China’s gender gap is fueling the trafficking of poor women, who are being kidnapped or lured into China and forced to be prostitutes or slave-brides.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, traffickers “increasingly facilitate the forced and fraudulent marriage of South Asian, Southeast Asian, Northeast Asian, and African women and girls to Chinese men.”

There are 34 million more Chinese men than Chinese women in a total population of 1.4 billion. The gender gap is widest for those of marriage age. In 2018, China had 280 males aged 15–29 for every 100 females of that age, or nearly 3 to 1, according to the United Nations.

By 2026, there will be more than three males for every female aged 15–29, and the ratio will not be close to balanced for several decades.

Chart with U.N. data showing China's projected gender gap until 2050 (State Dept.)
(State Dept.)

$30,000 for a wife

According to the report, “the Chinese government’s birth-limitation policy and a cultural preference for sons” have led to sex-selective abortion and contributed to the disparity between men and women.

As a result, Chinese men, especially poor or rural ones, cannot find women to marry. Some of them spend vast sums to build houses in hopes of attracting a bride, a trend that is driving up property prices.

OECD data indicates Chinese households save about 37 percent of their disposable income (Americans save about 7 percent). That is double what Chinese households set aside in 1990, and researchers Shang-Jin Wei and Xiaobo Zhang say half of that increase is due to savings intended to improve a son’s chances of marrying. Among the costs of a son’s wedding, the “bride price” paid to the bride’s family can reach as high as $30,000.

High savings rates mean low levels of consumer spending, which economists believe contributes to China’s trade imbalance with the U.S., the Washington Post reports.

Some Chinese men choose to pay a high fee to marriage brokers to secure marriage to foreign women. Many then force their “wives” to become sex workers or farm laborers as a way to reduce their debts.

The recent arrest of a people-smuggling gang in Pakistan confirms that China’s woman shortage is spilling into other countries.  The traffickers focused on women belonging to Pakistan’s small, marginalized Christian community. In Burma, traffickers target women of the Kachin minority groups, who are mostly Christian.

Man taking picture of other men (© B.K. Bangash/AP Images)
Members of a trafficking gang that allegedly tricked women into slave marriage in China in Islamabad, Pakistan, on May 9 (© B.K. Bangash/AP Images)

According to the report, Chinese law enforcement officials detain foreign women on suspicion of prostitution crimes for as long as four months before deporting them for immigration violations. The State Department recommends that authorities screen such women for sex-trafficking indicators and immediately refer identified trafficking victims to protection services.