Friday, May 2, 2014

Wedding bells sound alarm for China's unwed women

Altared states: couples from Shanghai celebrate a mass wedding in Crete earlier this month in an event organised jointly by Chinese and Greek tourist organisations.
“He’s just not that into you.” 
It’s the kind of message a woman doesn’t want to hear, even from her best friend. But it’s even more jarring when it comes from the Chinese government. 

China’s state news agency Xinhua delivers the bad news bluntly: “does the perfect man exist? Maybe he does exist, but why on earth would he want to marry you?” 
It gets worse. “As women age they are worth less and less,” says another scary government soundbite. “So by the time they get their MA or PhD they are already old, like yellowed pearls.” 

Why this full frontal attack on the female population? Says sociologist Leta Hong Fincher -- author of a forthcoming book Leftover Women -- the latest foray of the Chinese state into the bedrooms of the nation is to convince women they should trade in romantic ideas of love (or career advancement) for the hard facts of marriage at an early age. 
With women in most Asian countries marrying later, rising higher on the job ladder and putting more energy into their careers than homemaking, Beijing fears that the trend will hit China’s homes sooner rather than later. 
It appears to be working. Hundreds of Chinese women told Fincher they are “so anxious about becoming ‘leftover’ that they’re going to extraordinary lengths to get married, sometimes with virtual strangers,” she said in Foreign Policy’s online magazine. 

That’s especially odd, because China’s one child policy has resulted in an alarming deficit of marriageable women and a surfeit of men, which should mean an overwhelmingly seller’s market. Instead, women who are better educated and higher earning than their mothers are selling themselves drastically short in marriages where they often sign away their property rights and financial control in return for the title of wife. 
Hustling young women into marriage also makes little sense as long as China continues the one child policy. For all its harshness, it has maintained social order in the most densely populated country in the world. But it has also created a demographic crisis in which the fertility rate has fallen too low for long-term stability, as more people reach retirement age with fewer to support them. 

Reports hint that the pro-marriage policy might be a prelude to easing the one child limit to two, or even doing away with population control entirely. With China’s government pension system also heading for the crisis point, that might be welcomed by people who have traditionally relied on their children to look after them in old age. 
In the meantime, China’s wedding alarm bells are ringing. And young women are lining up to answer the call. 

Olivia Ward is a foreign affairs writer for the Toronto Star. She is the recipient of an award for international reporting from the Washington-based Population Institute.

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