Wedged between the Eastern Coast and the mainland of China, lies the ancient province of Zhongyuan. Historically renowned as the birthplace of the Chinese civilisation, it is home to a multitude of heritage sites ranging from the ruins of the Shang dynasty to the Eight Great Ancient Capitals of the nation. Its nearly-bygone eminence, in part, can be attributed to its fertile mainland, to the river Huang-He that runs through its veins, and perhaps, even to some of its women, like Lady Fu Hao who managed to bloom through the misogynistic past of the nation. Skip ahead a thousand years to the current millennium, and we find that much like the Ancient Greece, Zhongyuan is a graveyard of distant and glorious memories. Although it is now a set of vast agricultural lands with a reasonably efficient productivity level, it’s the demographic structure is quite the disaster. The sex ratio of the province, much more skewed than that of the entire nation, is at a startling 118 men for every 100 women. This implies that nearly one-fifth of the men may not find even a match for them.
The ancient Chinese philosophy of contrasting a passive female principle (Yin) to an active male principle (Yang) for creating a complementary match is the base for the patriarchy that has dominated the traditional family structures in China, which must ideally be patrilineal and prescriptively virilocal. Despite the nation being colonised and later having been through a long regime of Communism, these basic traditions never changed for the common people. Mao Zedong’s antipathy to religion reshaped private beliefs but these traditions were so deep-rooted that they remained unscathed. And so, when the ‘One Child Policy’ was introduced in 1979 (or a decade prior for some parts of the nation), a natural preference for boys arose more predominantly in the countryside areas like Zhongyuan. This gave rise to the current situation of numerous Gen-Y ‘Bachelor Towns’ where men struggle to find wives, not only because there simply aren’t enough women but also because they’re being subjected to societal shaming, such as by being called ‘guanggun’ or dead branches. On the other hand, the women have to both endure increasing sexual crimes, and take advantage of natural selection, which drives them to marry the higher educated men in the cities. The disparity, after two generations ageing without cousins and siblings, is so vast that many economists believe that retracting the policy in 2015 was a little too late to reestablish balance.
With hopes of a higher income, and a greater chance at finding a match, thousands of men move to the Pearl River Delta each day, which has nearly 60,000 factories employing 3-4 million people and has much role in making China The World’s Factory. The Pearl Delta is primarily where all the rapid growth of China came from and where all its FDI went. The workforce is gender-neutral, and even though the balance has shifted from 70-30 in favour of women, to nearly 50-50 now, it still leaves sufficient room for couples to make and breakup at the assembly line each morning. The region additionally includes Shenzhen, the tech hub where the nation’s second stock exchange is situated. Shenzhen acts as an outlet for the labour to cater to the foreign investment projects that have recently been undertaken by China, with an increasing frequency, primarily in poor and middle-income nations of Southeast Asia and Africa.
The Chinese government’s ambitious programme to create the modern maritime silk route under the Belt and Road Initiative has been met by skepticism in the West, who have resorted to calling it ‘chequebook diplomacy’. But for China, these projects have rendered both a macroeconomic dominance and an unconventional solution to the gender problem, since the projects have eased not only China’s international relations, but also the visa requirements for its citizens to travel to these nations. Thus, many men from Zhongyuan, take on the months’ long journey to nations like Myanmar, Philippines, Indonesia and, recently, Pakistan, to set up a deal with local traffickers who can easily arrange for young women―whose parents willingly participate in such international betrothals in exchange for some money―and the hope for a better future for their daughters. An approximate cost of $10,000 is all it takes for these men to conform to the societal script.
Warmed by the wrath of the 1962 Sino-Indian War and the Cold War, the diplomatic relations between China and Pakistan bolstered through the years, and lately they come to be known as the ‘Iron Brothers’. Metaphorically speaking, both the brothers have grown in different directions, but factually, only one has moved for what we could call ‘growth’, while the other, i.e. Pakistan is struggling in a slough of debt. But China, being the generous brother that it is, has interceded to the rescue of Pakistan by making its international commercial initiative more inclusive through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It is a project whose combined value was recently estimated to be $62 billion, which is greater than the total amount of FDI in Pakistan since 1970. The two-armed project will connect pipelines, roads and bridges via a 2700 km stretch to the deepwater ports at Karachi and Gwadar, where the latter will be redesigned to increase its cargo capacity from 1 million tonnes to 400 million tonnes, making it one of the most sophisticated ports to ever exist. It will additionally simulate much-needed growth in Pakistan. In fact, nearly $30 billion is dedicated to energy projects, which will generate 7000 MW of energy, contributing to 3% of Pakistan’s GDP growth.
China too has much to gain from this brotherly affection, however. The most prominent underlying advantage being that it will be able to systematically bypass the maritime chokepoints of the South China Sea, and gain control of other strategic hotspots. This is why it is willing to risk venturing into the politically unstable regions of Baloch, Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, while the elite of Islamabad want to systematically cut Baloch out of the Gwadar equation. This marginalisation has partially fueled the rise of Balochi separatists, who recently attacked a bus full of Chinese engineers, prompting China to consider deploying its own troops in Pakistan for the protection of its workers. Considering the fragile situation of the Pakistani economy, with their Rupee falling by over 20% last year, paying off the debt has become even harder, while the forex reserves are below the $10 billion mark. An IMF bailout would pose conditions of coming clean with the CPEC books, and would compel Pakistan to expose the chequebook diplomacy, which is quite unlikely. So, in the foreseeable future, this ‘brotherhood’ is bound to strengthen, as more loans are lent.
The rising influx of Chinese men, who may not necessarily have a job, is owed to the visa-on-arrival policy for the ease of the Chinese people. Last year alone, over 91,000 Chinese people visited the country and 32,000 visas of Chinese nationals were extended. This has threatened the safety of the women in villages. Trafficking is a profitable business and the minorities, like the Christian community, are specifically targeted, since the Pakistani government is visibly unconcerned about them, as is reflected in the escape of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who fled the nation after fearing death threats from ordinary citizens, even after she had been aquitted of blasphemy charges. The minorities also appeal to the Chinese men due to their ethnocentrist approach to the Muslim community, the proof being their tyrannical crackdowns on the local Uighur Muslim minority of China.
Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) approximated that nearly 700 Christian and 300 Muslim women, many underage, were at risk of sexual slavery after falling for the pretext of marriage, as of 2018. Recently, Natasha Robin, 22, who was promised a life free of destitution, had agreed to marry a Chinese suitor whom she had met through an unlawful matchmaking agency. After twelve days of being subjected to the mental and physical torment of sex slavery, she managed to escape. Others have not been so lucky. This callousness of Pakistan towards its women may pose demographic threats to its own environment, since female infanticide is already prevalent and trafficking might further aggravate the sex ratio, which is already at a worrying 106 men per 100 women.
Aggressive policy measures, for adherence to economic indicators, have often put the well being of the population at stake, China made this mistake and has ended up destabilising the sex ratio for the sake of ameliorating the demographic pressure. Pakistan is in pursuit of a disaster if doesn’t curb the illegal activities that accompany China’s growth agenda. It must reconsider if this brotherhood is in fact as mutually beneficial as China claims it to be. As for the people of Zhongyuan, who adulate their Supreme Leader Mao, it’s high time they act on one of his rare rational beliefs: ‘Women hold up half the sky’. The next few months are crucial to see how the situation pans out further, whether in favour of the local population of the remote Pakistani areas, or the elite of Islamabad who concern themselves with fairly active policy measures to rebuild the economy whilst neglecting the ground-level work towards ensuring a safe and secure environment for their own people.
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