How China joined the moral panic about human trafficking

June 27, 2011

World-Story, the news aggregator on China and development issues that is linked to the Chinese NGO Moving Mountains, recently circulated a list of articles that had to do with the trafficking of women, particularly from Southeast Asia to China. Opposing human trafficking is, like terrorism, one of those nice issues that all states can agree on, and the State Council approved a five-year action plan on fighting the trafficking of women and children back in 2007, but it was really last year’s cover story in China Economic Weekly, entitled “Rescuing the Burmese Women,” that marked the entry of Chinese journalism into the global hand-wringing.

The scale of migration of Burmese women (and men) to China seems fairly massive. According to a recent report bythe Palaung Women’s Organization, Stolen Lives: Human Trafficking from Palaung Areas of Burma to China, in one Palaung village, 31% of the population have left, and 70% of those went to China. In Jiegao, a border town, Burmese factory workers are paid around 750 yuan a month (although this information may be outdated), which is double the pay in Burma. In Nongbie village near Ruili, more than half of the wives, including that of the village head, are from Burma, according to a Global Post article. But illegal Burmese migrant workers have been apprehended, and abducted women sold as wives rescued, as far as Shandong (see News, 25 May 2011) and Gansu. Between 2005 and 2009, 835 women have been “rescued,” according to the China Economic Weekly story. In one case, 90 suspects were arrested in a village populated by ethnic Tai, in a border region where, according to one of the accused, “thousands” are in the business of importing brides.

All reports agree that most women who end up in forced marriages or in brothels have been tricked by promises of jobs. In some cases, however, the parents sold them knowingly. Some of the women were “resold” by their husbands, but some were released/expelled by after failing to conceive. All reports also agree that the recruiters are locals, often relatives or acquaintances, and in many cases women (one, in the Palaung report, was a nun).

Where the Chinese articles seem more nuanced is the issue of rescue. While the Global Post, like most Western reports, has little time for ambiguity, both the China Economic Weekly and Lanzhou Chenbao note that while some women have run away and others are grateful to be rescued and swear they will never set foot in China again, yet others — notably those who have had children — are torn but generally choose to stay if they are allowed to, or emphatically refuse to leave altogether.

The Lanzhou paper in particular succeeds in bringing out the complexity of the stories. In this instance, Guan Junming, a Gansu villager who worked, illegally, in the Kokang special region of Burma in 2005 came back with a Burmese wife for whom he only paid a bride price of 20 thousand yuan, compared to the 70-80 thousand that is the going rate in his very poor mountain village (as one peasant quoted in the article says, the poorer the village the higher the bride price, since few women are willing to marry into it). Guan’s fellow villagers implored him to help them get wives from Burma too.  Guan did so in 11 cases, for rates of 28 to 38 thousand yuan, which presumably included some modest profit. In some instances, the bridegrooms-to-be went to Burma with Guan, wishing to follow the proper procedure of xiangqin, visiting the bride’s relatives to ask for her hand. This was the case of Zhao Wenyi (pseudonym), described as an uneducated but good-hearted man. Zhao says he got along well with the chosen bride, introduced to him by two Burmese women, and she showed no opposition to the marriage, although when he asked to visit her family he was told that they live too far away. (The wives do not speak Chinese, suggesting that they aren’t actually from Kokang, which is a Chinese-speaking region.) Guan’s male fellow villagers were so grateful to him that, when he was arrested and tried for trafficking, 80 of them signed a letter to the court affirming his good character.

If bride price and go-betweens are part of custom (some might even say heritage), then where is the crime? The problem is, after Zhao’s bride’s arrival in Gansu, her mood changed: she cried and tried to run away, but was caught and beaten by Zhao; but once she stopped running away he treated her well. Only after a year did she learn enough Chinese to tell Zhao that the Burmese go-betweens had told her Zhao was a very rich man whose household was entirely run by machines, such that she wouldn’t need to work at all; she had only to press a button and a machine would put food in her mouth. Other brides too have tried to run away. Zhao’s wife, Lulu, has reluctantly opted to stay with him, but while her attitude to Zhao is ambivalent, she hates Guan. The reporter notes that, in this aspect, male villagers’ and the Burmese women’s views differ sharply. He adds that villagers must have known the women had been tricked, as several of them tried to run away or cried during the wedding ceremony.

The Gansu story, then, brings to light the difficulties of defining trafficking in both of its key aspects as defined by the UN and international agreements: the economic transaction involved and lack of consent (which, as the story highlights, can change in the course of the events). The preferred solution of the women who have had children, the article says, would be to legalize their status so they could freely move between China and Burma, but the papers they need to register their marriage under Chinese law — even if they were allowed to stay in the country — would be hard for them to obtain.

Further, this article — as well as the other reports — highlights that perpetrators are often ethnic or actual kin of the victims, rather than gangsters from Chinese cities. And finally, it shows the mutual impact of bilateral migrations: it is the appearance of Chinese investors and workers in Burma that created the mass appetite for Burmese brides on the Chinese side and the fantasies of Chinese modernity and wealth on the Burmese side.