A Shortage Of Potential Brides Is Reshaping Chinese Society
Twelve years ago, Mr. Ren, a construction worker from Pi village in rural China, paid the family of his oldest son’s future bride 8,000 Yuan.Just ten years later he shelled out 100,000 Yuan—around $15,000 USD—to the family of his recently married younger son’s wife.
Ren, a father in his late 50s who works a cement mixer in rural Pi village, acknowledges he now has no immediate prospects for retiring from his physically taxing manual labor job.
The traditional Chinese bride-price paid by the family of the groom to the family of the bride has soared by over 1,000 percent in recent years.
Left to a natural course, approximately 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. Higher male mortality rates even this ratio by adulthood. In China, however, decades of sex-selective abortions driven by the now defunct one-child policy and a cultural preference for boys pushed this ratio to 120:100 or higher in many regions. As a result, China is “missing” 60 million women, according to demographers John Bongaarts and Christophe Guilmoto.
Conscious of exorbitant price they will be expected to pay a son’s future bride, families are squirreling away money at even higher rates than usual for China, which has long had disproportionately high household savings rates. The most recently available data indicates savings rates at nearly 40 percent of annual income, one the highest in the world.
Such a high savings rate is stilting China’s future economic growth. While its economy has expanded at an incredible pace over the past three decades, the rate has slowed in recent years. In stability-obsessed China, this has raised fears among some government officials about the increasing odds of social unrest.
Residents of Zhongdenglou, a village Shandong province, complain that unmarried men past the age of 25 are considered washed-up. As in Pi, home of Mr. Ren, Prices for braides here have soared by 1,000 percent too. According to Deng Zhikuan, a grocery store owner here, the currently expected price for a bride is equivalent to around five times a resident’s typical annual income, but can also cost much more.
Unmarried single men in their twenties from rural communities — laboring under the country's worst gender imbalances — often abandon the thought of marrying and move to cities in search of better work. Some may hope of saving enough to return home and find a wife. But in a climate where men past the age of 25 are stale prospects, a 35-year-old with moderate savings is not a catch either.
The Chinese government is cognizant of the many potential pitfalls presented by their country’s skewed demographics and is endeavoring to address the problem. In 2015 Chinese health officials acknowledged, “Our country has the most serious gender imbalance that is most prolonged and affecting the most number of people.”
However, many outside experts assert the recent steps are too little too late to reverse existing social imbalances; some financial analysts now contend China faces the prospect of becoming the first industrialized nation to grow old before it gets rich.
Additionally, there remain major concerns about what the country can do with its growing cohort of rootless, disaffected young men. Still young, but with limited economic or family prospects, these recent migrants to China’s booming urban areas pose the greatest threat to China’s vaunted system of social controls that ensure stability.
For the moment there is little sign that China’s gender imbalance is moving towards the demographic time bomb some experts believed it to be. While there remains plentiful work for this generation of ever-single men, China may avoid major unrest. But in the case of a dramatic economic slowdown or externally driven unrest, the country may find itself reckoning with the consequences of 36 years of government-mandated family planning.
Photo credit: Wikimedia