Chinese News Agency’s Video Showing Myanmar Woman’s ‘Happy’ Marriage to Local Man Prompts Trafficking Fears

By Nan Lwin 13 October 2020

YANGON—In late September, a well-groomed Myanmar woman appeared in a video posted by Chinese state-run media, describing in fluent Mandarin her easy, pleasant life married to a local man, while sitting in their home in a rural village in Qinyuan county in the northern province of Shanxi.

In Myanmar, however, where China has a widespread reputation as the top destination for women victims of human trafficking, the video prompted an immediate backlash from thousands of social media users and stirred outraged reactions from women’s organizations dedicated to helping trafficked women across the country.

The director of the Gender Equality Network (GEN), Daw May Sabe Phyu, told The Irrawaddy that every year hundreds of Myanmar women, especially from Shan and Kachin states, are trafficked to China as “brides”. Many are tricked into traveling to China to seek job opportunities, while some are kidnapped and held against their will to be sold to Chinese men seeking wives.

“It [the video] totally supports human trafficking. We all know well that it does not reflect reality,” Daw May Sabe Phyu said.

Wearing prominently displayed jewelry and heavy makeup, and using the Chinese name Ma Xiaoyue, the Myanmar woman in the video produced by Xinhua happily reels off details of the comfortable life she says she has enjoyed with her Chinese husband and daughters since 2007. The opening of the video focuses tightly on Ma’s head to highlight her gold necklace and pearl earrings as she prepares a meal in the kitchen. She says she met her husband on a construction site in Yunnan province, adding that a Chinese interpreter helped the pair communicate. Later, she accompanied her husband to his home in Shanxi Province.

Strangely, she never mentions which part of Myanmar she is from. The Chinese news agency posted the video on Facebook with both English and Burmese subtitles. In the video, Ma shows off various improvements to the family’s home she said were made with the help of the Chinese government’s poverty alleviation program. The video also features a portrait of Ma standing in front of a TV and wooden wardrobe in her living room—a setting widely recognized as a sign of relative wealth in rural China.

Ma also touts the Chinese government’s financial support for her children’s education and for a surgical operation she needed.

Also featured in the video is Gao Baohong, Ma’s husband, who comes across as a helpful and supportive spouse; at one point he is shown helping Ma prepare the meal.

Daw May Sabe Phyu said the video may be a realistic account of life for a very small handful of people, but that in reality the majority of human trafficking victims in China are little more than sex slaves forcibly recruited for childbearing.

After nearly three decades of a strictly enforced one-child policy, a preference for boys over girls has created a highly imbalanced gender ratio in China. According to the World Bank, China has one of the most heavily skewed gender ratios in the world, and faces a shortfall in its female population of an estimated 30 to 40 million women and girls. Many Chinese families seeking marriageable women resort to buying trafficked women or girls from neighboring countries, including Myanmar.

Mostly, the traffickers target young women who are struggling to survive due to a lack of employment opportunities, low wages, barriers to education, and economic and social devastation. The women are tricked with false offers of high-paying jobs or a life-changing opportunity to marry a rich man in China. Over the past 20 years there has been a growing awareness in Myanmar that young women and teenagers from northern Shan and Kachin states, as well as Yangon, Mandalay, Bago and Ayeyarwady regions, are frequently trafficked to border towns in Yunnan Province and as far as eastern China, where they are forced to marry Chinese men or work in the sex industry.

It is hard to calculate how many women and girls are trafficked to China, but the Myanmar government reported 239 cases in 2019, of which 196 involved forced marriages with Chinese nationals. The 239 cases involved a total of 358 victims, as in some cases there was more than one victim.

From January to Oct. 1, the government reported 94 cases of trafficking—including 68 cases of women being forced to marry Chinese men.

In 2019, a Human Rights Watch report revealed that young women including teenagers from war-torn Kachin and Shan states were being sold to Chinese families as “brides” for the equivalent of US$3,000 to $13,000 (3.84 million to 16.65 million kyats). The report documented cases in which women were treated as sex slaves, being locked up in rooms and raped with the purpose of making them pregnant. The report was based primarily on interviews with 37 trafficking survivors, three families of victims, government officials, police and others.

Daw Nang Pu, the director of the Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, which offers legal aid to trafficking victims, told The Irrawaddy that in many cases, the victims’ own friends and relatives act as accomplices, helping traffic them to China.

She said the video was Chinese government propaganda intended to make it easier for human traffickers to trap women from rural parts of Myanmar.

“It [the situation depicted in the video] is quite different from what is happening on the ground. Through this video, it seems China is officially promoting human trafficking. Almost all of the women [who marry Chinese men] face hardships, as they are forcibly married,” Daw Nang Pu said.

“We have rescued many victims from China. We know what is happening there. I want to ask [the producers of the video]: Did human traffickers sponsor that video?” she added.

According to the Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, a total of 109 cases of human trafficking to China were reported in Kachin last year, and 79 were reported from January to September this year. The foundation said the majority of the young women who are trafficked are from internally displaced person (IDP) camps in Kachin that were established to house civilians fleeing renewed fighting between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) since 2011. Financial desperation drives many women to seek jobs in China; most are eventually sold by human traffickers or their own relatives to Chinese families, where they become “brides” against their will.

San Htoi, a spokesperson for the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT), said the video revealed the irresponsibility of Chinese officials, who chose to sweep the ordeals of hundreds of trafficking victims under the carpet by focusing on an atypical example of a Myanmar woman who claims to enjoy a decent life as a wife in China. She said that many victims grappled with trauma and, in some cases, medical complications from the abuse they had suffered.

“The video sends a very dangerous message to young woman and girls who do not have enough knowledge about [forced marriages]. It will encourage them to fall victim [to traffickers],” San Htoi said.

“It creates the false impression that Chinese men are well-behaved toward Myanmar women. In reality, many women who are trafficked to China suffer trauma. They find it very difficult to overcome the abuse they receive from their Chinese husbands. They also face stigma from their communities and sometimes their families,” she said. “It totally ignores the lives of the victims, who are really suffering.”

San Htoi said Chinese authorities have failed to fully cooperate with their Myanmar counterparts to crack down on human tracking. She urged the Myanmar government to consider upgrading a bilateral agreement on human trafficking signed in 2009. In November of that year, Myanmar and China signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to promote bilateral cooperation on combating human trafficking.

“We will need more effective agreements to fight human trafficking,” San Htoi said.

Between June 2017 and April 2018, the Center for Humanitarian Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health carried out a study on almost 400 migrant women and girls from Myanmar between the ages of 15 and 55, who were married to Chinese men and experienced childbearing in the five years they were in China.

The study supported by KWAT estimated that of 106,000 female migrants who returned from China between 2013 and 2017, around 7,800 were married to Chinese men—some 5,000 of them forcibly. The number included around 3,900 who were trafficked to China to be forced into marriages with Chinese men. About 2,800 of the female returnees were estimated to have been forced to bear children for their Chinese husbands.

The women’s organizations urged the Myanmar government to lodge a formal response to the video, which they believed would send a misleading message to young women.

“Cases of human trafficking to China are growing yearly. The Myanmar government should not be silent on this issue,” Daw Nang Pu said.

“They should talk with officials from the Chinese side and ask them not to post this kind of misleading message, in order to prevent further human trafficking cases,” she said.

Strongly objecting to what they see as the video’s distorted portrayal of happy marriages that await Myanmar women in China, many social media users demanded that Facebook take it down. However, it was still on Facebook, in both Burmese and English versions, as of Tuesday.

Daw May Sabe Phyu said there are growing concerns that traffickers will use the video as a tool to lure young women from rural areas.

“The traffickers will say it is produced by Chinese state-owned media, so women can trust them. It [the video] will incite an increase in human trafficking cases in the country,” Daw May Sabe Phyu said.