Re Thi Cam Hanh, a young Vietnamese woman, marries Chen Lei, a man from Hong'an, Hubei Province, in January. Photo: CFP
"Don't cry on Singles' Day. Go to Vietnam and find yourself a bride!"
This was the unusual slogan used by group buying website 55tuan.com as part of a special promotion, which offered a free trip to Vietnam for one lucky person, provided he married a Vietnamese woman.
The online activity was launched on November 6, five days before Singles' Day, which falls on November 11 every year (symbolized by its date, 11.11). On this day, young Chinese mockingly celebrate their single status.
The offer to "group buy" a Vietnamese bride struck a chord with single men in China, as the cost of marrying a Chinese woman continues to grow and bachelors lament their dwindling chances to find a mate. Nearly 30,000 people had participated in the lottery by the time it ended on Wednesday.
Central government departments also took note, but for other reasons entirely. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs
and the Ministry of Public Security
both issued warnings about the risks of finding Vietnamese wives through matchmakers, which is the most common method for Chinese men to find a Vietnamese bride.
The risks go both ways. Buyers may end up swindled out of money or with an unwilling wife, and the women involved in these schemes risk being swallowed by people-smuggling and prostitution rackets.
These illegal matchmaking services have long existed in China and a lack of action from authorities against agents has resulted in the expansion of the industry, which now ranges from relatively above board, all the way to the bowels of organized crime.High cost of marriage
A representative surnamed Xu from 55yuan.com told the Global Times that the website was not cooperating with matchmaking brokers, and simply offered the winner reimbursement of trip costs as long as he provided an authentic marriage certificate with a Vietnamese woman.
The move was obviously a clever publicity stunt, but it did demonstrate that there is a strong market in China for marriages with Vietnamese women, and that despite warnings from international anti-trafficking agencies that high demand from China creates a market for people-smuggling, there isn't a stigma attached.
The lottery described Vietnamese women as "virtuous" and "traditional" and said they were not as materialistic as their Chinese counterparts. That is also what Ren Xuan (pseudonym), a 30-year-old man preparing to travel to Vietnam, thinks. After several frustrating blind dates and increasing pressure from his family to get married, Ren made the decision to find a Vietnamese wife. "Young women in China just gave me the cold shoulder as they were disappointed with my economic situation. I don't think I stand a chance of finding a wife here," said Ren, who works at a private company in Xiangyang, Central China's Hubei Province.
He said that after reading media reports that described marriage to Vietnamese women as "bliss," he began saving.
A report released in September by a domestic dating website, which polled 90 million of its members about their views on marriage, showed that 68 percent of single women care about the wealth of their prospective spouses.Legal gray zone
The practice of finding Vietnamese women isn't new, but previously the market was largely confined to migrant workers or farmers from poor villages. But as with most markets in China, things have changed.
"We have all kinds of customers, from farmers, white-collar workers, and even people who have returned from overseas," said a staff member surnamed Qiu from a Guangzhou-based matchmaking agency, which specializes in blind dates between Chinese men and Vietnamese women.
These matchmaking brokers charge each customer 30,000 to 60,000 yuan ($4,900 to $9,850), which covers costs such as a dowry, a wedding feast and visas. In addition, traveling expenses and other fees can reach up to 15,000 yuan, and 2,000 to 5,000 yuan is expected to be given to the bride's parents. Chinese men usually travel in a group with an agent and pick out a Vietnamese girl they like.
But this seemingly cozy arrangement is not without risks. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on November 9, stating that Chinese citizens are often cheated in these schemes.
Chen Shiqu, director of the Ministry of Public Security's anti-human trafficking office, claimed on November 11 that Chinese marriage agencies are not allowed to source spouses from other countries and it is illegal for individuals to engage in international matchmaking for profit. As it is also illegal in Vietnam, people involved in the trade have nowhere to turn in the event of a dispute.
However, brokers remain unfazed. "We know the service is not allowed on the Chinese mainland, but it's not clearly forbidden. If it was, there is no way that our service would have reliably sustained itself for nine years," Qiu said, implying that the authorities tacitly consent to the service.
Qiu has a point. Online searches for media reports of these kinds of matchmaking agents being arrested yield a curious lack of results. "The punishment for such matchmaking brokers is just confiscating their business income and the Criminal Law doesn't clearly define the conduct," Hu Zhouxiong, a lawyer specializing in marriage cases involving foreigners with the Guangdong Bohao Law firm, told the Global Times, noting that the light punishment had resulted in the proliferation of these matchmakers.
He noted that the huge demand for the service is also a reason why the agents are not strictly punished. But that isn't to say the industry isn't causing arrests. Dark trade
The Ho Chi Minh-based newspaper Thanh Nien reported in September that two Chinese and seven Vietnamese nationals were arrested by Vietnamese police for trafficking women to China and selling them into marriage.
Media reports in recent years have also revealed that a number of Vietnamese brides had fled their Chinese husbands and were later caught and resold to other husbands, indicating they had been kidnapped.
"The agents were engaging in human trafficking when the Vietnamese women 'changed hands,' but Chinese men have no way of knowing whether the girls were smuggled into the country or not," said Hu.
China is the largest market for people smugglers sourcing brides from Vietnam. According to a 2011 report on the trafficking of women and children from Vietnam, compiled by the British Embassy in Hanoi, "between 2005 and 2009 approximately 6,000 women and children were identified as being trafficked from Vietnam ... Some 3,190 were trafficked to China for the purposes of forced marriage, or to be sexually exploited in brothels."
But this number is not the total. The same report acknowledged the difficulty of calculating exact numbers, and pointed out that "victims have been forced to phone their families to reassure them they are well and have legal work, so that relatives do not report family members missing and alert the authorities."
Ren, however, is eschewing the help of agents and is attempting it on his own. While this avoids supporting the people-smuggling trade, it poses its own challenges as he doesn't know the language. "I have no other way, but I guess I can just give it a try," Ren said.