A Chinese man chats with a Russian woman at a blind date in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. Photo: VCG
Looking graceful in a ceremonial skirt and high heels, Russian women come down the stairs one by one to pose for Chinese single men.
The men, from relatively developed areas of China, traveled many hours to join this cross-border transnational blind date organized by a matchmaking service. Here they will meet up with Russian women whom they have previously chatted with online, usually assisted by a translator.
During the most recent trip organized by Chinese agent Golden Marriage in Vladivostok, a Russian city not far from Russia's borders with China, five of the 10 Chinese single men were matched successfully with a future spouse.
As China and Russia usher in a sub-national cooperation exchange, the two countries are also extending their cooperation to nongovernmental levels and deepening their friendship through facilitating the folk friendship. Intermarriage is now becoming part of it.
With Chinese ambassador to Russia Li Hui's public speech early this month highlighting that China and Russia are stepping into a new era, more Chinese agencies are turning to the dating interests of Chinese men seeking attractive Russian women.
A keyword search for "China-Russia transnational marriage" on Baidu, the leading searching engine in China, shows various dating agencies providing massive opportunities for "Chinese rich single men" to find their "perfect transnational marriage," as read on the web advert of the agent.
At China's doorstep
Russia is now at China's doorstep. The Siberian Times reports that cities such as Blagoveshchensk, opposite the Chinese city of Heihe, Heilongjiang Province, have seen an upsurge in cross-border marriages.
Singles' tours for upscale Chinese businessmen to Russia are a fairly new and evidently popular trend, matching lonely hearts with beauties from the former Soviet Union. The Golden Marriage recently started a "Sino-Russian Transnational Marriage Fair" in Vladivostok.
"The Russians living here have a lot of contact with the Chinese. Due to the relatively slow economic development here, the willingness of the girls to marry abroad is stronger than elsewhere, because they appreciate Chinese men's merits such as being considerate and family-oriented," told the agent.
More than a normal transnational dating tour, the agent enriched the process of the "international marriage fair" ranging from introducing bilateral intermarriage history to offering training sessions for Chinese and Russian etiquette to attendees.
Lin, owner of the Golden Marriage, upgraded his business to the level of national interest, asserting that his business "does not only benefit young singles of both countries, but also submits to the Belt and Road national strategy."
"There is no form of cultural exchange more powerful and effective than intermarriage," he pitched to the public.
"The historical bond and geographical proximity China has with this Eastern Euro country contributes to the market," Lin interpreted. "Moreover, as China has more marriageable men than women, encouraging Russian girls to marry into China can well alleviate the gender imbalance concern in China."
Imbalanced gender ratio
The Moskovskij Komsomolets, a Moscow-based daily newspaper, released an article titled "Russian men in shortage: Chinese group blind date tour in Russian" (English translation) to allude that China's export of "leftover" bachelors appears to be a solution in the current imbalanced gender ratio in Russia.
A piece by the People's Daily Overseas Edition released data in 2017 estimating that around 15 million men in China between the ages of 35 and 59 will not be able to find wives by 2020. This is where Lin niches the market gap and labels his business as "being very promising in the future."
Calling for more support from authorities, Lin, owner of the agency, wishes that encouragement measures for Sino-Russian marriage could be "finally written into the Belt and Road program."
Sun Zhuangzhi, an expert in Sino-Russian relationships from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, does not see any possibility of taking intermarriage formally into the Belt and Road national strategy.
"The authority has no political limitation on cross-border marriage, but practically, we can only expect them to promote the nongovernmental contacts and youth interaction between the two countries here and now."
In 2016, some Chinese matchmaking agents started to organize their male clients - with "being financially successful" taken as the only selection criterion for participating - to travel to Russia for romance and marriage, reported the newspaper.
Regardless of the actual success rate, which is yet to be confirmed, the high expectation of those clients comes with high price tags. Deep-pocketed bachelors have to pay 29,800 yuan ($4,683) for a typical six-day trip to Vladivostok to meet Russian women, according to Golden Marriage.
Some agencies even organize language and customs training classes with extra fees before departure for those who wish to secure their chances of catching a Russian beauty.
Such tours, however, drew wide criticism on Chinese social media and were accused of human trafficking as "a fancy international prostitution ring."
"In the name of helping 'elite single men' get a successful transnational marriage, such transactions materialize Russian women and abuse the pure relationship," read one comment on Chinese social media Sina Weibo.
Tatyana, a Russian woman who owned a China-based dating agency, revealed to the Global Times that illegal agents even pay "Russian brides" to scam those men who crave exotic women during the so-called singles' tours.
It is not the first time the media has highlighted the phenomenon of Chinese men marrying Russian women as a solution to China's "leftover men" issue.
"Chinese Husband + Russian Wife = The Perfect Combination" - an advert sponsored by China Radio International in Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, sparked controversy among Russians for eulogizing Chinese men's diligence, caring, loving and sensitivity, of which Russian men are reportedly lacking partly due to their macho culture.
Though the trend of Russian women marrying Chinese men may indicate a new phenomenon, many Chinese students who have experience living in Russia say that it is still in a fledgling stage and not yet widespread.
A few dating agents told the Global Times that the proportion of Russian women who have the intention of marring Chinese men remains very small.
"It is less common among my friends", said Chen, 25, who has spent five years in Russia and has a Russian girlfriend, "Russian girls at our university actually rate European men higher than Chinese men."
Nevertheless the couple has been in a relationship for nearly three years. His girlfriend was repeatedly asked by her Russian friends the reason she chose Chinese over others, whereas Chen's Chinese friends, who regard Russia and Ukraine as a "land of beauties," "feel nothing more than envy and blessing."
Some agents admit that only brides from less economically developed areas of Russia or Ukraine can be a "hot import" to China.
"We usually send our Chinese clients to small Russian cities in the far eastern area, because it is economically less developed. Girls from these communities are more open to marrying a foreigner for a better financial security," Tatyana explained.
"But those from the capital or other first-tier cities with a better education background or financial capability prefer European men, either because of a higher level of culture commonality or closer geographical proximity," she added.
Such priority applies equally to Chinese women who are willing to marry foreigners. Feng Fan, a Chinese woman who spent three years in Russia, feels like "it is more typical to see the intermarriage combination formula of a male from a developed country with a female from a less developed one."
She suggests that China's economic boom in recent decades makes many Chinese women less willing to marry Russian men. Besides, Feng said China's limited contact with Russian results in some stereotypes that Chinese women hold against Russian men. In her experience, Chinese overseas students in Russia remain a very small group compared with cohorts surging in Western countries.
The cross-border intermarriage trend between China and Russia, in addition to increasing Chinese migration into Russia in recent years, has also raised some eyebrows about China's extending influence in Russia - using suitcases and marriage certificates instead of politics.
"The Russian Far East is becoming China's safety valve, much like Mexico lets off population pressures with migration into the United States. Only 7.4 million Russians populate the entire Russian Far East, versus more than 70 million in northeast China," ABC News wrote in a piece of editorial.
Sun Zhuangzhi dispelled such speculation. "In northeastern regions of China, we share a very similar population structure with Russia, which makes our government unlikely to 'export singles to other countries' but rather to encourage them to remain in local community."
"If there was a certain degree of official support, I believe it only existed in looser birth policy, which allowed those transnational couples to have more than one in the past decades," Sun explained.