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Demographers warn that a growing sense of apathy among young Chinese people, toward marriage and having children, is exacerbating a demographic crisis that has intensified during the pandemic. Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen

Young Chinese put kids, marriage on back burner at record rate as cost pressures and Covid overwhelm

  • The number of couples that registered for marriage in China is on pace to hit a historic low this year
  • While the shrinking size of China’s marriageable population is one reason for the decline, an increasing reluctance to marry is seen to be a more crucial factor

Media worker Liu Maomao has a special list of contacts on her QQ and WeChat messaging apps, and in them lies a gaggle of more than a dozen blind dates from yesteryear.

But rather than serving as a selection of potential suitors, it’s become a neglected rolodex that the 36-year-old Beijing resident hasn’t refreshed or updated in six years.

She says she’s simply no longer “in the mood for love”.

“There is no particular reason … maybe just because it feels so good after living alone for a long time,” Liu said.

Liu is among the millions of young Chinese adults choosing not to marry, or to at least delay marriage, as they have become put off by the soaring costs of settling down and raising a family. And this growing sense of apathy serves as a worrying red flag for policymakers as the country steels itself for a worsening demographic crisis.

With 2022 set to be a turning point, what’s next for China’s population?

The phenomena, while not unique to China, has been further exacerbated there after nearly three years of highly disruptive coronavirus curbs.

According to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, the number of newly married couples had dropped for eight straight years in 2021 to 7.64 million – a record low since the earliest release of such data in 1985.

And the trend has intensified this year: in the first three quarters, the number of couples that registered for marriage in China reached a historic low of 5.4 million.

Meanwhile, the number of individuals entering their first marriages – which is considered a better gauge among young adults and is more closely related to the birth rate – also dropped to the lowest level on record in 2021, at 11.58 million people. And that was half of the peak level reached in 2013, according to the China Statistical Yearbook 2022.

Demographers say that while the shrinking size of the marriageable population is one of the reasons for such declines, the increasing reluctance to marry, or marry early, is a more crucial factor.

According to Chinese census data, the average age for one’s first marriage increased to 28.67 in 2020, up from 24.89 in 2010.

While the delay of marriage, especially for women, is a natural process amid rapid urbanisation and the expansion of higher education, macroeconomic conditions such as soaring housing prices and intense employment pressure also come into play, forcing many people to give up trying to tie the knot, according to Jiang Quanbao, a demography professor at Xian Jiaotong University.

“Currently, there is still a lot of room for a further increase in the first marriage age. China may follow the trajectory of some neighbouring countries such as Japan and South Korea, in that average first-marriage age will continue to rise,” Jiang said.

Although the share of never-married people among the entire population is still low in China compared with many developed economies, for women with university degrees or above, the proportion of those who remain unwed is quite high, Jiang added.

According to a survey conducted last year by the Research Centre of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League involving 2,905 unmarried urban youth aged between 18-26, about 44 per cent of female respondents said they did not plan to marry, compared with nearly 25 per cent of men.

Marriage on the rocks in China, total hits record low

From a positive point of view, this means modern Chinese women have more choices, rather than being a housewife, said Felisa Li, a Beijing-based public relations professional who has remained single.

“Previously, a woman’s place was more at home, as a wife and a mother, but now that is no longer the case,” the 36-year-old said. “Women can also live a great life by being independent, like having a job they like.”

While China has kicked off rounds of supportive policies for child-rearing in the past year, from optimising maternity-leave schemes to offering more public childcare services, these are still just a drop in the bucket, Li said.

“If you live in first-tier cities, you will need at least a two-bedroom flat if you want a child. And that is very hard to achieve in Beijing. I have a one-bedroom flat now and I’ve already tried my best.”

Despite a property slump that has dragged several real estate companies into liquidity crises, housing prices in major Chinese cities have largely remained untouched, or even continued to rise in the past year, according to figures from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

For the past three years it was zero-Covid, and it has come to an abrupt end now. But will there be something similar in the future?
Veronica Qi, Beijing

But for 26-year-old Veronica Qi, hurdles brought by high property prices are nothing compared with an uncertain future.

“A few years ago, housing prices were also high, but young people still wanted to get married and have children, because they had hopes for a better future. But now a lot of people are depressed, and they don’t think there is much hope for the future,” said Qi, a freelancer based in Beijing.

A major source of depression for Qi was China’s hardline zero-Covid policy, which recently came to a hurried end after nearly three years, following rare protests in major cities around the country as public patience started to reach the breaking point amid increasingly stringent lockdowns, excessive mass screenings and quarantines.

“The policy shifts are so random. For the past three years it was zero-Covid, and it has come to an abrupt end now. But will there be something similar in the future? We don’t know, and I don’t want my kid to live in such an environment.

“Since I don’t have good expectations for the future, and I can’t even work out my own s***,” Qi said. “Why do I have to bring another person – or even a third or fourth person – into it?”

[I]f a couple does not have a wedding banquet, they cannot be considered married, and if they are not married, it’s not appropriate to have children
Yao Yang, National School of Development

Yao Yang, dean of the National School of Development and director of the China Centre for Economic Research at Peking University, said last month that prioritising the nation’s zero-Covid policy over economic development was serving as a heavy drag on China’s dwindling birth rate.

“[Local authorities in] Beijing have not allowed the holding of wedding banquets for almost a year. The widespread mindset among Chinese people is that if a couple does not have a wedding banquet, they cannot be considered married, and if they are not married, it’s not appropriate to have children,” Yao said during a seminar on China’s economy at Peking University.

“China’s population is already close to negative growth, and the situation now is bad for [lifting] the birth rate,” he said.

For 27-year-old Charlotte Chen, the pandemic has further delayed her plan to marry and settle down with her boyfriend in Shanghai.

“Before the pandemic, everyone was optimistic and thought they would be successful in the future, but now people are becoming more cautious about their future, and then more cautious about adding more leverage – that is, bearing housing loans,” Chen said.

“In China, even modern men and women can’t rid themselves of the mindset that buying a house is a prerequisite for marriage, and that creates a lot of burden for the couple, especially the man,” she added.

For any Chinese couple, the burden of buying a home usually falls on the shoulders of the husband. So, for many men, no home means no wife. Men are also saddled with the conventional burden of the so-called bride price – a payment given by the prospective husband to the bride’s family in many cultures.

Despite Beijing’s efforts to reform wedding traditions and encourage frugality in recent years, exorbitant bride prices remain a public concern in China, especially in rural areas where a surplus of men means many must inevitably remain single.

In a small town in the northwest province of Shaanxi, voice actor Liu Fei recently attended his friend’s wedding as the best man and learned that the groom’s family had spent more than 470,000 yuan (US$67,300) on the bride price, wedding preparations and a village home.

‘My wedding can wait’: big sister buys brother flat and car to boost eligibility

In 2021, the per capita disposable income of rural residents in China was 18,931 yuan, according to the NBS.

“If 470,000 yuan is what a rural family needs to spend [for their son to get married], what does that mean for the northwest countryside? It may be the life savings of the two parents, and only if they can save that much,” the 28-year-old Liu said.

For Liu, whose parents are farmers in their sixties in the rural northwest, his family’s social status immediately puts him at the bottom of the food chain in the marriage market.

“I can’t wrap my head around starting a family, and I don’t know what kind of benefits marriage can bring me while I’m paying such a huge price,” Liu said. “Not to mention it’s already so difficult to find someone I really like.”