China's real problem: leftover men

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 August, 2014, 4:35am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 August, 2014, 8:38am

Recently a group of women came together at a cafe in Beijing to stage The Leftover Monologues. It was so successful that the organisers decided to do two encores in bigger venues.

The success of the play, a series of first-hand accounts of shengnu, or "leftover women", is an example of the interest the issue of young unmarried women generates in China.

The media writes relentlessly about them, feminists seethe at the stigmatisation, and matchmaking and accessories industries thrive solving the "problem". The state does its bit to help these "yellowed pearls", as the All-China Federation of Women calls them, by dispensing tips like "don't be picky" and "seduce but don't pester".

In contrast, there's far less interest in China's real leftovers - its men. Years of the one-child policy and sex determination caused by preference for boys means there are now 20 million more men under 30 than women. Even if all these women took the state's advice to be less "picky", it would still leave 20 million leftover men. By 2040, there will be 44 million such leftover men of marriageable age. "Leftover women" are an avoidable social phraseology; "leftover men" are an inescapable statistical reality.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post this week, researcher and writer Luo Aiping spoke at length on why leftover women are stereotyped as highly educated and well paid. It's because, she says, this group makes for a promising market. That also happens to be the reason why we don't hear all that much about leftover men.

The typical Chinese leftover man lives in a remote, underdeveloped area, has low income and lower prospects - a guanggun, or "bare branch", so called because he will not add to the family tree. Not exactly a prized target for advertisers, and hence inaudible in the din of the market.

Yet, the challenges leftover men pose to China are staggering, linked as they are to a host of rising problems from prostitution, trafficking and sexually transmitted diseases to violence and even ethnic strife, over an increasingly rare resource - women. To call women leftovers is plain wrong, and not just in the semantic sense.