The authorities in southern China have accused two men of spreading false information that single men would be awarded foreign brides as part of a government poverty alleviation plan. The two filmed themselves telling people that the government would be distributing “beautiful” Russian and Japanese women as wives to men in Guizhou, China’s poorest province, with a birth ratio over 120 men for every 100 women – one of the worst gender imbalances in the country. According to a Weibo post by the local authorities, the pranksters are seen in the two clips telling local single men to keep their phones on as they would be contacted shortly to arrange the pickup for their new foreign wives. Deadly demographics: Women face grim odds in male-heavy societies like China, India The footage was apparently intended to fool social media users that the initiative was genuine and it started circulating widely on WeChat groups in the area. Rumours spread that the men were government workers affiliated with China’s poverty alleviation plan, a massive national drive spearheaded by President Xi Jinping to eliminate rural poverty by 2020. When the authorities in Anshun city came to hear about the prank, they launched an investigation with other local police forces and eventually identified the two local men. The prank, which has been circulating widely on social media, was inspired by a similar one last month when three men in another county of Guizhou masqueraded as poverty alleviation workers and went around offering wives. Those men, who in turn, claimed to be copying earlier videos, were detained and fined by local authorities. The “free wives” prank cuts to the heart of China’s serious demographic problems, where the traditional preference for sons has resulted in widespread gender-based abortion and infanticide in recent decades, a problem exacerbated by the recently abolished one-child policy. China is among the nations with the most skewed sex ratios at birth, with 87 females born for every 100 males, according to 2017 World Economic Forum data. China's real problem: leftover men The imbalance is typically more severe in China’s poorer rural provinces as women tend to migrate out to rich western provinces, leaving behind armies of single men with low career prospects and even lower chances of ever finding wives. Guizhou is among the six southern provinces whose male to female ratio at birth hovered between 120-125 in China’s 2010 census. Only two provinces – Fujian and Anhui – are doing worse, with up to 128 male births to one female. The result is a population with nearly 34 million more men than women, creating a demographic crisis. To counter this, authorities have been coming up with creative ideas to jump-start marriage rates. In Guizhou earlier this year, officials proposed a marriage subsidy for newlyweds, including a 3 yuan (43 US cents) per gram subsidy for gold jewellery, targeted at a what state media described as those “of late marriage age”. It is unclear what punishment awaits those behind the latest prank, but the local authorities said the two men will be penalised under national laws related to “the disruption of public order by disguising facts and distributing false information”. The story about the two men now features on an online rumour-busting page run by Sina News, an affiliate of Weibo. It is part of a movement initiated by China’s social media giants to counter “fake news” on their platforms, working with teams of researchers and the government’s public security bureau.