China’s efforts to lower the cost of marriage and boost birth rates have failed to lead to more weddings, dealing a blow to a crucial policy intended to combat a rapidly ageing society.
The world’s most populous country faces a demographic crisis as authorities grapple with the economic challenges caused by a shrinking population. Chinese census data released this year showed the population had increased at its slowest pace in decades.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs in April launched an education drive to make marriage more affordable in 29 cities, as the cost of tying the knot had risen beyond the reach of average families.
“A drop in marriage will affect birth rates and in turn economic and social development,” said Yang Zongtao, a senior official at the MCA last year. “We are hoping to . . . actively create favourable conditions for more people of suitable ages to walk into marriage.”
But new marriage licences fell to a 13-year low of 5.9m in the first three-quarters of 2021. The number of marriages has declined for eight consecutive years.
A study by Chengdu-based Southwest Jiaotong University in five provinces found the average value of engagement gifts, which includes the bride’s dowry and ranges from cash to housing, for rural couples had surged between 50-100 per cent to at least Rmb300,000 ($47,000) over the past seven years. That is more than six times the annual household income.
“The problem is getting worse and worse,” said Wang Xiangyang, an author of the Southwest Jiaotong study.
Ningling, a central county and one of the areas identified by the MCA as an “experimental zone” for the new policy, announced a suggested price of up to Rmb30,000 for engagement gifts compared with the usual Rmb100,000 the county’s young women and their parents typically requested.
The county also launched hundreds of marriage councils, joined by local officials, dignitaries and matchmakers, to persuade couples to follow the official line.
“We keep telling young women and their parents that happiness has nothing to do with how many engagement gifts they receive,” said a Ningling official.
A big challenge has been the country’s gender imbalance, with young men outnumbering women of similar age by a considerable margin after decades of China’s one-child policy.
“The space for new policy is limited when you have more young men than women,” said a Beijing-based government adviser. “It is inevitable that a lot of men will remain single in their lifetime.”
The adviser said that China’s gender imbalance had barely improved from the 2010 census, which reported 2.2m single men aged 25-34 compared with 1.2m single women in the same age group.
“We are not going to see a recovery in marriage when gender imbalance is so big,” the adviser added.
The situation has been exacerbated by a waning interest in marriage among Chinese women, with many choosing to wed later or to stay single as they focus on their careers instead.
A survey in May of young adults in Lishui, a rural county in eastern China by the local statistics bureau, found that 60 per cent of female respondents considered marriage necessary compared with 82 per cent for men.
Multiple regional and national surveys conducted around 2010 showed more than 80 per cent of female respondents considered marriage a necessity. The ratio for men was more than 85 per cent.
“I listen to myself, not the government, on when and whom to marry,” said Olivia Wang, a 35-year-old office worker in Lishui.
Some men in Ningling are also unconvinced the policy shift will change behaviour.
“No woman will marry me if I take the official propaganda for granted,” said a 28-year-old man surnamed Wang, who paid his in-laws Rmb99,999 in cash and Rmb50,000 worth of gold jewellery before his August wedding.
“I am happy to have a wife, but not so about my parents having to empty their savings to help me achieve that goal.”
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou and Xinning Liu