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Why Young Chinese Aren't Rushing Into Marriage


Record numbers of Chinese people are moving to cities, and record numbers of them are also deciding to hold off on getting married. The marriage rate in China has plunged by 30 percent in the past five years, and this is making the Chinese government very worried. NPR's Rob Schmitz has the story.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: At a market in Shanghai, people are hustling to sell their goods. And at this market inside People's Park, their goods are their grown children.

(Speaking Chinese).

MRS. WANG: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: Mrs. Wang is lined up among hundreds of other parents all standing behind umbrellas with signs taped to them advertising their unmarried children. We read hers together.

(Speaking Chinese).

MRS. WANG: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: Born in 1985, studied in the U.K., short, has a Shanghai residence permit, owns her own apartment. Wang has come to Shanghai's marriage market each weekend for the past three months to try and find a suitable husband for her daughter.

MRS. WANG: (Through interpreter) She doesn't agree with what I'm doing, but she respects her parents' wishes. Young people these days don't care about marriage. They don't pay enough attention to our traditional values. Their views are becoming more Western.

SCHMITZ: Wang blames her daughter's single status at the age of 33 on the seven years she spent in the U.K., where she became more independent. But there are other reasons why young Chinese aren't rushing into marriage. Thirty-year-old Dai Xuan, who works as the editor of a luxury magazine in Shanghai, says hers are economic.

DAI XUAN: (Through interpreter) Bizarre in China, you married to survive. Now I'm living all by myself so I have higher expectations in marriage.

SCHMITZ: Like many young urban Chinese, Dai studied abroad. She lived in Norway, and she enjoys her job. She says she's not in a rush to get married.

DAI: (Through interpreter) People my age laugh at those who get married early because only rural people without an education do that. It's not that successful women don't want to marry. It's that making money makes us pickier.

SCHMITZ: But that can work both ways, says Josephine Pan. The 45-year-old is the Shanghai CEO of FCB, an advertising firm. She says in a traditional society like China's, men are intimidated by her title.

JOSEPHINE PAN: They don't want a female CEO as a girlfriend or wife. They maybe feel it's a big threat to them. I'm not an arrogant person, like, all the time show off my title. I keep it very low-profile. But, no matter how low you keep, you're intimidating them.

SCHMITZ: While men outnumber women among China's overall population, at Chinese universities women have outnumbered men for the past two decades. And that means more women who have career trajectories they don't want to jeopardize by marrying and having children.

LETA HONG FINCHER: What's happening on the ground with these particularly urban, educated women is completely at odds with what the Chinese government wants the women to be doing.

SCHMITZ: Leta Hong Fincher is the author of the forthcoming book, "Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening In China." She says China's Communist Party has tried propaganda campaigns, matchmaking events and has even ended the decades-old one-child policy to persuade educated young women to marry and start families. But declining birth rates show none of this is working. The party's problem boils down to this. Projections show by 2030 there will be more Chinese over the age of 65 than under 14. For the first time in a century, China will be facing a shortage of workers and an oversupply of non-working seniors, an economic problem that Hong Fincher says will become a political one.

HONG FINCHER: It relates to, ultimately, to the survival of the Communist Party. How do they continue exerting control when you have all these chaotic forces - young people, young women in particular, who are all wanting to do their own thing rather than follow the dictates of the government and marry early and have babies?

SCHMITZ: And it's not only women who are opting to forgo marriage. Twenty-six-year-old Yuan Ruiyu says he and his friends are under pressure from both the government and their parents to hurry up and marry, and it's having the opposite effect on them. He says it's making them question why they should marry in the first place.

YUAN RUIYU: (Through interpreter) In China, young people are supposed to do as they're told by their parents and their government. But it's a trap. It's not for our own good, but for theirs.

SCHMITZ: Yuan says as more and more of his peers leave their hometowns, study abroad and find jobs they like, they become more and more independent. And marriage, one of the most personal decisions someone can make, becomes their decision, not anyone else's. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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