Asia's Competition for Brides

All across Asia, bridegrooms are increasingly importing their brides from overseas, a trend identified by Soohyung Lee, an associate professor at the University of Maryland and a visiting professor at Harvard Business School in the US.

It is a trend that appears to owe more to the classic rules of international trade, supply and demand and competitive advantage than it does to romance or love, according to the study, titled The Competition for Brides in East Asia. The study, for the Seoul-based Samsung Economic Research Institute, is password-protected.

As Dr Lee’s research shows, arranged marriages have been skyrocketing in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. This trade in foreign brides ranges from 5 percent of marriages in Japan to more than 30 percent in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Although Asians across many countries have sought to determine the sex of unborn children and aborted the girls in favor of getting sons and heirs, the decision to go outside the grooms’ home countries may be more due to differences in educational levels than scarcity.

Are well-educated women turning down bridegrooms?

“As the gender gap in terms of college attendance is closing fast, the sex ratio among those without tertiary education is rapidly increasing,” Dr Lee writes. “I argue that the increase in the sex ratio among people without tertiary education (rather than the general population) is the deciding factor in determining demand for foreign brides.

The reduction in the gender gap for educational attainment has had important implications in the Korean marriage market for two reasons. First, she says, women with a university education are much less likely to get married compared to those without tertiary education. Second, even if they do marry, they are less likely to marry a man without a university education.

“Accordingly, Korean men without tertiary education are likely to be attractive only to Korean women without tertiary education, whose number has diminished over time. Accordingly, some of these ‘squeezed’ men in the marriage market have turned to international marriages.”

China, a country that suffers a striking shortage of brides in its own right because of the lack of girl babies, is nonetheless the largest exporter of brides to South Korea (50 percent of foreign marriages), Taiwan (70 percent), Japan (37 percent), Hong Kong (39 percent) and Singapore (30 to 40 percent).

Ultrasound and other methods of determining the sex of unborn children have led to the abortion of millions of Chinese girls or, more gruesomely, the occasional murder of girl babies after they are born. The country now produces an estimated 118 boy babies for every 100 girls, one of the most badly skewed ratios in the world, creating other issues including the kidnapping of girls from neighboring countries including Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma for forced marriages in China itself.

South Korean marriages between native grooms and foreign brides have shot up from fewer than 1 percent of all newlyweds in 1991 to 8 percent in 2007. In Hong Kong, Dr Lee writes, while fewer than 2 percent of grooms married mainland Chinese brides in 1991, that figure had grown rapidly in the previous decade, reaching a startling 39 percent in 2005.

In Singapore, international marriages accounted for 30 to 40 percent of total marriages between 1999 and 2009. In Japan, the share for Japanese grooms marrying a foreign bride was about 2 percent in 1992 and reached 5 percent in 2006. In Taiwan, marriages involving non-Taiwanese brides, including women from mainland China, accounted for 22 percent of marriages in 2004.

“International marriages, particularly those involving foreign brides, are an important factor in the East Asian marriage markets,” Dr Lee said. “The number of marriages between native grooms and foreign brides in all countries has increased over time and these marriages now constitute a significant fraction of newlyweds in all five countries. Arranged marriages between Koreans and non-Koreans were nearly unknown until recently, for instance.

This kind of marriage has many important socio-economic implications for Korean society. Since most of the brides are not ethnic Koreans, and are generally less educated than Korean women, the constant inflow of a large number of foreign brides has changed the demographic composition of Korean society in ethnicity, gender composition, and labor supply.”

The high prevalence of international marriages and their social and cultural implications has driven government agencies to pay close scrutiny to the new phenomenon, introducing numerous policies to help foreign brides assimilate into Korean society.

After China, the others are Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand The relative income gap between Korea and the bride-exporting countries is an important factor, Dr Lee writes.

“This means that other things being equal, if China, the major bride exporter, catches up economically with Korea, a smaller number of Chinese women will be willing to marry Korean men (as well as men in other developed East Asian countries). Moreover, since Korea and other Asian countries import brides from the same source, Korea will face severe competition for foreign brides from these countries.”

The marriage markets of Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, and the markets of the major bride exporter, China are closely linked. For example, if one of the major bride exporters reduces its export of brides, then all three countries will need to make adjustments to their sources for women. Consequently, they will compete against one another for potential foreign brides.

Chinese men are now saving more money to make themselves more marriageable according to a study cited by Dr Lee, an indication that China is very likely to become an importer rather than an exporter of brides in the future, reducing the supply of foreign brides to South Korea and to other developed East Asian countries.

The bride trade rather sadly resembles the trade in other scarce items. As Dr Lee points out, the current prominence of Vietnamese brides in South Korea is negatively correlated with that of Taiwan, with the share of Vietnamese brides among foreign brides in Korea increasing between 2004 and 2006 and dropping in 2007.

“This pattern coincides with that in Taiwan, where the fraction of Vietnamese brides among foreign brides decreased from 2004 to 2006 but recovered in 2007. This is because in 2004, the Taiwanese government introduced a policy of enforcing visa interviews with foreign brides in Chinese, decreasing the import of Vietnamese brides into Taiwan. Due to the policy change, Vietnamese marriage brokers found it more difficult to send Vietnamese women to Taiwan, thus building closer relationships with Korean marriage brokers and sending more women to Korea.

That illustrates the interconnectedness of the marriage markets in East Asia, and the role of the international marriage markets in determining the supply of foreign brides.

Dr Lee used the difference in per-capita GDP between a host and source country as a proxy for the economic gain that a bride may receive from marrying a man in Korea, depending on the logarithm of trade volume to proxy for the extent to which the two countries are tied.

If the two countries already have close ties in terms of economic activities, then the cost of establishing a business to generate marriages between the two countries may be smaller than otherwise. The poorer a country is, compared to Korea, the more the country is likely to become a major bride-exporting country. All things being equal, if a country has close economic or geographic ties to Korea, its likelihood of becoming a major bride-exporting country increases. As China grows faster, it will supply a smaller number of women to Korea.

Moreover, if China starts to import brides and its importing process becomes like that of Korea, China will import brides from less developed Asian countries that have close economic ties with China such as Cambodia and Vietnam. Thus, China will become a competitor for bridal imports against South Korea and other developed East Asian countries as it has become a competitor for a wide range of other goods from timber to coal to nickel to gold.