Friday, February 23, 2007

A Market Solution to the Asian Bride Shortage

In many Asian countries there is a growing shortage of women. Years of favoring boys and disposing of girls are catching up with them. In South Korea, a market has sprung up in the past few years to find foreign brides for South Korean bachelors (my thanks to regular reader D-rew for this New York Times story). At first the marriage brokers went to ethnic Korean communities in China. Now, though, the brokers are arranging quick marriages further afield. This year's favored source for brides is Vietnam. South Korea is more prosperous than Vietnam, at least temporarily, and the "Korean Wave" of pop culture has made South Korea seem a good place to live.

Until recently this marriage market was unregulated. After a series of scandals involving lies and abuse by brokers and husbands, the Korea government has begun to set some rules, and the etiquette of the market has weeded out some of the bad actors. This market evolves very quickly – Vietnam is getting richer, and may dry up as a source of brides a few years hence. What first struck me about this development is that it is a market solution to a market problem. It was the cumulative effect of many individual actions that created the women shortage in the first place, creating a market that entrepreneurial brokers can fill. To be sure, some rural governments in Korea are sponsoring marriage tours to Vietnam, but they did not make the arrangements in the first place.

I can also see a few unintended positive consequences that might come from this international marriage market. Many Asian nations have exaggerated ideas of their own "racial purity," which they make central to their national identity. South Korea is no exception to this self image. Yet in 2005, 14% of South Korean marriages involved foreigners, up from 4% just five years earlier. Over time, mixing populations that way would undermine the idea that racial purity is essential to national identity – or even that it is ever was very prevalent. A second possible silver lining of Vietnamese women living and prospering in South Korea is that their frequent communications home might spur the Vietnamese people to press for democracy to go along with their increasing capitalist prosperity.

The Asian women shortage is due to the worst kind of sexist discrimination, devaluing of girls, and even deliberate killing. I find it encouraging to think, therefore, that there might be an unexpected silver lining or two to this dark cloud.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I see references to Seoul. Any thoughts on how this is or might unfold regarding the rural towns and areas? Rural farmers constitute about a quarter, and rural poor less than a tenth, of the overall population.

Gruntled said...

I gather that the rural areas are even harder hit by the bride shortage that the cities. I would guess that the bachelors are richer in the cities, and have better prospects among the rural Korean women. The rural provinces seem to be the only Korean government agencies promoting Vietnamese bride searches.

Aaron X said...

I'll do my best not to show my contempt and disgust for the manner in which I see this problem being discussed all around the web, but I'm not making any promises.

From the liberal to conservatives to moderate blogs, to the mainstream media, New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Fox and MSNBC, all have covered this story in a similar manner, a manner which I submit is flawed at its core.

Although Professor Weston and others mention what's at the heart of this problem, instead of taking on the root cause, which is nothing short of sex based genocide, you will all choose to take a position which almost tacitly accepts the status quo, a situation which is utterly unacceptable, by any standard of modern civilization, and acceptable morality.

I suppose I'm naïve, I suppose I want to believe that here in the 21st-century, we are no longer going to accept any society which prays upon its own, and holds up a placard of cultural difference in defense of the indefensible, while we here in the supposedly civilized West sit back and talk about market solutions. I find this position utterly repugnant and I condemn all of you in the strongest terms.

Perhaps we should remember how we sat by for decades supporting tribal leaders and Kings in the Middle East who oppressed their people, most specifically women and children, treating them like third and fourth class citizens, and we did nothing because we didn't see it as our problem as long as the oil from those regions kept flowing. I hope we haven't forgotten that already.

Only when the forces of fundamentalist patriarchal ideology started bringing down skyscrapers, and blowing up buses and trains in the West did we finally start to recognize the danger of allowing these closed societies to prey upon the weakest among them, their women and children, only after it was literally brought home to us in the form of terrorism, did the West really began to see this as a problem which must be addressed.

And thus it will always be I suppose, until it begins happening in your backyard, the problems of the least powerful and most downtrodden receive little notice, especially from those who advocate letting the market forces decide their morality. All we have to do is look at Saudi Arabia to recognize our own complicity in this ongoing problem.

Perhaps it will take a movement of little girls who begin taking up arms against their sea of troubles, and blowing things up on the steps of the halls of power, perhaps then these men of the West will be less comfortable talking about market solutions to deeply ethical problems, most especially when it comes to the vile murder of generations of the feminine sex.

Maybe then we will say to the most powerful up-and-coming nation on the planet China; you must stop your mothers and fathers from tossing their little baby girls into the rivers to drown and then be skimmed from the surface of catch basins of dams on the Yangtze by government employees paid to keep the scope of the problem quiet, like some kind of horrific undercover pool cleaners.

Perhaps then we will say to the Chinese that it is not acceptable to have hundreds of thousands of sex based abortions being carried out clandestinely all across the country every year.

Perhaps then the mothers of newborn girl babies will not smother their infants with their own hands, while tears run down their faces, and fathers stand away in the next room looking at the floor and covering their ears so they cannot hear the muffled cries their own blood as they fight to stay alive in a society that says to them, you are not worthy of life simply because you are female.

But I suppose for sociologists whose primary concern is the family unit, ahead of all things, including the lives of individuals, it's your job to look beyond such trifles to the necessities of the future. From a professional perspective I suppose there's no reason to see this shameful genocide of the female sex as anything more than an anomaly which can be overcome by market based solutions.

Perhaps these learned professionals should take the time to look a little closer at history before they come to such conclusions and began advocating such tragically flawed simplistic solutions like finding more girls somewhere else. Personally I expect more from people who've received so many years of education.

Instead of enabling these societies and glossing over the deeper underlying social problems by telling them to start tapping Third World countries for their women, like some modern-day slave traders -- whose female children will in turn be similarly murdered and discarded -- maybe it would be a good idea to make these societies face their problem, and the consequences of the problem they themselves manufactured, by letting them deal with a generation of angry frustrated young men unable to find release for their sexuality, create families, or no love. In such a society you will wind up with millions upon millions of unhappy people, leading to the slow deterioration and breakdown of that society, and perhaps that's what they need in order to wake up.

That's the price you pay when you do away with your girls, and in my view that's what you deserve. Perhaps it will be good for China when these young men turn their rage upon a nation which has left them in such a situation. Perhaps then the people of China will cry out to be freed from totalitarian and cultural oppression, and finally create a liberal society of their own, where women and girls will be treated as valued equals, and girl babies will not be discarded like so much refuse by shortsighted fools unable or unwilling to see or even think about the consequences of their actions until it overwhelms them.

If you are genuine advocate of such market solutions Professor Weston perhaps you'll put your money where your mouth is and send some of your daughters and granddaughters to help out with the problem, perhaps you can act as the broker for all the unmarried women in your family, how does that appeal to you? Are you comfortable classifying the women you know as commodities, reproductive vessels to be auctioned off to the highest bidders, somehow I suspect not, at least not while the women in your family are around.

I'm glad my grandma Brown isn't alive to see the tragic results of allowing generations of sexism and murder go unassailed and finally catered to by those who should know better, because her words would be far less diplomatic than mine.

Gruntled said...

I agree that the Asian gendercide is a crime against humanity. I have written several times on this subject, and as I have said before, they will reap the whirlwind. Unlike other kinds of genocide, though, the Asian girl shortage is not the result of deliberate government policy (though the Chinese case comes close), but of millions of individual decisions. This means that the weapons that we have at our disposal against this great wrong are very limited. Complaint and shame are two. And pointing out how their anti-female policies are destroying other things they value about their own culture -- in this case, "racial purity" and authoritarian goverment -- may have some effect in getting them to stop doing it.

Aaron X said...

I think China's one child policy has contributed greatly to this problem. Culturally girls were already at a disadvantage, but once this policy became law, the birth of the girl was no longer just bad luck, it was tragic in the eyes of many traditional Chinese families, and the current imbalance is I believe largely result of this policy. Before 1980, couples would just continue to have children until they had a male child, now they need to get rid of the girls before they can try again for a boy. It was a tragic mistake on the part of the Chinese government, and now they're beginning to reap the fruits of their folly.

Gruntled said...

Agreed. The silver lining is that we get the benefit of many adopted Chinese girls, who twenty years later they will desperately miss in China.

Alex said...

International Adoption is a small help for places like China. (But a huge help for individual children. And a MASSIVE blessing to the adoptive families.)

My own children were born in Guatemala, a country many magnitudes smaller than China. About 6-7,000 children are adopted out of Guatemala to the West every year, while 50-60,000 children are abandoned/relinquished in Guatemala every year. Multiply that problem by the hundreds of thousands and that is the Chinese situation.

Oh, and China is making their adoption requirements stricter, beginning May 1 of this year. So even fewer girls will be adopted.

Sad, tragic and not improving any time soon.

Thanks for sharing this article.