has fueled controversy, with people fearing that it would transform marriage into a mere financial arrangement, eventually resulting in gender inequality.

In any case, these studies reflect the urgency of the problem.

Contrarian view

While most believe that the issue is real, some argue that gender imbalance is less serious than presumed. A joint study by associate professor John Kennedy at the University of Kansas along with professor Shi Yaojiang of Shaanxi Normal University in China explain that the visible imbalance is based on the official population count and excludes women not registered as Chinese citizens.

Under the decades-long one-child policy, couples who first gave birth to a girl often did not report it and raised their daughters in secret. After giving birth to a baby boy, they would register him as their only child. Some community leaders turned a blind eye to this practice.

The study estimates that unreported female newborns could be as high as 25 million over the past 25 years. In addition, since official statistics from China are sometimes inaccurate, there could be some validity to this claim. 

Will 30 million Chinese men really face a future without a wife? Before addressing this unsettling issue, it would behoove Beijing to double check its demographics. Maybe some of those 25 million girls might actually show up.

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