New Delhi: Even as several reports brought out the horrors of bride trafficking along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2019, most Chinese traffickers were acquitted by the courts in Pakistan and some granted bail.
A recent Brookings report by researcher Madiha Afzal noted that while Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested 52 Chinese traffickers, those who were granted bail were taken out of the country. The report also notes that the “investigators were pressured by Pakistani authorities to let the cases slide, and journalists were asked to curtail their reporting on the issue”.
Over a period of several months in 2019, Pakistani & international media shone a spotlight on cases of bride trafficking that had been taking place around the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
In a new policy brief, I examine what happened next, and why: https://t.co/pdNOJrKXyM
— Madiha Afzal (@MadihaAfzal) March 17, 2022
The report emphasised two ‘offsetting imperatives’ in the issue of Pakistani bride trafficking to China: “First, the deeply disturbing nature of the crime for Pakistani society, given Pakistan’s cultural emphasis on protecting women’s ‘honour’ — which explained the attention to the issue. The second imperative — which ultimately won out, and led to attention to the issue being stamped out — was the need to protect Pakistan’s exceedingly close relationship, economic and otherwise, with China, given the lopsided power dynamic between the two countries.”
Reacting to the Brookings report, London-based Pakistani journalist Fifi Haroon tweeted: “The Chinese fund us & we forgive them almost anything, including bride trafficking our girls.”
The Chinese fund us & we forgive them almost anything, including bride trafficking our girls.
The FIA arrested 52 Chinese traffickers. Most acquitted in court, others bailed & flown out. Investigators were pressured by PK authorities to let the cases slidehttps://t.co/GzC5ySw4dy
— Fifi Haroon (@fifiharoon) March 18, 2022
Coverage bride trafficking issue
Bride trafficking is the practice of luring victims from marginalised sections of society with promises of monetary benefits and a better lifestyle in China, leading to fake and often forced (by the family) marriages between Pakistani women and Chinese men. Reports suggest abuse of these women including forced prostitution and pregnancy in China. It was first highlighted in the Japanese news outlet Nikkei Asia in 2015.
In April 2019, Pakistan’s Daily Times reported that in March, “a news agency raided a matchmaking centre in Lahore where six women — two of them were just 13-year-old girls — were waiting to travel to China. The women had been given 400,000 PKR (US$2,800) as an initial payment, and were promised another 40,000 PKR as a monthly stipend in future.” Other reports added that they were also promised mobile phones and Chinese visas.
Chinese citizens are arranging fake marriages with Pakistani girls. These girls are then sent to #China where they are forced for prostitution or used for organ transplants. From this compound of Chinese citizens, Pakistani girls as young as 13 years were discovered.#Pakistan pic.twitter.com/9xtxVhboig
— DOAM (@doamuslims) April 13, 2019
The news was soon picked up by international media and more details emerged. A Reuters article from 2019 said that ‘in 2018, a network of illicit marriage brokers emerged, mainly targeting members of Pakistan’s impoverished Christian minority, promising hundreds of thousands of rupees in exchange for their daughters’. BBC Urdu also ran a story on the issue tracking down a 19-year-old victim of the ‘trade’.
Several other ‘footages’ also emerged of alleged Pakistani brides ‘married’ to Chinese men.
Footage reportedly of a Pakistani bride "married" to a Chinese man, staring at his relatives in #China.
— DOAM (@doamuslims) April 21, 2019
Responding to the media coverage of the issue, the FIA launched a ‘crackdown’ against ‘the gang members comprising Chinese nationals who prepared fake religion certificates to deceive Pakistani families.’
China’s denial of allegations
At the time, Urdu News reported that China’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Pakistan Lijian Zhao denied allegations of women being forced into prostitution and organ trade after getting married to Chinese men but acknowledged that there was a sudden surge in demand for visas for Pakistani brides. He also reiterated the same in an official statement and tweeted, saying: “These are lies Pakistani girls are trafficked to China for forced prostitution or sale of organs. We investigated & found no evidence.”
Most marriages between China &Pakistan are good. Illegal marriage brokers shall be punished, not brides & bridegrooms. These are lies Pakistani girls are trafficked to China for forced prostitution or sale of organs. We investigated & found no evidence. pic.twitter.com/wzSxSfHEh9
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) May 18, 2019
5/5 We hope media reports should seek truth from facts, be objective & fair. We hope people of China & Pakistan do not believe rumors. We will never allow a few criminals to undermine China-Pakistan friendship & hurt friendly feelings between two peoples. https://t.co/BCkx6ZyEei
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) May 10, 2019
A Human Rights Watch article noted that the demand for trafficked women in China from outside the country had been triggered by the drop in the percentage of women since 1987, leading to an increased gender gap, caused by a preference for a male child and the country’s one-child policy (1979-2015).
An Associated Press report published in Al Jazeera in 2019 noted that over 600 Pakistani women had been sold to China as brides. The data obtained by the news agency from Pakistani investigators included women who have been victims of trafficking rackets operating along the economic corridor since 2018.
But China wasn’t having any of it. According to a report in The Express Tribune, the Chinese embassy dismissed the AP report as “groundless” and “not true”, and termed its intention “very suspicious”.
“It is the same old stuff and not true… It is clear that certain media has made [sic] groundless story again without full investigation and in respect of the facts. Its intention is very suspicious.” the report quoted a Chinese official.
According to the report, the official said joint efforts by Beijing and Islamabad have “effectively curbed” illegal marriage matching activity.
Outrage in Pakistan
The report at the time was met with heavy criticism of the Chinese government. Twitter user Imtiaz Baloch tweed: “In the behind of trafficking Bride from Pakistan to China is clear involvement of some influential Chinese which is not tolerantable [sic] for the Pakistani society.”
In the behind of trafficking Bride from Pakistan to China is clear involvement of some influential Chinese which is not tolerantable for the Pakistani society
— Imtiaz Baloch (@ImtiazBaloch_) May 10, 2019
Pakistan’s government should be alarmed by recent reports of trafficking of women and girls to China. These allegations are disturbingly similar to the pattern of trafficking of “brides” to China from at least five other Asian countries: Human Rights Watch https://t.co/OdUPXW8vgm
— Naila Inayat (@nailainayat) May 3, 2019
Several others also hit back at Lijian Zhao, saying that the Pakistan-China ‘friendship’ was no excuse to deny the crimes and ‘fool’ people from Pakistan.
Yeah but also you can not fool us under Pak-China friendship. It is obvious that they are forced to prostitution, which the arrested one's commited their crimes.
— Rayعan خan🇵🇰 (@MirzaRayyan123) May 10, 2019
There is lots of truth in these media reports. Chinese men are criminals and using these feelings of Pak-China friendship to further their criminals agendas. Deal them instead of lecturing us on twitter.
— Shahzad Masood Roomi (@Roomi_pk) May 11, 2019
Over the years, several news reports, available on YouTube, have uncovered the gruesome realities of these fraudulent marriages, based on testimonies from the victims. Rabia Kanwal, a purported victim of bride trafficking, became the face of a story by The New York Times.
Islamabad continues to receive aid and assistance from Beijing under China’s Bricks and Roads Initiative, which has been pointed out by activists as the reason behind the Pakistan government hushing up the matter. The coverage of the issue has been sparse since 2019, with little to no follow-up news reports.