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Traffickers launch 'buy a bride' scheme for Chinese men as one-child policy creates shortage of women

China’s one-child policy has shaped the nation’s family life for more than three decades and is part of the national psyche, but such a tight grip on population control has created a gender imbalance.

The most recent figures show that there are 118 men for every 100 women.

This gender gap, the high cost of dowries yet low incomes of men in rural China mean bachelors are increasingly looking for a more economical bride in other South East Asian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

But while some women are eager for the chance to explore abroad, some are being sold into marriage by human traffickers.

Men in China have started travelling to Vietnam to find a wife Credit: ITV News

We travelled to Vietnam - a developing, Communist country changing rapidly. It’s where traditional family values are under pressure from a young generation influenced by Western ideals, eager to change their lives.

Their keenness to move abroad and see beyond Vietnam’s borders is fuelling an increase in the movement of brides to China.

We met Zhen Yu Liu, in a border town in the North of Vietnam. He’s Chinese and married to his second wife - a Vietnamese woman.

After his experience he began to see “matchmaking” as a way to make money and started a business, operating under the guise of tour guide. He brings men from China, who pay a fee, to be introduced to women in Vietnam. This is illegal.

Zhen Yu Liu is part of an organised group working with brokers in Vietnam who find women willing to marry a foreigner and then they put them together. The communities targeted are often poor, rural and relatively remote.

We met one of their customers Chen Wen Zhon, who explained to us the reasons he’s looking for a bride in this way.

There simply aren’t enough women in his village, and those who are there have high expectations. They want their prospective husband to have a car and an apartment before they’ll entertain the idea of marrying him.

Around £10,000 is needed to marry a Chinese woman, but the trip to Vietnam, and to meet a bride, will cost him £6,000, and he's taken to meet more than 30 different women.

Three 21-year-old women were put forward as potential 'wives' by their teacher Credit: ITV News

We observed the matchmaking process. It involved three 21-year-old women put forward by their former teacher, Chen Wen Chun. They met their potential groom, Chen Wen Zhon, one after the other in their former classroom.

When we challenged their teacher about his role in proceedings he refused to accept that he was part of the matchmaking team, but maintained that he was “just teaching the girls Chinese to help them go to China."

One of the girls, Thanh Thao, stood out as Chen Wen Zhon’s “favourite.”

She told me:

I don’t have a bad impression of him but it’ll take me much longer to get to know him properly. I don’t care where I live. I’m young and I want the chance to go abroad

– Thanh Thao, potential 'bride'

Her parents have no idea she is doing this.

Broker Zhen Yu Liu says he does not think there is nothing wrong with what he is doing, even thought the Chinese authorities have shut down his website.

He told me:

What I'm doing is good for both countries. I’d really like them to introduce a law to legalise it.

– Zhen Yu Liu, 'wife' broker

But this practice is unlawful, and officials in China and Vietnam are trying to reduce it.

Even though it seems like innocent matchmaking, other, more disturbing forms of illegal trafficking are happening too, and they’re increasing, according to the head of Vietnam’s Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, Michael Brosowski.

His organisation has rescued 47 women from such trafficking.

This is so profitable that the traffickers are taking more risks, looking for more women. There are young women, there are syndicates. There are small groups. There are husband and wife teams. There’s no stereotype of the trafficker.

The police here in Vietnam and I believe in China as well are very active on this issue, but every arrest they make there’s another 50 or 100 traffickers who are still out there making money.

– Michael Brosowski, Vietnam’s Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation
Nguyen Hoang Lam was trafficked and sold as a 'wife' twice Credit: ITV News

We met 18-year-old Nguyen Hoang Lam - not her real name - who lives in a shelter in Hanoi with five other women who have all been rescued from the clutches of traffickers.

Nguyen Hoang Lam was tricked into travelling to China by her friend. She was told she could do the same job there that she did in Vietnam but would be paid a lot more for it, so she went on a trip to find out more about it.

Her and her friend stayed in a flat for 3 nights but on the last night the landlady separated them and said she was going to introduce her to a husband.

She was sold for £11,000, but refused to have sex with him as, she said, she "didn't like" him.

That man complained and demanded his money back, so Nguyen Hoang Lam was sold again; and was threatened with being forced into prostitution or have her legs broken if she did not comply.

Nguyen Hoan Lam chose to speak to us about her ordeal because she doesn’t want anyone to fall into the same trap as her. She doesn’t think anyone should go through what she did just because they aspire to a better life.

But in the business of buying and selling marriage the victims can fall on both sides.

In December, in Hebei, near Beijing, more than 100 Vietnamese women fled from their so-called husbands. It was a scam. A female broker - known to the community - had organised the marriages and guaranteed the brides would stay for at least five years. After just a few months, they all disappeared.

Yuan Haieen - a farmer - was conned out of £9,000. It’s brought about both his and his family’s financial ruin.

The moment I realised she’d gone it felt like the end of the world. I’m so sad. I was conned. I miss her but I hate her. It’s had a huge impact on my family because we can’t earn that much in a year.

Right now, the money I’ve spent is the equivalent to 3 to 4 years work but now I earn a lot less so it will take a long time to repay it.

– Yuan Haieen, farmer

Efforts in China to reduce such trafficking are being increased say police but where poverty and desperation exist they are readily capitalised upon.

Watch the full report on On Assignment tonight on ITV at 10.45pm