Reporter’s diary: Chinese men marry Southeast Asian wives due to lack of options at home
By Li Jianhua
China’s disproportionate ratio of men to women has prompted many bachelors to seek wives outside the country. Some get lucky, yet language barriers, cultural differences and many other challenges – including the foreign wives’ legal status in China – make their married lives tough in the early going.
A majority of the nuptials are concentrated in rural China for a couple of reasons – most notably the high costs of marriage and fairly more disproportionate ratio of male to female.
Many Chinese bachelors are eyeing countries in Southeast Asia, such as Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. In these countries where the economic condition is often dire, the dowries are usually much smaller.
Our crew went to a village – where three Laotian girls live – in northern China's Hebei Province. 30-year-old Yuan, who is not willing to be fully identified, started a family seven months ago with her Laotian wife Xie Xong, and she is now five months pregnant.
In their home, I saw a Lao language learning book, and they told me they had been teaching each other their mother tongues since they got married. Regardless, the language barrier is still one of many "getting used-to's" that the couple faces in daily life.
"She is still not used to the food here. She cooks Lao food and I usually have Chinese one. There's a language barrier between us, and we use some translation apps on my phone to communicate," said Yuan.
Coming from warm and balmy southeast Asia, it is rare for Xong to see snow.
Living in a foreign country, she tries to find her way here in rural China.
"It's so cold here for me. But, I don't have to work as much as I did in Laos. China's economy is strong and my husband makes good money," said Xong.
The young couple's married lives are not as easy as expected. So, why did they choose to tie the knot in the first place?
"The money to be given to the bride's family is too high here, usually around 200,000 yuan. Plus, the bridegroom's family has to prepare a house and a car. Even though you have a house and a car, it's still difficult to find wives. The male to female ratio is disproportionate," said Yuan's father. "That's why we went to Laos to find my son a wife. More families here are like us. There were at least 10 Laotian women happy to be wives in this area."
The local governments across China have been issuing various measures by promoting frugal marriages, in the hope of easing the financial burden of marriage. In some counties, measures have been taken to cap the sum of dowry money given to the brides' families.
Some villagers told CGTN that the high dowry money is, in fact, a face issue – meaning the more money a bridegroom gives to his future wife, the more wealthy the family looks. In some extreme cases, the high costs of dowry money – mostly requested by the brides' families – lead to breakups at the last minute.
The dilemma in cross-border 'marriages'
The latest official figures show that men outnumber women on the Chinese mainland by 31.6 million in 2019, according to China's State Statistics Bureau, the main reason being the nation's traditional cultural preference for boys.
The "cross-border marriages," mostly in remote villages in central China's Henan Province and southeastern Fujian Province, have no legal effect. The couples may not have marriage certificates if they stay in the country illegally. Worse, their offspring may not be able to get hukou, or the Chinese household registration. This could put their children's education and workers' rights at risk.
In some cases, runaway foreign brides cooperate with matchmaking agents for a split of the fees – including the money a bridegroom pays to the go-between and the foreign bride – and then abandon their husbands once they get paid.
Despite the potentially severe consequences, marrying a foreign woman – mostly those from Southeast Asian countries with the relatively poorer economic background – is often the last resort for Chinese bachelors.
Many foreign girls – there is no official figures here – come to China on tourist visas. In some cases, they are smuggled into the country by go-betweens and married into Chinese men willingly, in the hope of living more comfortable lives.
Xie Xong tells a similar story. Her little sister – a newcomer to the country – married into a village not far from hers. The two sisters both came here on tourist visas, and they may face deportation if they overstay their visas. I ask them whether they are concerned about deportation if anything goes wrong. The answer is "I don't know what to do about it. This is the countryside, and it may not be as strict as the cities. And we have to take it one step at a time."
We tried to get in touch with their go-between, who refused to show up on camera, and he said these Laotian girls will be conferred official marriage certificates in Laos by the end of this year.
Unions between Chinese men and foreign women – Southeast Asian women in this case – are various, including trafficking cases, marriages based on love, and those that are voluntary but economically motivated. These "cross-border marriages" can help reduce the number of bachelors in rural China, but safeguarding the legal rights of these foreign wives remains a challenge.