yuliia mishyna & haoruo wei
One Belt, One Love: China's Soft Power Policy Is Unintentionally Bonding Hearts
An insight into the popularity of "Ukrainian beauties" on the Chinese marriage market
Johnny Huang has eventually become a real social media celebrity with over three million followers on Weibo – one of Chinese most popular social media platforms.

What makes him now receive thousands of comments and likes under each of his posts is, however, neither his verified identity as "writer" with his two bestseller-books published four years ago nor his performance on a Chinese matchmaking TV show seven years ago. The pinned video post of his page published in early 2018 marks this milestone: with 38.1 thousand reposts, 15.1 comments, and 71.7 thousand likes, Johnny's romantic love story went viral.

So went viral his wife, a painter from Kyiv, and their mixed-race daughter.
Karina Moemi is now acting as a beauty blogger on weibo, her Chinese husband is sharing their daily life with photos and videos frequently. They have undertaken many commercial ads since Johnny introduced his Ukrainian wife to the public.

"Your wife is so pretty!" "I wish I could marry such a woman like your wife!" People are commenting on Johnny's page.

"Nana (nickname for Karina), you are extraordinarily beautiful!" Users who came to Karina's page after watching the video can't hide their admiration.
The emerging obsession
Johnny and Karina are not the only Chinese-Ukrainian couple having gained public attention. Last year, a small-town-born Chinese guy who married a Ukrainian woman became an Internet sensation in China; the most famous couple, whose story has been constantly reported by media since 2014, is Max Mei and his Ukrainian wife Daria. After accomplished the dramatic transformation from a "loser" to a "winner" of life by marrying a "Ukrainian beauty", Mei has been ever since considered as a perfect model of counterattack against ordinary life in Chinese society.

Until now, marrying a Ukrainian woman is still an issue that people are taking delight in talking about. In the past 15 years, according to the Ukrainian official data, the number of Chinese (men) – Ukrainian (women) marriages registered in Ukraine has increased by 200%. In the meanwhile, the most searched topics on Weibo in the last three years show people's particular interest in "Ukrainian brides" and "Ukrainian beauties". If you, for example, try to search for similar keywords involving women from other Eastern European countries, you will find nothing. Moreover, there are hardly any chances that the hot topic on Weibo could be dedicated to "beauties" and "brides" from any other country, but Ukraine.

The reasons behind the mysterious popularity of Ukrainian women on the Chinese marriage market has been discussed by media in China and even across Asia. Among them are Chinese aesthetic standards towards beauty which particularly favour Ukrainian women; the hard-to-afforded bride price that the groom-to-be has to pay for marriage in nowadays China compared with the low financial demand of Ukrainian brides; as well as the gender imbalance problem resulting from the one-child policy. Albeit true, these factors have long been existing in Chinese society. This social trend, however, looks fairly new and therefore it gives a floor to the discussion on why Ukrainian women have become so popular on the Chinese marriage market.

"Oh yes, I've heard there's a guy in my hometown marrying a Ukrainian woman two years ago. People are talking about this exotic fusion", says Hone Lin, a 23-year-old student who was born in a small-sized city of Southeast China. In Lin's memories, it seems that such marriage never happened in his town before.
"Great love can change the world"
Cross-national marriages in China have developed since China launched its reform and opening-up in 1978, the year in which there is no record of cross-national couples registered in mainland China. By contrast, in 2017, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs of China, 41,000 cross-national couples married in mainland China, although this number includes citizens from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. With China moving forward on its way of "going-out", great changes have taken place from the whole social dimension to the individual citizen. Marriage is no doubt included in the social shifts inside Chinese society.

It seems like Ukraine is one of many countries that have been involved in China's increasing cross-national marriage cases. However, this simple logic can under no circumstances explain the unique popularity of Ukrainian women that is emerging four decades after China first opened its door towards the world.

"Great love can change the world – through 'One Belt One Road', we are boosting Chinese-Ukrainian intercultural communication with love". – The slogan of the "high-quality" dating club named "Ulove" aiming at Ukrainian women and Chinese men is hinting on the secret behind this particular obsession.

One Belt, One Road, also known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is listed on China's currently most important foreign policy that is further deepening its "going-out" degree. Launched in late 2013, BRI is claimed to be an essential strategy on the road of fulfilling Chinese dream for national rejuvenation, a dream that has grown roots in Chinese society during the second half of Hu's leadership and converted into an official political ideology after Xi came into office. In the global prospect, the Chinese Dream aims to change the global landscape. As it can be seen in recent years, China's rise broke through the pure economic growth and pursued more premier seats in many other fields in the international stage.

"I have had this concept called 'Chinese Dream' in my mind since I went to university. All the people around me know that it's about the renewal of the whole Chinese nation. And Belt and Road (Initiative) is definitely bringing our dream to the global arena", says Xu, a graduate student who volunteered in the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing in 2017.

Connecting China with the world based on the ancient Silk Road and the New Maritime Silk Road, seeking wider and deeper international cooperation and communication including but not limited to economic, political and cultural fields, China is right now stepping forward to make Chinese dream come true. For this, the country would need strong and consistent soft power strategy – the universal tool for winning hearts and minds by promoting culture, doing business and encouraging the interactions among the populations.

The BRI has it all. And having the reflections of the Chinese dream in it, the Initiative is enhancing people-to-people bond across the geographic border. As Chinese state-owned media Global Times commented, the BRI is about making a real impact on local populations.
People-to-people bond
Apparently, the real impact has been happening in the last five years on both Ukrainian and Chinese populations as the BRI has been behind the intensified cooperation between two countries.

BRI indicates that the countries of the Initiative should promote the five BRI priorities, including people-to-people bond. However, in order to cooperate within BRI, it is not necessary to be part of it. Actually, it is enough that both countries have a mutual interest. According to the US-based magazine The Diplomat which is specializing in Asia-Pacific region, Ukraine is at war with Russia was in urgent need for the economic support and strong partners amid the breaking the ties with its powerful neighbour. At the same time, Ukraine could serve as a supplier of the agricultural resources and the starting point on China's way to Europe.

So, the fact that Ukraine is not officially the part of BRI has not become an obstacle for two governments: the cooperation between China and Ukraine has constantly being developed and intensified in the possible scale and capacity over the years.

Thus, according to the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, China has been among the top five trade partners of Ukraine since 2016. Moreover, the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade of Ukraine expects to increase the commodity circulation between the countries to $20 billion within the next five years which is more than three times as much as the countries have now. Such goals seem to be realistic in the context of the possible start of the negotiations on the Free Trade Zone in the nearest future.

In addition to trade, the two countries intensified their cooperation in the field of cultural exchange. According to China's Oversea Academic Degree Verification Report 2008-2014, Ukraine has been the "dark horse" in the top-10 destination of Chinese students studying overseas. Within last years this pattern also worked the other way round: the Chinese government increased the number of state scholarships for Ukrainian students studying at Chinese universities almost fivefold from 2013 to 2017.

Liza from Kyiv was one of such students who received the governmental scholarship from China. She went to Beijing Foreign Studies University for a Chinese language course in 2015. After a one-year language course program, she left the university and decided to work in China. On the eve of Valentine's Day, she was randomly scrolling on the Tantan (Chinese equivalent to the dating app Tinder). So did her future husband, Xiaoxing Shi. The same evening, the two met for a date, and three days later Shi made a proposal. "I was so sentimental that agreed right away. We are together for more than a year now and already have a baby daughter," says Liza.

Now Liza and her husband are building the bridge between Ukrainian and Chinese cultures at the personal level. In the meantime, Kyiv and Beijing are also working on the same issue by opening new cultural centres and organizing big public diplomacy events. For example, the first One Belt One Road cultural week took place in April 2017 in the Ukrainian capital. One year later, in 2018, the opening of the Chinese-Ukrainian cultural exchange in Beijing took place.

However, students and cultural workers are not the only people who are part of these intensified cross-national relations. Within the last years, we could observe the constantly increasing flow of Chinese tourists in Ukraine with almost 25 thousand Chinese people crossing the Ukrainian border annually in 2018.

At the same time, Ukrainian media are regularly covering good or bad stories about Ukrainian migrant workers in China. Due to the occurrence of illegal employment the real numbers of Ukrainians working in China are difficult to calculate. Notwithstanding, these stories about Ukrainians working in China as English teachers, dancers, models or singers are running without legs across Ukrainian society.

"Apparently, more Ukrainians are coming to China over the past years," says Liza. "If you pass by the Chinese consulate in Kyiv, you will see a lot of people staying in front of the doors from the middle of the night in order to reserve a place in the line for a visa appointment. I guess the majority of them would be female," she adds.

The governments of both countries are officially helping two nations to meet: since 2016, the negotiations on visa liberalization has been conducted. And now we have the results: according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chinese citizens constitute almost 60% of the Ukrainian e-visa applicants. At the same time, starting from 2016, China has implemented the 144-hour visa-free transit policy in more and more China's cities, favouring now 53 countries including Ukraine.

Such developments in many spheres of Chinese-Ukrainian cooperation couldn't be ignored. And, as it can be seen from the data presented above, the intensified Chinese-Ukrainian interaction is actually taking place. Having more projects, initiatives and work offers in common, Ukrainians and Chinese are meeting each other more and more — both in Ukraine and China. While the groups of Chinese tourists or the delegations of Chinese businessmen are not a surprise to the average Ukrainian any more, the average Chinese people are getting used to the presence of Ukrainian students, teachers or entertainment workers in China. And even though they might not have conversations in all the cases, they surely see each other at the same places and become aware of the presence of the other nation. And, finally, the chances to get to know each other and create bonds are increasing.
Dating agency as the "cultural belt"
Max Mei sees the business opportunity. In 2017, he founded the dating club named "Ulove" and made it target "high-quality" Chinese men and beautiful Ukrainian women. The profit-oriented cross-national dating agencies, in fact, are banned since the 1990s according to Chinese law. However, Ulove dresses itself in another way and hence even won the state-owned media's attention.

Formally, it is headquartered in Ukraine and registered as a social media technology company in Shenzhen, China. Regarding the brand positioning, Ulove distinguishes itself from the ordinary dating agencies by emphasizing its role of "high-end overseas dating platform" and the "cultural belt" of BRI linking China and Ukraine. "One Belt, One Road", "to spread Chinese culture", "practitioner of the Chinese-Ukrainian cultural exchange", such words are striking on the homepage of the official website of Ulove and appealing to expand its global channel cooperation.

Max Mei got the opportunity to go viral on the Chinese Internet again. Now, the official Weibo account of Ulove has gained more than 221,000 followers, plus over one million following Mei's personal account. According to Ulove, thousands of Chinese men have already joined their membership in the last three years and the successful dating rate achieved 80%.

"My friend recommended me a high-end dating agency. It is cool, I saw it was even reported in the national press," says Hone Lin, showing us the WeChat official account of Ulove, when it comes to Ukrainian women.

Now, apart from the high-end exchange party below the line, Ulove is developing its business to tourism and especially cultural trips. Meanwhile, Max Mei has set up the first female Chinese-language school in Ukraine aiming at training "bilingual Ukrainian beauties".

"I am planning to go to China. I want to visit the Great Wall", a Ukrainian girl tries to speak Chinese in a promotional video of Ulove.

"The frequency of Chinese-Ukrainian cultural and personal exchange is increasing," says Mei in a media interview in 2017, "Ulove will connect the dating and networking with the opportunities of 'One Belt, One Road'."
"Media are encouraging us"
The intensified Chinese-Ukrainian cultural exchange under BRI inspired Mei to a business campaign and the bond-creating which brings Ukrainian women onto a more prominent seat of the public eye. At the same time, Chinese media are playing an important role in shaping the image of "Ukrainian beauties" when reporting the Chinese-Ukrainian fusion.

Blond hairs, blue eyes, well-shaped body. In Chinese media coverage, Ukrainian women have been labelled with these features that are perfect in accordance with the Chinese appreciation of beauty. Even the state-owned media that usually cover serious topics including issues related to the BRI, more or less show their emphasis on the beauty of Ukrainian women.

"No, I have never seen a real Ukrainian woman. But I know they are beautiful, super beautiful. Why? The media told us," says Chen, 22, single. "And they are encouraging us to look for a Ukrainian wife," adds Chen, "Because this country with most beautiful women is lack of men."

Chinese media are telling people how beautiful Ukrainian women are and how urgent this country's gender imbalance disfavours these beauties. One can simply check it.

If you go to Baidu, the biggest Internet search engine in China, and search on the news item with the keyword "Ukrainian women" (乌克兰女人), all the news on the first page of searching results will display the keyword "Ukrainian beauties" (乌克兰美女) instead.

"The country of beautiful disaster" – Chinese media use the rhetoric to show their audience the opposite gender imbalance existing in distant East Europe, which exactly fits the ongoing crisis of a large amount of "left-over" men in China – the consequence of one-child policy and the increasing high bride price in Chinese society.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2018, China has the world's most skewed sex ratio at birth, with about 115 boys born for every 100 girls. The country now has about 33 million more men than women. By 2030, one-fourth of the Chinese men in their 30s will be unmarried, as American political economist Nicholas Eberstadt predicted.

China Central Television (CCTV) has a special column named "Home in a distance: One Belt, One Road" (远方的家:一带一路). There are some series telling the stories of cross-national family living in the BRI participating countries and titled with "affectional tie of BRI". As the country is speeding up on its way of "going-out", the media is contributing to the bond of the country's policy and the population together with the affectional tie.
Social shift, not entertainment
The popularity of Ukrainian women on the Chinese marriage market appears to be a result of Chinese soft power policy embedded in BRI. What makes thing interesting is that the Chinese original formulation of BRI's "people-to-people bond" priority is not exactly the same with what they describe in the English version. In Chinese, it literally means "the bond of people's hearts (between China and the participating countries)".

For sure, the ultimate goal of the Chinese government regarding this priority is not to bond hearts in a relationship, but to enhance the mutual communication and understanding between Chinese and other populations, including Ukrainian. However, with the intensified interactions between the two nations and the boosters such as media, dating agency and gender imbalance playing roles in matchmaking, this soft power policy eventually makes Ukrainian women be the desired target on the Chinese marriage market.

But are people's hearts truly bonded with love, or is it only the popularity floating on the surface?

On the one hand, there are more Chinese-Ukrainian couples being bonded in reality. On the other hand, voices complaining this viral obsession are appearing.

"Here in China only within one day, I can receive so many comments that I'd never heard back in Ukraine. And often, they are too pushing."

"The majority even doesn't know where Ukraine is located. But everyone would tell you that this is the country of beauties."

"Many Chinese say that Ukrainian women are coming here to find a husband. Because there is a lack of men in Ukraine and in China, there are no problems with it."

"I have a feeling that Chinese men are dreaming about Ukrainian wife and for some reason are persuaded that we are dreaming about Chinese husband too."

Here are just a couple of quotes from the Ukrainian women who shared their experience of how this obsession influences their daily life in China. It appears that the average Ukrainian woman who is coming to China is under such a strong objectivation, that she is turned into a "Ukrainian beauty" and seems not to have a chance to be perceived differently. Unfortunately, the majority of the media bits on "Ukrainian beauties" have a tabloid-style where women are given nothing more than a beautiful appearance in order to entertain the readers.

However, the issue of Ukrainian women and Chinese-Ukrainian relationships should be considered as a natural process taking place between the two countries. After all, this situation is unintentionally caused by the Chinese desire to be integrated with the outside world. So, when such a social shift is taking place in between the two populations, why should we make it an entertainment?
Yuliia Mishyna
Haoruo Wei
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