As Beijing’s multibillion-dollar infrastructure drive expands across Asia, experts say greater regional connectivity may have an unwanted by-product. Girls and young women in the poorer countries it connects appear to be at greater risk of human trafficking and forced marriages. Raquel Carvalho specially for the South China Morning Post.
Louise was living from hand to mouth while helping her aunt sell noodle soup in the Laos capital of Vientiane, which sits on a curve of the Mekong River. Their lives were mostly untouched by the increasing Chinese investment in their country that in recent years has built billion-dollar dams, bridges and railways.
Louise* was in her early 20s and had few professional prospects when she was approached by a woman who told her there were great opportunities in China, the country’s northern neighbour seen as a land of technological breakthroughs and booming cities. The woman said her relatives had been successful in China and she offered to take Louise there, too. Louise did not know then that this was her first step to being trapped in an abusive marriage with a Chinese man who felt he owned her.
“I wanted to support my parents … I am poor and I was very curious to see China. I thought it would bring me a better life,” Louise recalls. Soon she was in a van with nine other Laotian women, travelling from Vientiane to the border with Thailand, and from there to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, where they boarded a flight to Guangzhou in southern China.
Louise is among thousands of young girls and women, mostly from Asian countries, who have been trafficked into marriages with Chinese men. She has since been rescued, but many others have not been so lucky.
In addition to traditional hotspots in nations such as Vietnam and Myanmar, the practice seems to be emerging in new areas, alongside the expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s multibillion-dollar drive to knit together Eurasia and Africa in a myriad of economic pacts and infrastructure projects.
Experts say the rising number of trafficked women is due to a combination of this enhanced regional connectivity and stronger business ties with China, along with factors such as a lack of opportunities in the women’s home countries, where powerful networks of marriage agencies and illegal brokers extend their tentacles. Fuelling the demand, they say, is China’s gender imbalance.
‘LIKE A PRISONER’
When Louise landed in bustling Guangzhou, she was received by a Chinese broker who took her to a house where men would meet her, sizing her up as a would-be bride.
“Many Chinese men came to choose me but I did not choose them,” Louise recalls. However, she eventually caved in to pressure from the brokers, who had promised to pay about US$4,000 as a dowry to her parents if she got married. “After three months, I decided to select a Chinese man.”
Louise eventually got married in February last year through a marriage agency, although she is unsure about the legality of the arrangement.
She had not been forced to go to China, but only when she was there did she realise she was trading a modest life for one of servitude. “While in China, I could not go anywhere,” the 22-year-old recalls. “I did not have any money, could not eat what I prefer to eat and I had to follow my husband’s family.”
Louise, whose husband took her to Hebei province in northern China, was forced to stay in the house. Her husband did not allow her to contact her family and all her documents were kept by her mother-in-law. “I was locked up, could not go out … I felt like a prisoner.”
After seeking help from another Laotian woman also married to a Chinese, she was rescued in July by volunteers linked to a non-profit organisation and taken to Laos’ embassy.
Louise is currently helping her mother run a beauty salon back in her home country. She has given up on her dreams of making money overseas. “I spend most of my time with my grandmother. She is getting old and I would like to take care of her.”
‘A PROSPEROUS LIFE’
Louise grew up more than 3,000km from Sana, a young Christian woman from Pakistan, but they shared the same motivation in marrying a Chinese man.
Sana* was just 16 when she was introduced to Mr Liu in 2017. “My parents said I would live a healthy and prosperous life in China,” she recalls. “In fact, I became willing to marry Mr Liu, as I was already living in hell in Pakistan.”
Sana, now 19, used to live with her parents and two other sisters near Faisalabad, in the eastern province of Punjab, in a house without a proper sewerage system. They could not afford school, and usually ate only once a day. She initially rejected the suggestion that she marry a Chinese man and move to his home country. But “my parents were told by an agent [a local broker] that he was rich and had businesses in China … The idea of sending some money back home pushed me to marry him.”
Sana had not met her husband before the marriage ceremony, which was held in her house. “I was surprised that they didn’t hold it in a local church,” she recalls. “Also, I noted the absence of Liu’s parents. But my family requested me to keep quiet.”
In Pakistan, much like in other Asian countries, hundreds of Chinese men have found women to marry through agents. These brokers are often from the same area as the potential brides, luring them or their relatives with money and promises of comfortable lives. Some marriages are not legally recognised, and many women end up travelling to China without having the proper documents to live there.
Such networks have been mostly active in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and target underprivileged Christian families, although some reports suggest that a few Muslim girls have also been lured.
Sana’s parents said they received US$5,500, in addition to US$1,100 for marriage expenses, from their daughter’s Chinese husband.
She was then taken to the suburbs of Shanghai, a city she knew nothing about. “I lived with my husband and two women that [he] introduced as his mother and sister. The first three days were okay,” she recalls. “But then I was treated like a slave. My husband used to torture me physically.”
Things got worse six months later, after her husband took her to a clinic where they found out she was not pregnant.
Sana told her parents about the harsh treatment she was receiving, but they made light of it. Then, she sought help from a friend over the phone. “She somehow approached the Pakistani embassy in China, which rescued me,” Sana says.
“Life was uncertain before marriage … But life became hell in China after marriage,” she says. “Glad I couldn’t give birth to a child.”
Sana and two other Pakistani young women who had been married to Chinese men said they were under pressure from the authorities not to share their stories.
Government officials, who requested anonymity, said this was because such stories might fuel anti-Chinese sentiment in Pakistan – where thousands of Chinese are working on multibillion-dollar projects as part of the belt and road plan.
According to a list compiled by the Pakistani authorities, 629 girls and women from across Pakistan were sold as brides to Chinese men and taken to China, the Associated Press reported in December. It is the most concrete figure yet for Pakistani women caught up in trafficking schemes since 2018, but the investigators’ aggressive drive against the networks seems to be waning.
Sources told the news agency that the government had sought to curtail investigative efforts because it feared hurting Pakistan’s lucrative ties to Beijing.
In October, a court in Faisalabad acquitted 31 Chinese nationals charged in connection with trafficking in the biggest such case so far. Several of the women who had been interviewed by the police ended up refusing to testify after being either threatened or bribed into silence, the AP reported.
Human rights advocate Ansar Burney says the number of cases has increased since the issue came to light about two years ago.
But “the families of such trafficked women are afraid of complaining officially”, he says. And “the silence on the part of government is not a surprising thing … Above all, the government of Pakistan does not want to destabilise and spoil its ties with China”.
This Week in Asia has contacted Pakistan’s foreign ministry, the embassy in Beijing and the consulate general in Shanghai with questions for this article.
Heather Barr, acting co-director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, wrote that since the rights group “began researching trafficking to China more than three years ago, reports have indicated that it is also occurring in additional countries and that their number is growing”.
She says that Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan and Vietnam have all become source countries for the trafficking of women and girls for sale in China as brides. But “other Asian countries should watch carefully to make sure they’re not the next to be added to this list”. In Central Asia, there have been reports of Uzbek women who had been forced into hard labour and faced domestic violence after they found Chinese husbands through marriage agencies.
Marriages with Chinese men have also sparked controversy in Kazahkstan, where Chinese President Xi Jinping first presented the idea for the belt and road in 2013. About six years ago, there was even a small protest against Kazakh women marrying Chinese men. In September, Kazakhs protested against the construction of Chinese factories.
Anti-Chinese sentiments have also been on the rise in Kyrgyzstan. Last year, demonstrators urged the Kyrgyz government to check Chinese citizens’ work permits, cancel the country’s debt to China, and some even called for a ban on Kyrgyz women marrying Chinese men. Such calls have, however, been grounded more in ethnic reasons than concerns over women’s rights.
China is one of the largest investors in Central Asia and a key trading partner for the region, which has grown in strategic significance under the belt and road project, as dozens of projects linking East to West continue to spring up.
Carla P. Freeman, an associate research professor of China studies at Johns Hopkins University, and Mie Oba, a professor at Tokyo University of Science, wrote that greater regional connectivity might open opportunities for transnational crime in Asia.
“In particular, the [belt and road strategy] could create new modalities for trafficking in drugs, wildlife and people,” read a piece published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Pichamon Yeophantong, a senior lecturer in international relations and development at The University of New South Wales Canberra, says most illegal activities take place via the same routes used by legitimate trade.
“Better communication and transport infrastructure can – and do – make human, wildlife and drug trafficking easier, especially in developing countries that suffer from corruption and weak governance, as well as from under-resourced and understaffed police and law enforcement units,” she says.
Yeophantong says more systematic data and research are needed to establish a direct connection specifically between growing Chinese investment overseas and the increasing number of women trafficked as brides into China. But it is a “plausible one, considering the better connectivity promised by the belt and road projects, the growing porosity of borders, as well as China’s expanding economic reach and appeal”.
The United Nations estimates that Southeast Asia’s illicit market, which includes trafficking of people, makes US$100 billion annually.
“The concern here is that we will continue to see human and sex trafficking, as well as other types of transnational crime, become increasingly integrated within the region,” Yeophantong says.
China’s demographics explain part of the problem. There are 30-40 million more men than women in China – a stark imbalance that resulted from the “one-child policy” in place between 1979 and 2015, and from a traditional preference for boys over girls that led to female infanticide and abortions.
This gender gap has become more obvious in recent years and Chinese men have had a hard time finding wives, which feeds the demand for trafficked women from abroad.
“Insofar as there remains demand in China – [due to] the country’s gender imbalance and the expensive demands of local Chinese brides – bride trafficking and other forms of human trafficking are unlikely to be stamped out completely, despite the raids and crackdowns,” says Yeophantong.
Economic challenges in the brides’ home countries, poverty, political instability and armed conflicts also offer fertile ground for labour and sex trafficking to grow.
That is the case in Myanmar, where human rights abuses have caused widespread unemployment and displacement, triggering mass migration to China. Border regions have been most affected, with more than 120,000 people displaced by clashes between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups in Kachin and northern Shan State.
Elena Shih, manning assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies at Brown University, is researching issues on the China-Myanmar border. “Rather than suggest that individual acts of trafficking might grow in the light of the Belt and Road Initiative, I look at the existing structural inequality and vulnerability in the area,” she says.
“When these regionalist development enterprises tread on ethnic minority, indigenous and stateless communities – as they do in China and Myanmar – the displacement that results from railways, real estate and new super highways creates massive new threats for the increased possibilities of labour exploitation.”
NO OTHER OPTION
In recent years, thousands of girls and women have been trafficked from Myanmar to China. A study published in 2018 found more than 7,500 women mostly from Kachin and Shan State had entered forced marriages with Chinese men in the previous five years, and most were coerced into bearing children.
“The pattern of trafficking in these areas has become normalised. People see it as migrating for job opportunities,” says Myanmar-based independent researcher Ja Seng Ing, who adds that not all such brides are trafficked.
The expert says some women are aware of the risks, but feel they don’t have a better option. Undocumented and unable to find a job, many end up married in China, where they are mistreated and forced to do unpaid work for their husband’s family.
“There are also cases of women who gave birth to a child and then are sold to another family to bear another child,” says the researcher, who is also aware of cases involving surrogate pregnancies.
Pennapa Wuttimanop, project coordinator at the Alliance Anti Trafic Thailand, says that although there are common challenges across the region, some circumstances that have pushed women into trafficking and forced marriages are specific to each place.
Most Shan women, from Myanmar, went to China believing that they would have a job there, the advocate says. “They are poor, divorced and single mums. They are also orphaned, unemployed and short of alternatives … They then decide to go to work in China [after meeting a broker].”
But, in Laos, “most cases we encounter are single ladies whose families are poor … Some girls leave school for marriage in China”.
Wuttimanop’s non-profit group has handled an increasing number of forced marriages since 2017. Last year alone, they supported 52 survivors – 46 of them from Laos and six from Myanmar. 10 were underage.
She says the rising numbers should be seen in the context of the expanded economic relations between China and the Greater Mekong region. “This kind of cooperation also brings along migration of Chinese workers and brokers to the region. They look for women in villages, especially those who have limited knowledge and those who are from ethnic groups.”
At the same time, there is now the impression that marrying a Chinese man means a wealthy life, Wuttimanop says.
“Women have this perception from seeing Chinese men who come to work in their country. Some of them are business owners,” she says. “Their families then allow these women to be married without seeing the Chinese man in person, spending time with each other and even without any preparation.”
Yeophantong says “so long as China’s economy continues to grow, there will continue to be vulnerable people in neighbouring countries who are susceptible to being deceived in a bid to escape poverty, pursue economic opportunities, or seek a better life in China”.
Laxity of government agencies in the countries of origin, with brokers being able to easily produce fraudulent documents, has also played a role. “In many cases, the age of minors is changed to be adults, so that the girls can go to China,” Wuttimanop says.
Greater access to the internet has done its part. “With the Asia-Pacific accounting for half of the world’s internet use, social media and online platforms are facilitating human trafficking and exploitation on an even wider scale … [It] can be used to lure women and girls, as well as for coordinating their transport,” Yeophantong says.
The spread of cybersex trafficking in China and elsewhere in the region is also concerning, she argues. A study published by the Korea Future Initiative has shown how “North Korean women are uniquely vulnerable. [They] are lured, then forcibly prostituted or trafficked to perform online sexual services that fuel a billion-dollar industry”.
Vietnam, which shares a large stretch of border with China, has long been a hotspot for the trafficking of girls to China.
Skye Maconachie, co-CEO of the non-profit Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, says they have worked with 130 new survivors each year, most of whom went through forced marriages and prostitution in brothels in China, with a few involved in baby farming.
“Most survivors know who their trafficker is,” Maconachie says. “It’s their boyfriend, a relative or sometimes someone they met online who was offering a factory job in China. They go with a person they trust and then they are tricked, held captive and harmed.”
Those aged between 13 and 25 from vulnerable backgrounds are usually the main targets. Some are able to escape in the first few days or months of abuse. “But we have also seen women who have been trafficked for 20 years,” the advocate says.
Issues such as language barriers, lack of documentation and lack of access to a phone mean seeking help is almost impossible for some.
Even being rescued is no guarantee of getting their lives back.
“Many survivors come back with mental issues, such as dissociation, post-traumatic stress disorder and even schizophrenia,” says Tra My, Blue Dragon’s psychology department coordinator. “Their trust is completely broken.”
From getting their self-esteem back to being accepted into their families and communities, which can be challenging due to stigmatisation and victim-blaming, Maconachie says that reintegrating a survivor is often a long process which may take years. “And we can’t say if people ever recover completely.”
Sana, in Pakistan, was accepted back into her home, and she is now reunited with her family and friends. But the trauma of her experience still lingers – in ways that not even she may fathom.
She has advised her relatives and friends to keep a distance from Chinese men.
“I’m content as I am back in Pakistan,” Sana says. “Marriage was a nightmare.”
Kaswar Klasra and Tomiris Urstembayeva contributed to this reporting. Raquel Carvalho is Asia Correspondent for the Post. She joined the newspaper in 2014. Most of her investigative and in-depth stories have been focused on human rights, cross-border security, illicit trade and corruption. She was previously the chief reporter at a Portuguese daily newspaper in Macau, where she moved to from Europe in 2008.
*Names have been changed or shortened to protect the individuals. Louise responded to a list of written questions sent by This Week in Asia through a support worker with the non-profit group Alliance Anti Trafic.