Matchmakers Operate Under Semi-Suspicious Official Eye

MATCHMAKER Guo Zhiyong knows he may be pushing the limits of official tolerance in arranging international marriages. But as manager of the Beijing Bridge International Marriage Service Center, he says being in the forefront of China's newest fad is worth the risk.

"In the past, this market existed in China, but such a business was very sensitive," says the businessman, who started the agency with savings from two years in Australia. "Because of political conditions, the government didn't encourage overseas contact and had close watch on foreigners."

"Now the government doesn't exactly encourage such a business, but it doesn't discourage such a business either," he says. "I have hired good lawyers so I can assure customers that nothing is mishandled."

As a sign of quickening commerce and economic opening, international marriage brokers - backed up by computers, legal experts, and business connections to overseas agencies - are spreading across officially communist China. With foreign spouses in growing demand among Chinese, the brokers, some of whom are licensed, contend they are more reliable than the age-old system of individual go-betweens still widely used. Charging fees that can run to hundreds of dollars, brokers say there is a growing market am ong Taiwanese, Hong Kong residents, Japanese, and even Westerners looking for a Chinese bride.

To critics and some government officials, however, the trend signals a return to the bad old days before 1949, when China was part of the region's flourishing trade in Asian brides and prostitutes. Critics say it also indicates a new, troubling effect of China's rush to get rich. In China, as in many other Asian countries, the main customers of marriage brokers are poor, rural women who see marriage to an older foreigner as an easy ticket to overseas residency or a more comfortable life.

`A FEW years ago, there emerged a guerrilla force of international matchmakers for the purpose of moneymaking," commented a newspaper in Sichuan province, Factory Director and Manager Daily, reporting on the network of quasi-legal marriage go-betweens.

"The business of international matchmaking has become commercialized, and such marriages are, to a certain extent, buying and selling," the newspaper said, estimating that more than half of the matches in the provincial capital, Chengdu, end in divorce.

In recent months, the Chinese media have been full of reports of overseas marriage agencies opening throughout the country, often with an official wink or even approval from government agencies. Now, though, Beijing is showing signs of impatience.

Recently the central government said it would take a tougher line on matchmaking agencies. Contending that some Chinese brides have been sent to remote places overseas, or even to brothels, the government said that agencies would be strictly screened, urged travel agencies not to arrange bride-seeking trips for foreigners, and warned newspapers and magazines not to publish ads seeking Chinese spouses.

For two months, China Women's News, the respected publication of the official All-China Federation of Women, ran a matchmaking column But a group of Chinese brides in Japan, disappointed that their new husbands were modest farmers and not well-heeled businessmen, came to the attention of the Chinese government. The column was canceled.

Mr. Guo, the Beijing marriage broker, claims he carefully screens the women before enrolling them in his computerized agency. However, just in case, before the bride leaves China, he briefs her on what to do if there's trouble and gives her the name of a local lawyer.

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