Foreign workers (and wives) pour into China
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - Thousands of illegal Vietnamese workers are flooding into China's
Pearl River Delta region, the country's manufacturing hub. At the same time, an
increasing number of hard-up Chinese men are looking to Vietnam in search of
the ideal wife.
Both stories speak volumes about changes in China's economic and social
landscape. Double-digit economic growth has returned to the nation as the world
climbs out of a prolonged recession, and the social stability so fretted over
by the Communist Party leadership remains largely intact. But, although its
economic juggernaut continues to roll, China is not the same country that it
was only a few years ago.
Illegal Vietnamese migrants are taking low-paying factory jobs
that Chinese workers no longer want, and Chinese men - at least many of those
who like to sound off on web blogs and in Internet chat rooms - are fed up with
the soulless avarice of Chinese women and employing matchmakers to find them
more "obedient" Vietnamese wives. Indeed, their predilection for brides from
Vietnam has ignited a web war of words over the merits of Chinese women versus
their Vietnamese counterparts.
For male netizens who have taken the plunge into a foreign marriage, the
verdict is in: Vietnamese women are the best. Their testimonies abound.
A happy newlywed from the eastern city of Nanjing writes of his Vietnamese
bride: "[She is] not greedy, not lazy, not too free, not arrogant, not
money-worshipping. [She is] pretty, hard-working, kind-hearted, and the key is
In other words, his Vietnamese dream girl is everything that he perceives
Chinese women are not.
Another Nanjing man, 42-year-old Dai Wensheng, was so impressed by the wife he
acquired during a visit to Vietnam last September that he has begun a blog
organizing tours for Chinese bachelors who hope to achieve similar conjugal
Dai, the owner of a dance school who had previously been married to a Chinese
woman, writes: "My ex-wife wanted LV [Louis Vuitton] bags and a new car from me
while my Vietnamese wife takes care of the laundry, cooking and cleaning - and
even peels the shells off shrimp for me. For the first time, I feel loved and
Apparently, both Dai's sentiments and tours are catching on. Vietnamese
matchmaking agencies are now looking increasingly to China.
A representative of Wtovisa Vietnam Marriage Agency, located in Hanoi, recently
told a South China Morning Post reporter that the agency is considering
devoting 70% of its staff to its booming China market.
"In the past," Xie Junping said, "Taiwan and South Korea were the favorite
destinations for Vietnamese women who wanted to marry foreigners. But we have
seen a change since 2008, and more and more men from the mainland are seeking
wives in Vietnam."
Cross-border marriages between Chinese and Vietnamese go back thousands of
years, and the selling of "mail-order" Vietnamese brides to Chinese men has
been taking place for the past 20 years or so. But this latest trend marks the
first time Chinese suitors have made their way to Vietnam to woo their brides
and hold a proper wedding.
On his blog, Dai tells his followers that his romantic 15-day excursion to
Vietnam put him out only 35,000 yuan (US$5,123), including the cost of the
wedding and the 80-table banquet that followed. "Brothers," he proselytizes,
"drop the greedy, lazy and arrogant Chinese women who ask for property worth
millions. Come to Vietnam for perfect wives."
What Dai fails to mention, however, is that many of his love-starved brethren
have no choice but to look abroad for a mate. Thanks to China's one-child
policy, adopted in 1979, there simply are not enough Chinese women - greedy or
not - to go around. Because of the traditional preference for male children in
Chinese families, by 2020 China will be home to 24 million bachelors who have
no prospect of finding a wife in their own country - a massive lonely hearts
club with ominous social implications. Foreign brides are their only hope - and
also, even if not by design, good social policy.
Meanwhile, as romantic sparks fly for Chinese men at wedding banquets in
Vietnam, hordes of Vietnamese migrants, many using snakeheads (traffickers in
humans) who are in cahoots with Chinese employers, are sneaking into China to
take low-paying factory jobs. Again, illegal cross-border traffic into Yunnan
and Guangxi provinces goes back many years, but now Vietnamese migrants are
penetrating deep into the manufacturing hub of Guangdong, taking jobs formerly
held by Chinese workers.
The reasons for this development are two-fold: As China's standard of living
improves, bottom-rung factory labor is no longer attractive to many Chinese
workers; in addition, a labor law enacted two years ago to protect these
workers now makes unprotected Vietnamese migrants more attractive hires for
factory owners. In other words, China is becoming a victim of its own success.
In February, there were more than two million job vacancies in the Pearl River
Delta, state media reported. In response, Guangdong Communist Party Secretary
Wang Yang announced a 21.1% rise in the minimum wage starting May 1.
Wang's announcement should be good news for Chinese workers but, coupled with a
two-year-old labor law that requires employers to pay for basic benefits such
as medical care and social security insurance, it has the effect of opening the
door much wider for illegal migrants from Vietnam.
As illegals, the Vietnamese are willing to accept salaries well below the
minimum wage and are not protected by the Labor Contract Law. Moreover, their
similar appearance allows them to blend in easily with native workers to avoid
detection by Guangdong police.
The minimum wage for a low-level factory worker in the Pearl River Delta is
reportedly around 1,800 yuan per month, with - thanks to the labor law - double
overtime pay after eight hours of work and triple pay on holidays. But factory
owners can hire unskilled Vietnamese labor for as little as 1,000 yuan a month
while escaping overtime and holiday pay as well as other benefits now
guaranteed to Chinese workers. They can also hire Vietnamese employees during
peak season and fire them in low season without offering the severance pay to
which Chinese workers would be entitled.
Thus, factory owners are understandably pleased with the deluge of illegal
migrants seeking work in Guangdong; some even pay people smugglers to bring
workers to their factories. As for the illegal workers, mostly farmers from
Vietnam, they are happy to have a job that pays more than anything they could
find at home.
Indeed, so agreeable is this illicit meeting of supply and demand in Guangdong
that a number of Chinese academics have called on the government to allow
foreign laborers to work in China. So far, these calls have been ignored.
Instead, Guangdong police claim to be cracking down on illegal labor. According
to the official Xinhua News Agency, last year provincial police deported 180
foreigners who did not have valid work permits. So far this year, 53 illegal
migrants from Vietnam have been arrested in Guangxi as they traveled on a bus
toward Guangdong, and 66 others were seized on another bus in the Guangdong
city of Zhuhai. Police also said they discovered 24 illegal Vietnamese workers
in plastics factory in another Guangdong city, Qingyuan.
But these modest arrests no doubt represent only a drop in the bucket of
illegal immigration in the Pearl River Delta.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at