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Sensemaker: Brides to China

Sensemaker: Brides to China

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Chinese forces surrounded Taiwan in exercises designed as a dry run for a blockade.
  • Envoys from the US, EU and Iran flew to Vienna for a surprise revival of nuclear talks.
  • England’s women’s football team wrote to the two Conservative leadership candidates asking for all girls to be able to play football at school.

Brides to China

The world is transfixed by China’s hunger for more territory in Taiwan. It’s also having to live with the consequences of Beijing’s now-abandoned drive for fewer children at home. 

Every year, thousands of women and girls from neighbouring countries are trafficked into China for forced marriages. Thanks to the one child policy in place from 1979 to 2015, the country has a yawning gap between the number of men and women. According to the 2020 census there are 723 million men and 688 million women. 

The cause is not just policy but a patriarchal society in which boy children were favoured over girls so mothers expecting female children often chose to abort their babies.

The effect is an oversupply of single men in China – and vast demand for brides. It’s a demand that human traffickers are only too happy to fulfil, as Poppy Sebag Montefiore explains in this week’s episode of the Slow Newscast, available off-platform from today.

How many women are being trafficked? It’s hard to know. Courtland Robinson, a human trafficking researcher at Johns Hopkins University, says estimates run to many thousands each year.

Official numbers are even more difficult to come by. Reports show that women from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Mongolia, North Korea, Nepal and Pakistan have been forced into marriage in China but these states collect few figures. 

The numbers that are available mainly concern cases that reach prosecution. Many cases of trafficking are never identified as such and successful prosecution is rare so the figures seriously undercount the problem: 

  • Cambodia’s Ministry of Social Affairs referred 220 trafficking victims to NGO services in 2020, including 113 victims of forced marriage. 
  • Vietnamese authorities officially identified 121 trafficking victims, 60 of whom were victims of “illegal marriage”. 
  • Prosecutors in Laos secured convictions in two cases of trafficking involving forced marriage in 2020. 
  • In Myanmar, anti-trafficking officials investigated 68 cases of forced marriage, while welfare services began assisting 195 women who were victims of forced marriage in China. 

A few studies have tried to make more accurate estimates of the size of the issue. For example,  a 2018 study co-authored by Robinson estimated that over a five-year period from 2013-2017, 21,000 women from two border states in Myanmar entered forced marriages to Chinese men. 

The money. The huge demand for brides makes marrying women off a lucrative business. The average dowry for a Chinese-born bride has risen in recent years to between $30,000 and $40,000, according to a 2022 paper, while broker fees for imported brides have risen to about $25,000. 

That inflation makes selling women an attractive proposition, especially for people living in poor countries along China’s borders. Poverty makes women more vulnerable to trafficking too, lured in by traffickers who dangle offers of well-paid employment and the promise of a higher-standard of living. Once they cross borders, the women find themselves forced into marriage without the promised jobs.

The buyers are often poor men. Men living in rural villages with low levels of education and few economic prospects are the typical targets for bride brokers. Local women have their pick of more eligible bachelors and, in any case foreign brides are cheaper. 

Some countries are fighting back against the traffickers (see above), but… 

The demographics are still brutal. The ratio of boys to girls born in China peaked in 2004 at 121 boys for every 100 girls. The numbers have evened out somewhat since, but the problem of gender imbalance persists: those baby boys born in 2004 are 18 years old now and will soon enter a heavily male-skewed marriage market. The ratio of young men to young women aged 15-24 will reach its peak imbalance in the middle of this decade. 

While the imbalance grows, all the signs are demand for trafficked women will grow with it. 


Afghan coal
Booming commodity prices aren’t just boosting the energy giants: the Taliban has turned to coal as a vital revenue source and is shovelling it out of Afghanistan. A year after the militant group seized power, the country’s economy has shrunk more than 20 per cent. But the FT says business is booming at coal mines in the north of the country, with coal exports to Pakistan doubling to around 4 million tonnes a year. Environmental and ethical concerns are secondary: children as young as eight work in the mines, with the number of child labourers reportedly increasing as the economic crisis forces more out of school. Labourers with no safety gear load the coal onto donkeys, which carry it to trucks bound for Kabul. The export business is reportedly so good, there may not be enough coal left for Afghans to buy this winter.


Lazarus pigs 
Pigs’ organs have been partially revived an hour after their hosts were killed. The breakthrough was achieved by pumping in synthetic blood that doesn’t clot – a cocktail of chemical compounds to slow cell death, infused with a device that mimics the actions of a heart. It may feel very Mary Shelley, but the research could have the practical benefit of increasing the time available for organ donations and for patients with oxygen deprivation because of drowning or strangulation. The results, called “stunning” and “remarkable” by experts, were published yesterday in Nature. They built on previous research from 2019 that found some regained function in pig brains through a similar process. Further research is needed to assess the viability of the recovered organs but this already serves as a reminder that death is a process, not a singular moment. Death’s legal definition is likely to go on being adapted for some time. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Long Covid, subdivided
Long Covid has generally been used as an umbrella term for symptoms lasting well beyond Covid infection, but a new preprint study from King’s College London suggests it can actually be divided into distinct subtypes: neurological symptoms (such as brain fog), respiratory symptoms (such as shortness of breath), and other severe symptoms (such as heart palpitations and changes in skin and hair). The study notes that the three subtypes have been associated with all Covid variants, but that respiratory symptoms are more common among those infected during the first wave of the pandemic, while neurological symptoms are more common in those who contracted the Alpha or Delta variants. The study’s lead author says these findings suggest a need for more personalised services for long Covid sufferers, many of whom have been crying out for just that for months or years. Roughly 1.8 million people in the UK have self-reported suffering from long Covid symptoms. A 2021 US study put the number suffering lingering symptoms worldwide at over 100 million.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Fiji drowning
Eighty residents of a tiny island off the coast of Fiji may have to abandon it because of rising sea levels. The inhabitants of Serua atoll, a kilometre from the mainland, are finding sea walls and walkways ineffective against the effects of climate change. They wouldn’t be the first Fijians to have to decamp to higher ground – or the last. Reuters cites a youth activist who says six villages have been forced to move so far and the way things are going 795 more will have to follow them. Last month leaders of 15 island nations called climate change the single greatest threat to their existence.


Azovstal “terrorists”
Russia’s Supreme Court has designated Ukraine’s Azov Regiment a “terrorist” organisation, allowing its members to be jailed in Russia for up to 20 years. The regiment was formed in 2014 after the invasion of Crimea and demonised by Russia for alleged ultra-nationalist connections, but Human Rights Watch notes it’s integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces and “its captured fighters are entitled to prisoner-of-war status”. Those fighters and the 36th Marine Brigade of the Ukrainian Army led the three-month defence of Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks – the Thermopylae of the war so far. About 2,500 troops left the steelworks in May. Of them about 50 were killed in their prison camp in eastern Ukraine last week and some 1,000 are now thought to be being held in Russia. The rest are believed to be in prisons in occupied territory, in violation of the Geneva conventions. 

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Ella Hill

Additional reporting by Nina Kuryata, Jessica Winch, Asha Mior, Phoebe Davis and Giles Whittell. 

Photographs Getty Images

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