In the villages outside of Handan, China, a bachelor looking to marry a local girl needs to have as much as $64,000 -- the price tag for a suitable home and obligatory gifts. That's a bit out of the price range of many of the farmers who live in the area. So in recent years, according to the Beijing News, local men have been turning to a Vietnamese marriage broker, paying as much as $18,500 for an imported wife, complete with a money-back guarantee in case the bride fled.
But that fairy tale soon fell apart. On the morning of November 21, sometime after breakfast, as many as 100 of Handan’s imported Vietnamese wives -- together with the broker -- disappeared without a trace. It was a peculiarly Chinese instance of fraud. The victims are a local subset of a fast-growing underclass: millions of poor, mostly rural men, who can’t meet familial and social expectations that a man marry and start a family because of the country's skewed demographics. In January, the director of China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that China is home to 33.8 million more men than women out of a population exceeding 1.3 billion.
China's vast population of unmarried men is sure to pose an array of challenges for China, and perhaps its neighbors, for decades to come. What's already clear is that fraudulent mail-order wives are only the start of a much larger problem.
The immediate cause of China’s gender imbalance is a long-standing cultural preference for boys. In China’s patrilineal culture, they’re expected to carry on the family name, as well as serve as a social security policy for aging parents. In the 1970s, China’s so-called One Child policy transformed this preference into an imperative that parents fulfilled via sex selective abortions (made possible by the widespread availability of ultrasounds). As a result, millions of girls never made it onto China’s population rolls. In 2013, for example, the government reported 117.6 boys were born for every 100 girls. (The natural rate is 103 to 106 boys to every 100 girls.) In the countryside, the ratio can run much higher -- Mara Hvistendahl, in her 2011 book, Unnatural Selection, reports on a town where ratios run as high as 150 to 100. Long-term, such imbalances can create an excess of males that might reach 20 percent of the overall male population by 2020, according to one estimate.
Of course, social expectations aren’t just confined to boys. In China, daughters are expected to marry up -- and in a country where men far outnumber women, the opportunities to do so are excellent, especially in the cities to which so many of China’s rural women move. The result is that bride prices -- essentially dowries paid to the families of daughters -- are rising, especially in the countryside. One 2011 study on bride prices found that they’d increased seventy-fold between the 1960s and 1990s in just one representative, rural hamlet.
It’s a society-wide problem, but particularly in China’s countryside, where sex ratios are much wider, and the lack of affluence drives out young, marriageable women. These twin factors have given rise to what’s widely known as “bachelor villages” -- thousands of small towns and hamlets across China overflowing with single men, with few women. Though there’s no definitive study on their frequency, bachelor villages have received widespread attention from academics, as well as journalists. The 2011 study on bride prices cites Baoshi Village in Shaanxi Province, population 1013, including 87 single males over the age of 35. In rural China, where men are expected to marry before 30, those 87 men are likely to remain lifelong bachelors. They are also, in all likelihood, poor and uneducated. According to a 2006 study, 97 percent of Chinese bachelors between 28 and 49 haven’t completed high school.
The social consequences of a world without women is hotly debated, with lines drawn over whether a population heavily tilted toward men necessarily leads to more violence. A controversial 2007 study based on 16 years of province-level crime data claimed that rising sex ratios may account for one-seventh of China’s overall rise in crime, while a book from the same year suggests that an excess of male threatens both China’s domestic stability and the international order. Meanwhile, other studies argue just the opposite: that a gender imbalance reduces family conflicts and violence across society.
One outcome, however, is indisputable: a market where the demand for brides far outweighs the supply will inevitably give rise to industries that aim to close the gap. Bride trafficking is one such response, and it has a long history in China. In recent years, however, the limited data on the phenomenon suggests that the traffickers are increasingly focused on women from outside of China, including North Korea. According to the Diplomat, around 90 percent of North Korean defectors are blackmailed into the sex industry and forced marriages (the threatened alternative -- a return to North Korea -- is unthinkable). Women from the remote and impoverished minority regions of Vietnam are targets, as well. Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security reports that more than 5800 women have been trafficked out of the country in recent years, the majority of them having gone to China.
It’s unclear whether or not the Vietnamese women who ended up in Handan were trafficked, and it’d be unfair to assume that they were. Many Vietnamese women move to China’s countryside for the same reason that women from China’s countryside move to its cities: better economic opportunities. But the fact that the marriage broker who brought the wives to Handan has disappeared, and is now sought by police, strongly suggests that an organized ring of some kind was behind the marriages -- and the disappearances. It wouldn’t be the first time, either. Stories of runaway Vietnamese brides are common in the Chinese press.
In all likelihood, there will be more. One-hundred runaway brides seems like a lot, except when measured against tens of millions of bachelors whose best hope of a family might be convincing -- and paying -- a foreigner (or her broker/matchmaker) to settle down in his village. But for every bachelor who manages that, there will be thousands more who can’t. Indeed, even if they had the cash, there simply aren’t enough women in Vietnam and North Korea, even if they were all willing to settle into a farmer’s life in China’s countryside.
Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk.