Chinese police rescued 1,130 abducted foreign women in the second half of last year in coordinated operations with five Southeast Asian countries, the Ministry of Public Security said on Friday.
Police arrested 1,322 suspects, including 262 foreigners, for allegedly luring and kidnapping women after promising jobs or marriages, the ministry said, in what appears to be the largest such operation to date.
"In recent years, some lawless locals and foreigners have conspired to abduct women from neighboring countries and sell them as wives in China," public security spokesman Guo Lin said at a news conference in Beijing. "It's a serious violation of these women's rights and interests."
Demand for foreign brides in China has mounted in recent years. It has been fueled by Beijing's one-child policy, which skewed China's gender balance for decades before the government changed it three years ago.
Many men in the Chinese countryside struggle to find wives, especially if they lack a car, house, or well-paying job.
Marriage agents that match couples are part of a legal, accepted practice in China, and transnational marriages have become increasingly common. However, Chinese law bans marriage agencies from introducing foreign brides to deter trafficking.
Along China's porous southeastern borders, smugglers lure women by pretending to be attractive men on social media and flirting with them, or by promising well-paid jobs in hotels or restaurants, as in one case The Associated Press reported last year.
When they cross the border, smugglers often drug the women, take money, phones and identifying documents, and drive them farther into China.
Trafficked women end up isolated in rural villages, most unable to speak with anyone around them due to language barriers. Disoriented and cut off from family back home, they struggle to get help.
China signed a memorandum with Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand in 2004 to cooperate on anti-trafficking efforts across Southeast Asia.
The recent crackdown from July to December of last year involved police from the six countries. Most of the cases involved Vietnamese and Cambodian women.
The joint raids are an encouraging sign that trafficking is being taken more seriously, says Mimi Vu, director of advocacy at Pacific Links, a group that helps trafficked Vietnamese women.
"Cooperation is a lynchpin of the success of police raids," Vu said. "It's key... that the Chinese police weren't going in blindly, they had information on the missing victims and where they could be found."
China has established eight liaison offices that coordinate with police in neighbouring Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos to combat trafficking and return abducted women to their home countries, according to Chen Shiqu, a deputy director at the Ministry of Public Security. Chen also said China has stepped up border patrols and inspections to catch smugglers.
Advocacy groups outside China say Chinese police are responsive to trafficking cases once they're notified.
However, enforcement can be spotty, with reports of officers failing to take action because of language barriers or concern over getting buyers and agents into trouble.
Advocates say another challenge is Beijing's harsh restrictions on independent activists and organisations, choking off a potential avenue of support for trafficked women.
Unlike many other trafficking destinations, women in China have few options to get help other than the police, especially those who choose to stay in China because they gave birth to children there.
Some women escape their captors through networks of underground activists who operate in secret to avoid notice from Chinese authorities.
Vu says broader changes are needed to stem trafficking, such as greater public awareness, more social services and openness to working with advocacy groups both to provide more support for victims and to reduce demand for brides.
"Law enforcement plays a part in it, but it's not just about finding victims," Vu said. "If there was less demand, we wouldn't have this trade."