The huge flow of internal migrants in China is well-known and has been thoroughly reported on by observers of Chinese society (see this FAR article). Although less sizeable, another kind of migration is creeping up on the Party’s agenda. International immigration to China may become an increasingly prevalent issue challenging local communities as well as the government on both local and central levels.

Image courtesy Bjoern Kriewald, © 2006. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy Bjoern Kriewald, © 2006. Some rights reserved.

One example which has started to gain the attention of scholars and human rights groups is the trafficking of ‘international brides’. Men in underdeveloped areas in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces along the southern Chinese border have increasingly turned to buying wives from Vietnam and Burma since many cannot afford marriage with a Chinese woman. Although odd, this is not totally isolated to that region. Similar activities can be traced to North Korea and China’s northeastern provinces, as well as other Asian countries.

Naturally one wonders what has fuelled these trafficking activities. The answer can be found somewhere in a cocktail of development inequality and negative remnants of traditional culture. The well-known fertility policies have created a deficit of women and thus, potential wives, particularly in lesser-developed regions such as Yunnan and Guangxi. Sex-selective abortions and even infanticide have partly made this possible. One central contributor, however, is the so called 1.5-child policy, which has been widely implemented in, for example, Yunnan and Guangxi provinces. Through this policy a family is allowed to have a second child if the first child is a girl, institutionalising the cultural son-preference and acknowledging the belief that girls are of lesser value.

Along with an already imbalanced sex ratio, the duality of urban development and rural underdevelopment also plays a central role in this issue. In fact, a quick glance at China and its continuous development in the last fifty or so years reveals one fundamental societal division: the division between city and countryside. In a way, every challenge that Chinese society faces boils down to this division. Already during the Mao era the primary focus of government efforts was the urban citizens and its well-being. This created a strong dividing line which the praised force of economic development has scarcely crossed since. Through this developmental imbalance, many women from rural villages have left to seek job opportunities in cities, as well as the opportunity to marry a man of higher status and wealth, thus ‘marrying up’ in class. With few potential wives available, high costs of marrying a Chinese woman, and high cultural pressure to marry, poor farmers have increasingly started to look across the border to Vietnam and Burma for women to marry.

While the Chinese side has created strong pull factors for enabling trafficking of women across China’s southern border, the equation is not without push factors. China stands for an economic attraction causing Vietnamese and Burmese women to take help from traffickers to cross the border seeking economical opportunity. Through varying degrees of deception, the traffickers sell these women as wives to rural men.

This trafficking phenomenon shows clearly that the developmental priorities set by the Chinese government, as well as the implementation of strict fertility control policies, have significant unintended consequences on Chinese society, as well as societies of neighbouring countries. Among these consequences is the exacerbation of negative traditional views of women. This exacerbation has contributed to the female deficit, the pressure on men to marry, and the societal acceptance of the buying of brides from neighbouring countries.

Although this is an example of specifically illicit immigration, it is probable that immigration to China will be more and more commonplace. As economical development continues, so will the incentives for potential economic migrants, causing a great potential future challenge for the Chinese government.

According to Brookings institute commentator Shen Haimei, the Chinese government “is inexperienced in the administration of international migrants and falls short in its laws and policies relevant to transnational immigration.”[1] For example, the chance for foreigners gaining permanent residence permits is close to none, since China’s very restricted ‘green card’ quota is mostly reserved for foreigners with strong connections to the Communist Party leadership. Priority is not set on female immigrants from Vietnam and Burma, to say the least.

In domestic politics as well as its foreign policy, China is at times accused of shortsightedness in terms of pursuing its interests and goals. The phenomenon of trafficking of women from Vietnam and Burma therefore has the possibility to serve the Chinese government as an indicator of what may come: increasing numbers of foreigners seeking economical opportunity. In other words, China is starting its journey from a traditional source to a destination country for international migrants.

It is hardly likely that China’s immigration policy will make a priority u-turn from high-end immigration to that of poor economic migrants. What Chinese society is increasingly forced to accept, however, is that times are changing. Chinese society is no longer only comprised of its traditional three demographic sections. Along with urban residents, rural farmers and internal migrants another group has established itself: the international immigrants.



[1]    Shen Haimei. Inflow of International Immigrants Challenges China’s Immigration Policy http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2011/09/08-china-immigrants-shen

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