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China’s Barren Branches

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Written by Paul Nash, Contributor

China’s villages, which used to be models of communal unity or flashpoints of stormy peasant uprisings, now languish in the shadow of the nation’s prosperity. They appear to be losing more to urban growth than mere acreage or precious groundwater. Year after year, young men and women from China’s hinterland go off to work in big city factories, along with millions of other migrant workers. But the women are not returning home—at least not at the same rate as their male peers.

Marriage prospects in China’s big cities are brighter for young rural women. This has not always been the case. Historically, women in the countryside have enjoyed little choice in their matrimonial fate. Typically, they married from within their village, or nearby, and at times they had no say in whom they married.

Today the tables are turned. Today they can afford to be choosy and shed the bonds that once tied them to the land, socially and economically, but not because their wealth or freedom has improved. The one-child policy introduced in 1979, together with prenatal screening and sex selective abortions, has skewed the nation’s population in favor of its traditional preference for boys. And with scarcity comes mobility.

On the whole, China has roughly 120 females for every 100 males and 249 million unmarried adults. Of those born in the 1980s and 90s, about two males for every one female remain single. Sociologists crunch the numbers and say this imbalance has produced a huge surplus of males who will never be able to find wives their own age. The best estimates run into the tens of millions, some as high as 40 million. More than half of these men are now in their 20s and 30s.

Less well-to-do bachelors are at an obvious disadvantage. In China it requires capital to conduct a courtship. Owning a home or at least having enough money for an acceptable dowry goes a long way to being taken seriously. Young women debate amongst themselves on the practicality of “naked” marriages: that is, whether it is sensible to wed a man with no money, no house, no car. Some say it is a shallow question, but for rural women it is difficult to brush aside the realities of agrarian life, a perennial brutish toil plagued by drought and flooding, in a country with no social safety net.

China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission recently conducted a study on attitudes towards marriage. It found that 66 percent of males believe it is unnecessary to own a home and car before proposing; 52 percent of females consider these a prerequisite. Perhaps more tellingly, the study also found that 70 percent of Chinese women aged 18-25 have what is called an “Uncle Complex”. In other words, they prefer male companions a decade older than themselves, seeing them as financially stable and better able to provide for a family.

Rural parents, of course, are eager to see their daughters marry well. China’s 30-year economic upsurge has not brought the same gains to the countryside as it has to cities, and older villagers can still remember the hardships and famine caused by the Great Leap Forward under Mao’s regime, in which millions perished. Parents allow their daughters to work in faraway cities, sometimes with borrowed ID cards and false names, because today one girl in a factory can provide more for the family than two boys at home. The young women send back money and maybe they find a wealthy son-in-law as well.

Village men seldom marry up the social scale. But they too have aging parents pressing them to produce grandchildren and not become “barren branches” incapable of fulfilling the traditional ethical dictate of continuing the family line.

Chinese men generally get married between the ages of 22 and 27. Under China’s marriage law, men can marry at 22 and women at 20. There is mounting political pressure to lower this age to 18 for both, though the actual average age has risen over the past decade to 26.7 for men and 24.9 for women. Statistically, men have a lower probability of tying the knot after 28. The outlook is worse for single men in humble inland and western provinces. There some have given up hope of finding a wife domestically and now look abroad. Thanks to the internet, they turn to Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar and Vietnam, where “marriage brokers” offer brides for sale on-line, sometimes at half the price of a traditional Chinese dowry.

Desperation fuels illicit trafficking across China’s southern borders into Yunnan, Fujian, Henan, Sichuan, and Anhui. Women often believe they are going to work in China’s flourishing factories but soon find they have been sold into prearranged marriages. Chinese men pay as much as US$8,000 for a Burmese bride, many thinking them willing. And some are. Some come in search of a better life in China, away from Southeast Asia’s poorest country. The UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking says even Burmese parents accept as little as US$1,000 for their daughters. Intensified media coverage has roused the governments of both countries to the problem, but despite efforts to clamp down on the trade, it quietly continues.

Chinese researchers meanwhile busy themselves studying the social, economic, and political implications of “bachelor villages” in a country where marriage is regarded as a symbol of social status and acceptance. Some villages now teem over with single young men but few, if any, marriageable women. Gone is the familial culture that lies at the heart of traditional Chinese society. The government is fearful these villages could pose a threat to social stability, fostering sexual violence, anti-social behavior, prostitution, and sexually-transmitted diseases like syphilis, HIV, and AIDS.

The Institute for Population and Development Studies in Xian Jiaotong University surveyed 364 villages in 28 provinces in 2009 and found that gender imbalances do have a negative impact on development and safety. Bachelor villages were left with fewer young people to care for the aged, and men were seen taking on more work, including tasks traditionally performed by females. It also found higher rates of crime against women, such as abduction, rape, forced marriage, and enslavement. But unmarried men were becoming victimized, too. Reports of women swindling men of their life savings with bogus marriage promises were commonplace, and rates of alcoholism, mental illness, and suicide amongst men were on the rise.

No one actually knows if gender imbalances in villages might presage political discontent. China’s history is replete with instances of single men playing an important role in peasant uprisings, such as the Nien, Taiping, Boxer, and Eight Trigrams rebellions. A growing list of polygamous party officials, like the one in the northern city of Taiyuan who was recently discovered to have four wives and 10 children, probably does little to assuage whatever resentment might be building towards the government. For the Party, building socialism in the countryside once meant demonstrating what socialism has won for the rural poor. While socialism has brought a measure of dignity and security to villages, its promise of a better future, which burned bright during the time of reform and opening up after 1979, now seems to be dimming for single men.

The problem of gender imbalances is not new to China. It pre-dates the one-child policy, which has only contributed to the most recent cycle. At various times throughout its long history, China has seen more than one shortage of women. These have led to such practices as levirate marriages, exchange marriages, and child marriages. Today it seems unlikely that such practices would receive official sanction. The government prefers to sponsor educational campaigns to encourage parents to accept girls, but these have small effect. And there are other factors contributing to the current imbalance besides the one-child policy. Improved village conditions, for example, have reduced common childhood diseases, such as dysentery, which cause higher death rates for boys.

Possibly—perhaps inevitably—natural forces will bring China’s population back to equilibrium over time, as they have done in the past. Abstractly, the problem may be regarded as a manifestation of the tension between tradition and modernity, the cyclical dynamics of demographic shifts taking place as the old gives way to the new amid rapid economic change. For many barren branches, however, it speaks less of these changes and the government’s responses to them—responses with unpleasant surprises and that some researchers say were unnecessary because in 1979 the nation’s fertility rate was already in decline. To their minds, it speaks of something more concrete and unequivocal—fate and an unhappy lot in life.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s March/April 2013 print edition.