Women’s liberation drives down China marriage and birth rates

December 02, 2021 09:30
Photo: Xinhua

Sarah Yu, a Shanghai accountant in her 20s, outlines her dating strategy. “To save time, during our first meal together, I ask the boy if he has an apartment and a car and what his job is. If he produces a business card, I quiz him because many exaggerate their real position.”

Yu is one of millions of the new generation of well educated, independent Chinese women. “If the boy has neither an apartment nor a car, there will be no second date,” she said.

The high level of education of millions of young women, which liberates them from the constraints of their grandmothers’ era, is one of the great achievements of the Communist era.

But it is also a major reason why the country’s marriage rate and birth rate are falling to record lows.

New figures released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs showed that, in the first nine months of this year, there were 5.886 million weddings, down from 7.131 million in the same period in 2019, and less than half of 13.47 million in the whole of 2013, the highest figure of the last decade. Meanwhile, the rate of divorce has been mostly on a rising trend.

These two factors have helped to push China’s birth rate in 2020 to the lowest level since annual data was collected in 1978.

The National Bureau of Statistics said that, in 2020, there were 8.5 births per 1,000, the first time in decades that the figures had fallen below 10 and compared to over 18 per 1,000 in 1978. As a result, the natural rate of population growth – including births and deaths – was a record low of 1.45.

The urban educated women of China are following the path of their sisters in Taiwan, Japan, Western Europe and North America. They are unwilling to risk the pain and loss of freedom they have seen in the marriages of their parents and grandparents.

In October, the Communist Youth League published a survey on marriage of 2,905 single urban people aged between 16 and 26. Of the women, 43.92 per cent said that they would “not” or “not necessarily marry”, compared to 24.63 per cent of the men who gave the same answers.

Dong Yuzheng, Director of the Guangdong Institute of Population Development, said that women were better educated than men and, the more educated they were, the more hesitant they were about marriage.

“Increasingly, the population is moving to the cities, where the costs of living, apartments and consumption are high. This contributes to these phenomena of ‘late marriage’, ‘fear of marriage’ and ‘no marriage’,” Dong said.

Sarah Yu is typical of what Chinese call the “three highs” – high education, high salary and high eyebrows (snobbish).

The second factor driving the population and marriage crisis is another government success – the one-child policy. Introduced at the end of the 1970s and abandoned at the beginning of 2016 , it was the most severe birth control measure in human history and greatly reduced the runaway population growth of the Maoist era.

One result of the policy, revealed in a national census report published in May this year, is an imbalance of 35 million men over women – because couples chose to have a boy, not a girl, as their only child. These men will not be able to marry or have children within marriage.

The great losers in the marriage crisis are men of limited income and education and those who live in rural areas.

In October, the government of Xiangyin county, Hunan province said that, to solve this problem, it must find ways to attract young women to stay in rural areas, change the face of the countryside and work hard to change this imbalance between rural men and women.

Some commentators on the Internet compared this to a policy of the 1950s when the central government sent 8,000 young women from Hunan to Xinjiang to solve a shortage of wives for soldiers who had settled in the region.

On its website, the Hunan provincial government supported the Xiangyin initiative. “Some women do not want the hardships of rural life and do not wish to marry local men and have children with them. Even less do women from other areas want to go to the villages. This is not a small matter. It affects the future of the race and must be addressed at a high strategic level,” it said.

This kind of language makes people wonder if, to achieve its population targets, the government will again resort to coercive methods, like restricting abortions or limiting the rights of rural women to leave home and move to the cities. In this decade, can it use such old methods?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.