Women from Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar are increasingly marrying Chinese men in Yunnan province, despite such marriages being illegal. Li Yingqing and Guo Anfei report
Li Micai met Tao Miduo four years ago while herding cattle in Tianpeng village, Funing county, Yunnan province. It was love at first sight and the two were soon married.
They are now proud parents of a 3-year-old boy, and a 1-year-old girl.
"We are both of Miao ethnicity," says Li, 19, who comes from Long Cu town of Dong Van county in Vietnam's Ha Giang province.
"It's good to have a Chinese husband," she says. "I'm respected here and never go hungry. Women don't enjoy such comforts in my village."
Back home in Vietnam, it is usually her mother who works on the farm and supports the family while her father often goes out to play mahjong or sits around smoking, she says.
Ji Meihua, 26, has been in China for three years and is currently working at a restaurant in Cangyuan Va autonomous county in Yunnan. She comes from Tangyan in Myanmar.
She met her husband He Ying at a local snack store about two years ago and they got married last April.
"We are both of Dai ethnic origin," she says. "Although I never went to school, we understand one another perfectly."
Ji, who has been working in the restaurant for the past three months, says: "I can eat here for free and earn 500 yuan ($74) a month."
She lost her parents when she was only 6 and has one brother and two sisters back in Myanmar. In fact, Ji has only gone home once in these three years - to introduce her husband to her family.
Li Micai and Ji Meihua are just two of the thousands of girls who cross the border every year from Vietnam, Laos or Myanmar to seek a new life in China's Yunnan province.
In Tianpeng village alone, home to 2,400 people in 670 households, about 100 wives are from Vietnam, Peng Youfu, the village head tells China Daily.
"The oldest of them is over 70 years old and married into the village in the 1950s," he says.
Indeed, more than 1,000 cross-border couples are currently living in Tianpeng town, according to Li Zhongxiang, deputy mayor of the town.
Media reports about the "trading" of Vietnamese girls are not totally true, Li says. Most of the money paid is for "betrothal gifts." While local customs dictate that a man's family has to pay 10,000 to 20,000 yuan ($1,465 to $2,930) to his prospective bride's family before he can marry, it will only cost 800 yuan ($117) to marry a Vietnamese girl.
He, the man from Cangyuan county, paid only 3,000 yuan ($440) to Ji's family to marry her, the Myanmar woman.
"The Vietnamese women are very industrious and hardworking," Li says. "But their status is relatively low in the family and they are the ones to feed the family instead of their husbands. That's why many Vietnamese girls like to marry a Chinese man."
Li Fengqiang, a senior officer from the Public Bureau of Cangyuan Va autonomous county, which borders Myanmar, agrees.
As residents from both sides are often from the same ethnic group, like the Va or the Dai minority, they share the same traditions, Li says.
"Except for a few victims of trafficking, most of the women from Myanmar are unwilling to return to their homeland," Li says, "Here in the county, their husbands do most of the farm work."
Jiang Zhenchuan, deputy director of the Bureau of Exit and Entry Administration under the Yunnan Provincial Department of Public Security, says: "China's development in recent decades has far outstripped that of Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.
"Their current pursuit of Chinese husbands is reminiscent of Chinese women's pursuit of American husbands in the 1980s and 1990s."
However, although the number of de facto cross-border marriages is increasing by the day, the majority are not legally recognized in China.
"There are currently over 10,000 'brides' who have entered Yunnan illegally to get married," says Jiang. "Some have been sold to Yunnan, while others have come here willingly. But the exact breakdown is not immediately available."
Even though some have lived in China for many years, they do not have Chinese citizenship, and hence lack legal rights and social benefits; some even live in constant fear of being deported.
Li Micai, from Vietnam, can only do odd jobs like helping others with farming or planting in the mountainous areas since she is not entitled to an identification card without a household registration or hukou.
Applying for a Chinese citizenship is a complex process for foreigners. The relevant documents have to be vetted all the way from the county-level public security bureau to the Ministry of Public Security.
"If such couples have kids, they too will not get the hukou because of their mother's illegal status," says Peng Youfu of Tianpeng village. "Without the hukou, they are only covered for primary education."
When the Chinese policemen find these illegal "brides", they report them to the authorities on both sides before deporting them to their homeland, according to Wu Sicai, a senior official from the Bureau of Exit and Entry Administration in Yunnan.
But most sneak back at night to their family in China.
Indeed, Li Micai tells China Daily that she visits her parents - and vice versa - regularly as "there are many passes in the nearby Lion Mountain".
This is causing quite a headache for the border authorities.
"The local residents can't understand why we have to deport these 'brides', as they pose few problems," Wu says. "Also, the border is quite porous."