ONE BELT ONE LOVE

新时代的跨国婚恋

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY HAN RUBO (韩儒博)

One of the world's most eth­ni­cally ho­moge­nous na­tions, China is see­ing a rise in international and in­ter­ra­cial mar­riages, as work­ers go abroad and for­eign­ers seek op­por­tu­nity in China. From ro­mance to busi­ness part­ner­ships to a so­lu­tion to “left­over men,” the rea­sons and per­cep­tions for th­ese mar­riages are as di­verse as the cou­ples them­selves

M “arry a for­eign woman,” sug­gested the sten­cilled signs, which cir­cu­lated on Weibo last month. “Cer­ti­fi­able by Civil and For­eign Ad­min­is­tra­tion.” The kicker: “One Belt, One Road Project.” More than just a belt, more than just a road, President Xi Jin­ping’s flag­ship in­fra­struc­ture ini­tia­tive is now be­ing em­braced by ser­vices ex­ploit­ing a rel­a­tively new mar­ket: over­seas brides.

Com­pa­nies of­fer­ing “for­eign matches” have long ex­isted, of­ten in a le­gal gray zone, but their con­fi­dent resur­gence rep­re­sents a small if grow­ing in­cli­na­tion to­ward in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage in China.

In 1978, at the be­gin­ning of the re­form era, there was not a sin­gle regis­tered mar­riage be­tween Chi­nese and for­eign­ers.

By the early 1980s, there were nu­mer­ous cases of women be­ing de­tained, or charged with spy­ing, for hav­ing li­aisons with out­siders; one cross-cul­tural mar­riage, be­tween an Amer­i­can stu­dent and her Nan­jing pro­fes­sor, fa­mously re­quired ap­proval by Deng Xiaop­ing him­self.

Over time, the rules and cul­ture have re­laxed: By 2012, as many as 53,000 main­land mar­riages a year were be­tween a Chi­nese and non-chi­nese na­tional.

Although many still con­form to a com­mon stereo­type (Chi­nese fe­male, Cau­casian male), pock­ets of di­ver­sity are be­gin­ning to ap­pear—not just within China, but in its grow­ing ex­pat com­mu­ni­ties, es­pe­cially coun­tries like Uganda, Ethiopia, and Ghana, where Beijing has in­vested in mul­ti­ple in­fra­struc­ture and min­eral ex­trac­tion deals.

In 2011, var­i­ous im­ages show­ing Chi­nese men with their African part­ners be­gan go­ing vi­ral. “What a great Shan­dong man! A great Chi­nese man!” en­thused com­menters. “A wealthy Sichuan busi­ness­man who mar­ried last year’s Miss Kenya!!!” wrote an­other. “Strongly rec­om­mend!!!” Many of the ob­ser­va­tions from ne­ti­zens dis­played ex­cite­ment at the idea of their com­pa­tri­ots “con­quer­ing” women abroad; other views ranged from the odd to of­fen­sive to down­right de­luded: “Large-scale mar­ry­ing of African women can ef­fec­tively solve China’s male-fe­male sex-ra­tio im­bal­ance prob­lem!”

This uptick was not al­ways viewed so pos­i­tively. In Uganda, ac­cord­ing to the Uganda In­vest­ment Au­thor­ity, China ac­counts for al­most 50 per­cent of for­eign in­vest­ment, and Chi­nese in­vestors, traders, and con­trac­tors all look for lo­cal wives. Ugan­dan im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials be­lieve that an in­creas­ing num­ber of th­ese ex­pats are sim­ply us­ing th­ese unions to gain

res­i­dency, and ex­pand their busi­ness. Some are de­ported; oth­ers sim­ply desert th­ese fam­i­lies when they re­turn to China. “Even our Ugan­dan women are ac­cept­ing to [re­pro­duce] with th­ese men,” one of­fi­cial lamented to a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee.

Back in the motherland, though, the ra­tio is re­versed: African men are mainly seek­ing re­la­tion­ships with Chi­nese women, es­pe­cially in south­ern cities like Guangzhou, which has a district so pop­u­lous with sub-sa­ha­ran traders it is known as “Lit­tle Africa” or “Choco­late City.” There are no firm fig­ures for th­ese Afro-chi­nese unions, but anec­dotes of vis­its to mar­kets and whole­sale ware­house in the vicin­ity sug­gests that, at the least, thousands of for­eign busi­ness­men are (or hop­ing to be) mar­ried to Chi­nese women. For some, it’s love; for oth­ers, such as those who pre­fer women who don’t fit the tra­di­tional beauty stan­dards of Chi­nese men, there’s an el­e­ment of mu­tual serendip­ity. And of course, for many, it’s a mat­ter of good busi­ness.

Around 20,000 to 200,000 male mi­grants, from coun­tries like Nige­ria, Kenya, An­gola, Guinea, and So­ma­lia, have helped sire a size­able gen­er­a­tion of mixed-race chil­dren in Guang­dong prov­ince—one large enough to have its own com­mu­nity lead­ers and international schools. Some won­der at the promise this pop­u­la­tion could bring to fu­ture Sino-african re­la­tions, or even do­mes­tic pol­i­tics (“Will China Ever Have a Black President?” an op­ti­mistic op-ed on a Chi­nese news site re­cently asked). But the vague­ness of the fig­ures high­lights a host of is­sues which af­fect this bur­geon­ing in­ter­ra­cial com­mu­nity.

One is eco­nomic: Although Si­noAfrican trade reached a peak 198 bil­lion USD in 2012, and African heads of state are reg­u­larly courted in Beijing as “old friends of China,” there are many on the main­land who do not share such a pos­i­tive view of Africans, and even re­gard the con­ti­nent’s rel­a­tive lack of eco­nomic progress as in­dica­tive of a ra­cial fail­ing. For­mer Univer­sity of Hong Kong pro­fes­sor Adams Bodomo has pointed out that this view is out­dated, at the least: As many as 40 per­cent of Africans in Guangzhou have univer­sity de­grees or Phds; many speak Chi­nese, run their own busi­ness, and pay taxes. More­over, those who treat China as a place to “dis­ap­pear” run the risk of de­ten­tion, a large fine, and hav­ing to pay their air­fare home.

Nev­er­the­less, some of this lo­cal at­ti­tude has seeped into of­fi­cial pol­icy. While state me­dia reg­u­larly cel­e­brates the “win-win” diplo­matic re­la­tion­ships, lo­cal of­fi­cials are not al­ways so friendly. No one knows ex­actly how many for­eign­ers there are in Choco­late City, partly be­cause many over­stay their visas. This has prompted po­lice to crack­down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion; in turn, some Africans view hav­ing a Chi­nese part­ner as a form of “pro­tec­tive um­brella,” a term for cor­rup­tion typ­i­cally ap­plied to busi­ness­men seek­ing of­fi­cial back­ing.

For im­mi­grants, mar­riage to a lo­cal is a ticket to suc­cess, if not ac­tual ci­ti­zen­ship—in 2011, a raft of mea­sures was in­tro­duced to con­trol im­mi­gra­tion in Guang­dong, and the Guangzhou Pub­lic Se­cu­rity Bureau de­cided not to grant mar­ried Africans spousal visas.

Chi­nese rel­a­tives don’t al­ways subscribe to the view. “I know three or four re­la­tion­ships where the cou­ple had ex­pected it to lead to mar­riage, but as soon as the Chi­nese fam­ily met the African boyfriend, they had to end it,” One Nige­rian hus­band

BACK IN THE MOTHERLAND, THE RA­TIO IS RE­VERSED: AFRICAN MEN ARE MAINLY SEEK­ING RE­LA­TION­SHIPS WITH CHI­NESE WOMEN

told a re­searcher for the Univer­sity of Wit­wa­ter­srand’s China-africa Re­port­ing Project. Un­less the bride is from a par­tic­u­larly poor ru­ral area, “Mar­ry­ing a black per­son is still mar­ry­ing down in China.” Mixed in with main­land so­ci­ety’s gen­eral ig­no­rance to­ward Africa are cau­tion­ary tales: Bigamists with wives and chil­dren back home; dead­beat dads who go on “busi­ness trips” only never to re­turn.

De­spite (or per­haps be­cause of) this dis­trust, many Sino-african unions are based on a hard-nosed mu­tual in­ter­est in so­cial mo­bil­ity: the African part­ner might sup­ply cap­i­tal and con­tacts over­seas to open an ex­port busi­ness, while their Chi­nese spouse deals with lo­cal of­fi­cials and sup­pli­ers. For most of Guangzhou’s huge pop­u­la­tion of in­ter­nal mi­grants—as many as eight mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates—judg­ment from prej­u­diced rel­a­tive or neigh­bors at home can be safely ig­nored. For var­i­ous cul­tural rea­sons, though, Chi­nese men rarely date African im­mi­grants, ac­cord­ing to re­search by Gor­don Matthews, an­thro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong—even if they show far less aver­sion to us­ing East African sex work­ers.

In­stead, Chi­nese seek­ing for­eign wives have a pref­er­ence (or, at least, as­pi­ra­tion) for Cau­casian women. At the top of their wish-list are North Amer­i­cans and West­ern Euro­peans; many would be more than happy to set­tle for a leggy Rus­sian or blonde Ukrainian, though. More than 800,000 fol­low “Ulove,” the Weibo ac­count of the re­cently re­branded and pur­port­edly suc­cess­ful match­mak­ing web­site “Ukrainian Love.”

Ulove was founded by “Max” Mei Aisi, a xuezha (“aca­demic dreg”) who flunked his gaokao then moved to Ukraine aged 18 in a des­per­ate at­tempt to find a univer­sity to is­sue him a de­gree, a pre­req­ui­site for mar­riage among tra­di­tional Chi­nese fam­i­lies (Mei ad­mit­ted to Chi­nese me­dia that he’d con­fused the coun­tries, and orig­i­nally thought he’d be study­ing in Uganda).

Mei’s sub­se­quent rags-to-riches tale went vi­ral af­ter it was am­pli­fied by pub­li­ca­tion in the Peo­ple’s Daily: Af­ter fin­ish­ing his stud­ies, Mei met a 16-year-old called Dasha and quickly made a move. Now mar­ried with a child, Mei’s pitch on Ulove is that if he can do it, any­one can (re­ally). Client only need pay be­tween 69,000 to one mil­lion RMB (10,800 to 157,000 USD) and one mil­lion RMB for Black Gold

“WILL CHINA EVER HAVE A BLACK PRESIDENT?” AN OP­TI­MISTIC OP-ED ON A CHI­NESE NEWS SITE RE­CENTLY ASKED

Mem­ber­ship (flight to Kharkov not in­cluded) to join the in­ter­ra­cial love train.

Mei’s pitch has raised con­sid­er­able eye­brows, aside from the fact that the cheap­est pack­age buys only sin­gle “mixer,” with sushi buf­fet, plus an ar­ray of po­ten­tial fe­male Ukrainian wives and their trans­la­tors—in ef­fect, lit­tle more than a speed date. Some have sug­gested that Mei’s mar­ket­ing is better than his match­mak­ing, and his “suc­cess­ful busi­ness” and “400,000-dol­lar lux­ury apart­ment,” de­scribed in cred­u­lous re­ports by state me­dia, are sim­ply a Chi­nese restau­rant and reg­u­lar Ukrainian home. But there’s no deny­ing the en­thu­si­asm many men ex­pressed on­line at the idea of scor­ing a young white wife (promi­nently dis­played on Ulove’s Weibo page, re­clin­ing in a bikini) and mixed-race child, or their wish to repli­cate such sup­posed suc­cess.

For some men in China, un­der the cosh of un­re­al­is­tic mar­i­tal ex­pec­ta­tions—houses, cars, high in­come, a “bride price”—the idea of diaosi nixi (“the nerd strikes back”) is a po­tent in­cen­tive for in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage, says a re­porter for busi­ness site Jiemian News. Raised on an ed­u­ca­tional diet of “na­tional hu­mil­i­a­tion”—the Sino-ja­panese and Opium Wars, fol­lowed by in­va­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion dur­ing World War II— but ill-pre­pared for equal in­ter­ac­tion with the op­po­site sex, some see “the con­quest of a Cau­casian woman [as] an an­ti­dote to this still-per­va­sive [anx­i­ety] and a tro­phy con­fer­ring on her hus­band not only the abil­ity to con­tinue his Chi­nese fam­ily line…[at] his prow­ess, his tri­umph over his­tory.”

What’s at stake, then, may be less ro­mance than re­venge. The phe­nom­e­non is em­pha­sized by China’s in­domitable eco­nomic rise, and the ma­te­ri­al­ism it has en­gen­dered: On Ulove, clients re­fer to po­ten­tial brides as jipin or “high-end prod­ucts.” Mar­riage, as ever, aligns it­self with money—and pol­i­tics. Tout­ing the com­pany’s plans to ex­pand into Rus­sia and Be­larus, Mei of­ten ven­tures that his busi­ness is an­other pi­o­neer­ing piece of the motherland’s “Belt and Road” ini­tia­tive—a ten­ta­tive claim, at best.

Less palat­able re­al­i­ties are gen­er­ally not in­cluded in this vi­sion. For cen­turies, hu­man traf­fick­ing has been an in­ter­nal is­sue, with daugh­ters sold or kid­napped to ser­vice the nup­tial needs of less pop­u­lated ru­ral re­gions. It’s hardly unique to China: “The farmer needs a wife” is prac­ti­cally an international folk song. In the last decade or so, the ur­gency of this need has led to many mar­riages be­tween women from poorer South­east Asian coun­tries, such as Viet­nam and Cambodia, and Chi­nese men who can’t find or af­ford a vil­lage bride. Some are con­sen­sual ar­range­ments; oth­ers are ev­i­dently not, as there have been nu­mer­ous cases of po­lice break­ing up traf­fick­ing gangs op­er­at­ing as “international match­mak­ing” ser­vices.

The idea of mar­riage and lin­eage is deeply in­grained in Chi­nese so­ci­ety, even as it is thwarted or com­pli­cated by mat­ters such as gen­der and wealth in­equal­ity, skew­ered birth rates, and un­re­al­is­tic so­ci­etal pres­sures. Lo­cal bu­reau­cracy is not help­ing: On birth cer­tifi­cates, par­ents are of­fered 56 op­tions to reg­is­ter their child’s eth­nic­ity with au­thor­i­ties; none in­clude “mixed-race.”

Per­haps the big­gest im­ped­i­ment to a more pro­gres­sive view of international mar­riages is sex­ism. The “Belt and Road” match­mak­ers will no doubt flour­ish, but only “mar­ry­ing for­eign women is pa­tri­otic,” as an over­seas Chi­nese stu­dent ob­served on Twit­ter. “Mar­ry­ing for­eign men is trea­sonous, be­cause women are con­sid­ered prop­erty of men in the pa­tri­archy.”

FOR SOME MEN IN CHINA, THE IDEA OF DIAOSI NIXI (“THE NERD STRIKES BACK”) IS A PO­TENT IN­CEN­TIVE FOR IN­TER­RA­CIAL MAR­RIAGE

A Chi­nese-bul­gar­ian wed­ding held in Urumqi in 2015

A multi-ra­cial fam­ily liv­ing in Guangzhou

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