In cross-border marriage conflicts in Hong Kong, money is the heart of the matter
Susanne Choi Yuk-ping says contrary to popular perception, age and cultural differences are not the major reasons cross-border marriages experience discord. Rather, as economic pressure takes its toll, immigrant husbands need support too
More than 20 years after the handover, more Hong Kong people are marrying partners from mainland China. According to a 2018 census report, about 34.7 per cent of newly-registered marriages in 2016, or 17,352 out of 50,008, were cross-border marriages.
Yet, stereotypes about cross-border marriages have persisted, resulting in a great deal of misunderstanding and stigma for both the men and women involved.
Public reactions to reports about domestic violence in cross-border families tend to pin the blame on “mainland brides”, with marital discord often assumed to stem from cultural differences in cross-border marriages. The common perception is that the wives in these relationships struggle to adapt to life in Hong Kong, with the age difference between them and their typically older husbands being an inevitable source of strain.
Accordingly, government support for these families, in terms of policy and resources, has focused on mainland wives. This has come in the form of, for instance, lessons on Cantonese or how to adapt to life in Hong Kong. However, these cultural assimilation initiatives, while needed, carry a built-in gender bias. Most problematically, they are missing the crux of the matter.
Cultural or age differences are, in fact, not the main cause of conflict in cross-border families. I recently interviewed 871 cross-border families in a bid to understand conflict in cross-border marriages through the two factors of age difference between partners and socio-economic disadvantage.
Interestingly, the research shows that couples with an age difference of one to five years are more likely to experience conflicts than couples who are over nine years apart in age. The implication of this finding is that age difference does not explain the higher vulnerability to marital conflict in cross-border marriages compared with local marriages.
More significantly, the research finds that family economic pressures, as well as the low socio-economic status of families, are the main drivers of conflicts.
In other words, conflicts in cross-border marriages do not necessarily arise from cultural differences. Rather, they are primarily an economic and class issue.
While past sociological studies put forward the idea that the earnings of cross-border families have a direct impact on cross-border marriages, my research established that the subjective financial stress of the couple is in fact what matters. In other words, the key factor behind conflicts in cross-border families is whether these couples see themselves as earning enough to sustain their household expenses.
Since the 1990s, both the government and the private sector have increasingly turned to outsourcing low-level labour to cut costs. This trend has undermined job security and bred anxiety as the spiralling costs of living vex families.
At the same time, with mainland women becoming more educated, wives in cross-border marriages are increasingly able to supplement family incomes, meaning their husbands are no longer the sole breadwinners. In some cases, enterprising wives demand their husbands be more ambitious, which creates friction over family finances.
Husbands in cross-border marriages may therefore face a great deal of stress. In particular, working-class men lack the support of social networks and can be even more socially isolated than their wives.
Despite this, the myriad forms of pressure borne by men in cross-border marriages have been largely overlooked by academics, the government and social service providers. It was not until around 10 years ago that NGOs belatedly and slowly started providing support services specifically for men.
The government should therefore proactively identify the needs of cross-border families, so that resources can be correctly allocated to the right support services.
For example, in addition to providing language courses for mainland women in cross-border marriages, the government should either provide, or subsidise NGOs to provide, a broader range of career training opportunities for these women. Career training opportunities currently available focus on low-paid, low-skill service jobs, which do not match the relatively high education levels and career ambitions of many mainland Chinese wives.
More importantly, greater resources should go to helping men in cross-border marriages cope with stress. Men in general are reluctant to seek help, and men in cross-border marriages may be even more reluctant to do so because of their relatively low education levels and professional status. Proactive efforts to reach out to these men would go a long way in helping these families.
Finally, we ought to realise that, although cross-border marriages may face more challenges and experience more conflicts than local marriages, this does not mean they are all unsuccessful. Quite the contrary, many cross-border marriages are healthy and robust. Therefore, increased and correctly-allocated resources to help cross-border marriages should also cover public education to address the stereotypes they face, and this includes stigma against mainland Chinese wives married to local men.
Professor Susanne Choi Yuk-ping is with the Department of Sociology in the Faculty of Social Science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong