Chinese women often kidnapped, sold to lonely middle-aged men

Illegal wife-selling, rooted in feudal times, continues in rural areas

April 17, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ZHONGJIANG, China -- Seventeen-year-old Yang Tingxiu became suspicious when she noticed the "factory director" was dressed like a peasant. After she stepped inside the man's home, his family members closed the door and blocked her escape.

"Do you know why you've come here?" they asked.

"I came to work," said Yang, a pretty peasant girl who had traveled halfway across the country for what she thought was a sewing job in a clothing factory.

"You were tricked," they said. "You were sold to our son."

So began Yang's six-month ordeal as the slave-wife of a local government official in coastal Jiangsu Province. The man, a decade older, bought her for about $300. He forced her to have sex that first evening, Yang said.

His sisters-in-law shadowed her wherever she went to keep her from running away. Before being rescued, Yang twice tried to kill herself, by slitting her wrist with a peeling knife and drinking insecticide.

Each year, thousands of women like Yang are kidnapped and sold to poor, lonely men in the Chinese countryside. Naive and desperate to escape rural poverty, the women look for work in city job markets, railway stations and along docks where traffickers prey.

Carried off to remote villages where they sometimes don't speak the dialect, many become slaves, forced to do farm work and bear children for middle-aged men they despise. Their captors beat them, lock them up at night and sometimes slice their Achilles tendons to keep them from fleeing.

Fueled by China's emerging market economy as well as its feudal tradition, the slave trade reveals some ugly truths about a nation caught between the ancient and the modern. Despite significant social progress since the Communist takeover in 1949, Chinese women are considered chattel in some rural areas.

Their mass migration to the cities and the preference for baby boys has exacerbated the gender gap in the countryside and increased the demand for kidnapped wives there.

Many men either don't know that wife-buying is illegal -- one government survey found that only 20 out of 100 purchasers thought it was against the law -- or don't care. Rescue attempts by police often explode into street brawls as villagers take up shovels and other farm tools to defend the buyer.

In a nation where the concept of individual rights has yet to take root, such scenes are a stark reminder of how far the country has to travel in its quest for a civil society.

"China has been ruled by feudalism for many, many years," said Yang Dawen, a law professor at People's University in Beijing. "It will take a long time to equip people with the concept of rule of law."

Yang Tingxiu comes from Southwest China's Sichuan Province, home to the famous spicy Chinese cuisine and 84 million people. The annual per capita income hovers around $200. The major exports include rice, wheat and human beings.

Bright yellow rape plants sweep across the terraced hillsides like brush strokes. Carp farms fashioned out of rusting barrels float in valley lakes.

On winter days, farmers sit in unheated, mud-brick houses and warm their hands over wicker baskets filled with glowing embers. At 16 or 17, women head to the nearest city in search of a better life.

Along with thousands of other young migrants, Yang arrived one morning in a labor market in the provincial capital of Chengdu. As fortune tellers and peanut vendors drift through the crowd, the young women and men wander about clutching their belongings in shopping bags or woven nylon sacks looking for work.

After a long fruitless day, Yang met a woman who offered her a job as a seamstress. Yang had just $6 in her pocket. Initially hesitant, she agreed after the woman -- a trafficker -- offered to pay her train fare.

Kidnapping networks rely on the naivete of women such as Yang. No one knows exactly how many people they trick. Embarrassed by the crime, the government only gives figures for traffickers arrested and victims rescued.

In 1996, officials claimed they charged 14,709 traffickers and freed 10,503 victims, but observers believe the actual numbers are much higher. In the early 1990s, government reports put the annual number of trafficking cases at 50,000, according to the New York-based group, Human Rights In China.

For middle-aged men in the countryside, buying a wife is all about numbers.

Rooted in an agrarian culture, Chinese have traditionally preferred baby boys because they carry on the family name and make good farmhands. Abandonment, neglect and infanticide -- as well as selective abortion triggered by China's one-child population policy -- have contributed to a lopsided ratio of 120 Chinese men for every 100 women.

The odds are even worse in rural areas, where women often leave because they have so few opportunities.

For some farmers, buying a wife makes economic sense. Unable to afford the traditional payment of up to $1,200 that families expect, they regard the $200 to $800 kidnappers charge as a relative bargain.

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