Vietnam's mail-order bride business is booming, fueled by surging demand from Chinese men who have given up hope of finding a compatriot wife and are lured by the prospect of a bargain bride bought in a group purchase. Though international marriage agencies are officially illegal, loopholes in China have allowed the industry to flourish and prompted calls from experts to regulate such businesses so they can be more closely supervised.
For a group purchase price of 30,000 to 40,000 yuan ($4,727-$6,303), an attractive Vietnamese bride aged between 18 and 25 can be "bought" from a marriage agency based in Yunnan Province, which regularly posts online advertisements.
Heading south for love
The agency, ynxn1314.com, is registered as a Chinese dating service in the provincial capital Kunming. It organizes group tours to Vietnam for single Chinese men and arranges dates for them with Vietnamese women selected from a catalogue as a possible mate for marriage.
The cost of the tour includes travel expenses, translation services, gifts for the women's families and the wedding ceremony. If dates fail or men are unsatisfied with the women they have chosen, the agency charges clients just 2,000 yuan for the tour. They also assume responsibility for finding clients a new bride if the first one flees after the wedding, according to a report by Kunming-based newspaper the Spring City Evening News.
The legal status of mail-order brides has been questioned in China since "group buying" of Vietnamese brides took off several years ago.
According to a State Council notification on international marriages in 1994, Chinese marriage agencies are not allowed to source spouses from other countries and individuals cannot engage in international matchmaking for profit.
Agencies found to have breached these regulations can be shut down by the police, civil affairs authorities and industry and commerce administrators; however, there is no concrete punishment stipulated by law.
Ynxn1314.com issued a statement online on May 19 outlining the legality of its business and distanced itself from the practice of "group purchasing" Vietnamese brides, which it termed "inappropriate."
"We're gathering Chinese clients for group tours to Vietnam to arrange dating activities, not group purchasing," an agency employee surnamed Hu told the Global Times, adding "more than 80 percent" of clients find brides.
All prospective brides who participate in the dates are willing to marry a Chinese suitor. Those who do tie the knot enter China with all legal documents, including a Vietnamese passport, a valid tourist visa and a health certificate.
Like all foreigners with a Chinese husband or wife, permanent residency in China can be obtained after five years of marriage.
Hu also said employees at the Chinese embassy in Vietnam can act as translators for Chinese men when they visit Vietnam seeking a wife.
Legal gray area
Similar agencies offering mail-order brides in China have sprouted across the country in recent years to meet growing demand. All exploit a flaw in the current law that does not specify detailed punishments for those found guilty of operating illegal matchmaking agencies, said Yang Xiaolin, a lawyer specializing in marriage law at the Beijing Yuecheng law firm.
"The State Council notification has created an opportunity for agencies to conduct illegal businesses for profit under the guise of legally registered consulting companies," Yang told the Global Times.
A Nanning-based marriage agency in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region compiles profiles on Chinese clients to help Vietnamese women decide if they are suitable husbands, who are physically healthy and financially secure.
"I know our business is not permitted by the Chinese government, but there is no punishment," said an employee from the agency, who only gave her name as Youyou. "Even if we are shut down, the marriages of our clients are still legal," she added.
Qi Huan, a researcher from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that mail-order bride agencies have been active in China for decades.
"The Vietnam War compounded poverty in the country and sparked a serious gender imbalance with more women, many of whom search for husbands from wealthier countries," Qi said. Many mail-order brides from Vietnam marry husbands from Guangxi, Yunnan, Zhejiang and Fujian, he added.
Debate over regulation
Not all marriages between Vietnamese women and Chinese men result in bliss, with some brides fleeing shortly upon relocating to China.
An official from the Vietnamese embassy in Beijing, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Global Times law enforcement authorities from both countries have teamed up for crackdowns on illegal international marriages and human trafficking.
"We know the agencies are illegal in China, and they have no connection with the Vietnamese government," the official said.
The Chinese government has given tacit consent to illegal international matchmaking agencies because there are too many of them to regulate, said Hao Pengfei, director of the China Social Work Association Working Committee on Marriage and Family at the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
"These agencies are cunning enough to con marriage registration officers into believing couples have married by free will, even if they haven't," he said.
The Chinese government should be more open on international couples who marry legally and on their violation regardless of whether their union is mediated by an agency, said Liu Guofu, an immigration law expert from the Beijing Institute of Technology.
"It's better if international marriage agencies receive governmental approval and are regulated according to law. Demand in the industry has led to more underground businesses, which are more difficult to deal with. It's always easier for the government to supervise and regulate, rather than crack down with force," Liu said.