A recent report gave a list of 629 girls and women from across Pakistan sold as brides to Chinese men.


London: One of the enduring laws of politics is that of “unintended consequences”. Politicians trying to solve a problem often and unknowingly create other problems, frequently more consequential. Take China’s “one-child” policy, for example.

Four decades ago, China introduced this unprecedented policy to curb its surging population. The idea was simple. Instead of the average family having 2.2 children, the number required to keep a population constant, families were only allowed one child. For many citizens this was extremely unpopular, but as China is a one-party state, it could illiberally enforce the new policy. For those who disobeyed, the punishment was severe. There were tens of millions of forced induced abortions and female sterilizations. Corrupt and brutal village family-planning officials even demolished the homes of some who resisted the new policy. In some areas, women had their menstrual cycles recorded on blackboards for all to see, such was the cruelty of enforcement.

The policy certainly stabilised the demographic level to about 1.3 billion, but then the unintended consequences began to appear. Although the policy was initially successful in pushing down fertility rates, it was quickly followed in the 1980s by economic development, education, women’s rights, labour force participation and urbanisation, all of which pushed fertility rates even lower. China’s fertility rate is now among the lowest in the world, far below what is needed to maintain a stable population. This has created a huge hole in China’s demographic profile, which is gradually moving forward and which will create a lower labour force just at the time the population ages. There will be too few workers to maintain the economic demands of the elderly. The UN forecasts that China will have lost 67 million working age population by 2030, while simultaneously doubling the number of elderly.

The second unintended consequence was the resulting imbalance between male and females in China. Because of a traditional preference for baby boys over girls, there has been a significant gender imbalance or skewing of the sex ratio, leading to between 32 million and 36 million more males than would be expected naturally. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences forecast that next year there will be 24 million more men than women of marriageable age. This imbalance will grow year on year, so how will these millions of young men find their brides? One simple way is to purchase one from outside the country. Because of the many thousands of Chinese workers employed on the Belt and Road Initiative, Pakistan has become a popular source.

A report published last week by the Associated Press (AP) news agency gave a list of 629 girls and women from across Pakistan who were sold as brides to Chinese men and taken to China. All but a handful of these marriages took place in 2018 and up to April 2019. The list, believed to be the “tip of the iceberg”, was compiled from Pakistan’s integrated border management system, which digitally records travel documents at the country’s airports. This includes the bride’s national identity number, their Chinese husband’s names and the date of their marriages. Most of the brides were from Pakistan’s Christian minority, which has become the target of brokers who pay impoverished parents to marry off their daughters, some of them teenagers, to Chinese husbands who return with them to their homeland.

Christians are targeted because they are one of the poorest communities in Muslim-majority Pakistan. The trafficking rings are made up of Chinese and Pakistani middlemen and even include Christian ministers, mostly from small evangelical churches, who get bribes to urge their flocks to sell their daughters. The practice is not confined to Christians, however, as investigators have turned up at least one Muslim cleric running a marriage bureau from his madrasa, or religious school! The Chinese and Pakistani brokers make between $25,000 and $65,000 from the groom, but only about $1,500 is given to the family.

This lucrative trade does not always end well for the “bride”. Once in China, the women are frequently isolated, neglected, abused and sold into prostitution. There are many reported instances of trafficked women contacting home, pleading to be bought back.

Activists against this form of human trafficking claim that Pakistani officials have sought to keep a lid on information, so as not to jeopardise Pakistan’s increasingly close economic relationship with China. Since the report was published in June this year, information provided to investigators has ground to a halt due, it is claimed, to pressure from the Pakistani government. In October, a court in Faisalabad acquitted 31 Chinese nationals charged in connection with trafficking. Several of the women who had initially been interviewed by the police refused to testify because they were either threatened or bribed into silence, according to a court official and a police investigator familiar with the case. Both spoke to investigators on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution for speaking out. Witnesses also claim that the Pakistani media has been required to curb their reporting on trafficking.

Pushed by AP’s Beijing’s bureau for a comment, China’s Foreign Ministry said it was unaware of the list of 629 girls. “The two governments of China and Pakistan support the formation of happy families between their people on a voluntary basis in keeping with laws and regulations, while at the same time having zero tolerance for and resolutely fighting against any person engaging in illegal cross-border marriage behaviour” the ministry said in a statement.

Commenting on the report, Amnesty International’s international campaigns director for South Asia, Omar Warriach, was critical of both countries. “Pakistan must not let its close relationship with China become a reason to turn a blind eye to such human rights abuses against its own citizens. It is horrifying that women are being treated this way without any concerns being shown by the authorities in either country. And it is shocking that it’s happening on such a scale.”

John Dobson is a former British diplomat to Moscow and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998.

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