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Crossing the Heavenly River

Anna McCourt discusses China’s low marriage rate and how the Chinese Communist Party is tackling the problem.

The traditional Chinese tale of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl tells a story of two lovers separated by a heavenly river. Every year, a flock of magpies would create a bridge so that the couple could be reunited. This day has been celebrated as the Qixi Festival in China as far back as the Han Dynasty.

In the twenty-first century, potential lovers in China are separated by many things: societal pressures, the skewed sex-ratio, and increasingly, themselves. This is reflected in the marriage rate, which in 2019 was at the lowest it had been in 14 years. The heavenly river, it seems, is getting wider and wider. But how did China get here?

The Fall of the Weaver Girl

The introduction of the one-child policy in China amplified a pre-existing problem: bias towards males. Economically speaking, males have always had better investment potential – they could work, carry on the family name, and find a suitable wife who would take care of their ageing parents. This male-favoured bias has prevailed to this day, despite the number of women in the workplace almost equalling men, and women accounting for 43.7% of the labour force in 2019.

It was of little surprise that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) introduction of the one-child policy in 1979 skewed the sexratio, resulting in anywhere between 30 and 60 million ‘missing women’ in China. Their 1980 decision to allow rural parents to have a second child if their first was female further imbedded the mindset that a daughter wasn’t sufficient.

Not Even Magpies can Fix this One

As the generation born under the one childpolicy reaches marriageable age, the skewed sex ratio looms. This is especially evident in rural areas, where many women have moved away to pursue a job or education in a bigger city; some villages have even been dubbed ‘bachelor villages’ due to the sheer absence of women.

On top of this, single women are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the idea of marriage despite the heightened bargaining power that has come with the scarcity of their sex. Over the past few decades, women in China have become far more likely to stay in education and pursue a career rather than marry earlier as their mothers had. Women are outnumbering men in both junior college and undergraduate programs for the first time in 2009, according to China’s Ministry of Education. Increasing education rates of China’s women may explain the partial decline in women’s desire to marry, since they now have a higher likelihood of becoming financially stable and independent without the conventional help of a husband.

Many young couples are also hesitant to marry and have children, especially those who live in big cities. For women, marriage means an expectation from employers that they will take maternity leave in the notso-distant future, disadvantaging their succession in the workplace. A survey of 10,000 families conducted by All-China Women’s Federation reported that as much as 54.7% of women were asked about their marriage and maternity plans during job interviews. A further 12.5% reported being fired shortly after becoming pregnant. This trade-off is too costly in the eyes of many.

The Powers That Be

China’s aging population, combined with their falling marriage rates, will inevitably cause a population decline – hence, disproportionately impacting the workingclass population. Economic instability accompanied by the falling population, will generate uncertainty regarding China’s future, in particular, the sustainability of their GDP growth.

These concerns have pushed the CCP to drastically attempt to remedy this societal conundrum. Shameless propaganda and mass blind dating events have been organised to try and ignite the spark between young people. Public shaming has also played a key role, with unmarried women being labeled as ‘leftover’ by the state and popular media. The success of these methods has been questionable at best, detrimental at worst. Many women have spoken out against this label, with the cosmetic company, SKII, running an advertisement that features women speaking about the harm this label has caused them.

However, as the CCP have now realised, the issue of the missing marriages and of China’s missing women stem from the same root: societal bias towards men. The CCP have adopted a range of methods to fix this, from outlawing foetal sex determination and sex-selective abortion, with the aim to deter couples from favouring sons to daughters in-utero. In some areas, “Care for Girls” programs have been initiated, which financially supports families with daughters, implements education on gender equality, and equips young girls with skills that will benefit their future employability.

China still has a long way to go to increase marriage rates. Before they even attempt to bridge the gap between men and women romantically, they first have to narrow the societal chasm between them. With changing mindsets around women’s role in society, and more women becoming more visible in education and the workplace, younger generations are challenging traditional ideas. However, changing mindsets take time, and as Rome wasn’t built in a day, a heavenly river cannot be narrowed in a generation.

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