In 1993, when Tang Zong Lui was 16, she couldn’t imagine that one day, she would be "married"—but with no legal status. She lived with her parents and six siblings in Kachin, a rural area along the Myanmar-China border. That summer, her uncle in China persuaded her to come and help him harvest sugar cane. She later met a Chinese man there and they were “married.”
“I tried to have her registered as a permanent resident of China, but I couldn’t because we never got a marriage certificate,” said Yong Ma Yue, Tong Zong Liu’s husband, who married her 20 years ago.
Staying together but without legal documents is a commonly accepted practice for residents in Longchuan Village of De Hong State, a rural Chinese border town where among 30 households, 20 couples including Tang Zong Liu’s family were not registered. (They ranged in age from 20 to 45.)
Usually, a wedding means a dinner with friends and families after which the couple would be called “husband and wife.” No rings, no pastors, and no government certificate. Without Chinese identification documents or passports these Burmese wives cannot take some public transportation outside the city. If they are found out, they might be repatriated forever. Many of them suffer long-term domestic violence. Yet were they to report a case, they could no longer stay in China.
Yong Ma Yue did try to obtain legal status for his wife, but found the process “too complicated.” He would need a working permit or temporary residential permit from the Chinese government as well as evidence proving he was a bachelor to avoid accusations of bigamy. It might possible for him to obtain these from a local sub-district office based in his town, but his wife would also have to prove she was a Burmese resident and show documents proving she was single, a “willingness letter” issued by Burmese government and authenticated by the Chinese, and a health report released by an authorized hospital.
For Kachin women all of this is inordinately difficult. Kachins have fought the Burmese army for decades. If they wish to marry foreigners, they have to travel to Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, now under Burmese government’s control, where they admit that they are residents of Burma. But even if they were to receive legal Burmese identification cards, the Burmese government would be reluctant to issue them documents stating they were unmarried because these documents could be used for human trafficking—Burmese authorities have been instructed by the government to block marriage ceremonies between Burmese women and foreign men.
As a website called “Today in Myanmar” suggests, “The best way to get your marriage done is to do it in a third country.”
But the threat of losing one's legal status doesn’t hold Chinese bachelors and Burmese girls back.
Given recent Chinese economic development and the close relationship between the two cultures, the Burmese are willing to send their daughters to China either for work or for marriage. According to a Chinese local civil affairs bureau, in 2011 there were 140 cross-border marriages registered in Yong Ma Yue’s hometown, 160 in 2012, and as of June this year, the number was 80. Estimates for cross-border marriages without registration this year in De Hong state run as high as 2,000. In Red River State, also located along the 60 kilometer border, 90 percent of the marriages are thought to be illegal. With more and more local Chinese girls moving out to work in urban areas, Chinese bachelors now prefer to marry Burmese girls—either by meeting them in person or by paying a matchmaker.
Juxian Yang, a staff member of the De Hong State Civil Affairs Bureau who oversees cross-border marriage issues, says that once they are married, few of them will divorce because “the Burmese are fairly poor and they think the Chinese can give them a better life.”
The average salary in Kachin is less than $100 per month. In IDP camps along the border, it can be as low as $10, a far cry from $200, which is what an average Chinese bachelor earns. The income gap results in a huge difference of dowry. “I spent 3,000 yuan ($500) to marry a Burmese, but a Chinese bride is at least 10,000 yuan,” said Yong Ma Yue when he recalled his marriage 20 years ago.
In 2013, Xinhua News Agency updated its estimate of marriage expenses for a Chinese bachelor: more than $300,000 in the most developed cities in China such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. This includes the cost for house, car, honeymoon plus pre-marriage dating expenses.
A $500 marriage deal across the border holds great appeal for China’s 40 million bachelors.
As a result of China’s “single child” policy and a strong preference for boy babies, it is expected that China will have a large surplus of bachelors—up to 24 million—within the next 10 years. The Wall Street Journal in 2013 predicted that the real social challenge in China would be faced by bachelors living in rural areas.
This challenge triggers the marriage business, as well as human trafficking and sex abuse—most often along the borders, home to many bachelors with a below average living standard.
These days, young Kachin women who cross the border to make a living by cutting sugar cane might be invited by Chinese bachelors for a beer or barbecue. Tang Zong Liu knows she will not be the last Burmese wife, and she will not be the last woman in this Chinese village to have no legal status. She says she is not angry. She has a better life here and there is nothing her family can do for her now.