How are China’s Unmarried Adults Impacting its Economy?
Two Chinese women pose next to a pond in a park © simpleinsomnia / CC BY 2.0 / Flickr
In recent decades, China has been witnessing a rising trend in the number of unmarried adults. According to data from Mckinsey Global Institute, in 2021 China’s unmarried population topped the level of 240 million (Woetzel & Seong, 2021). This rising consumption level among unmarried adults, especially those belonging to the upper class, has been driving a robust share of China’s economy. Industries such as dating apps, nutrition, and cosmetics have particularly benefited from this demographic trend. For instance, on the occasion of the 2021 “Single’s Day”, Chinese unmarried adults spent around US $ 54 billion on JD.com and US $ 84 billion on Alibaba. But who are these unmarried adults?
“Left-Over Women” and the Chinese Economy
The term “left-over women” first appeared in a 2001 Chinese newspaper that referred to them as a group of “highly educated, highly paid, single, and financially independent women of thirty (or more) years of age” (Cai 2017). In the following years, the media and the public began paying attention to this group of women, especially those who constantly postponed their marriages. However, the term did not become a household name until the year 2006, when the Ministry of Education included it in a ‘Chinese language situation report’. That same year, the All-China Women Federation defined the term, as a group of unmarried women above the age of 27 (Fincher 2014).
The label “left-over women'' was initially intended to persuade unmarried women to marry at an earlier age to fulfil their traditional responsibility. However, despite the rigorous campaign by state media to portray them as rebels of gender norms, they continued to thrive and, perhaps most significantly, also began to contribute heavily towards China’s economic growth (Vanham, 2018). According to the World Economic Forum, in the year 2018 there were 7 million young, educated, urban, single women in China. These women are one of the largest drivers to China’s growth contributing towards 41% of national growth, the highest amongst all regions including North America (Liu 2021). Not only are they a force for consumption, being the biggest consumers of elite brands like Toabo and Shangxia, they also constitute a valuable source of entrepreneurship, owning 30.9% of China’s businesses (Springer 2018).
Surplus Men and the Chinese Economy
In recent years, China has been witnessing the rising phenomena of ‘Guanggun’ or single men who are unlikely to find a wife in the future (Xu & Booth 2016). Whereas in the 1990s there was an almost equal number of women and men in their 20s, China’s average sex ratio has become highly skewed in subsequent years, reaching as high as 121 women to 100 men. And these numbers are bound to worsen in the next decades. In the words of sociologist Zhenwu Zhai, “there will be more than 30 million surpluses of men at marriageable age over the next 30 years”.
This demographic situation is already affecting the housing market, with Chinese cities with significantly higher housing price also presenting a higher skewed sex ratio. The constant pressure to acquire an apartment to enhance their relative competitiveness in China’s marriage and dating market has, in turn, resulted in higher savings levels among single men(Taplin 2022). Moreover, a rise in the savings rate tends to increase the rate of a nation’s trade surplus. Indeed, a2013 study showed that the increase in the sex ratio may have impacted around one-half of China’s rise in trade surplus (Du & Wei 2013. The gender imbalance hence tends to underpin a significant source of tension in US- China trade rivalry. However, both the parties have paid scant attention to the correlation.
The rising gender imbalance in Chinese society has also led to increasing unsafe workplace practices. Due to the shortage of potential brides, many parents have forced their sons to seek higher paying jobs even at the cost of endangering their lives. For instance, there has been rising demand for jobs in the mining and construction industries, which expose these young single men to hazardous situations, thereby contributing towards increasing their work-related mortality rate.
Are Chinese Men Acquiring Brides from Southeast Asian Nations?
Every year, thousands of girls and women from Southeast Asian countries are forced into marrying Chinese men who further exploit them for childbearing and sex purposes. Vietnamese official data reveals that around 3,000 children and women were trafficked to China during the 2012-17 period (Vu, 2018). Moreover, according to Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, around 7,500 women were forced to marry Chinese men to meet their family’s financial needs. The problem of forced marriage came under the deep international scrutiny in 2019 following revelations of bride trafficking along the China-Pakistan Economic corridor, one of China’s Belt and Road initiative flagship projects (Afzal, 2022). The cases involved fraudulent marriages between Chinese men and Pakistani girls and women mostly from marginalised and vulnerable sectors of the society. The Associated Press reported around 629 Pakistani women and girls were sold to China during the period of 2017-2019 (Aljazeera, 2019, p.1). However, these numbers could just be the tip of the iceberg of the prevalent bride trafficking industry in China.
What explains China’s highly skewed sex ratio? It all goes back to the year 1979, when the Chinese government launched an unprecedented “one -child policy” that penalised households exceeding more than one child. Since the implementation of the policy, it has successfully achieved its aim of decreasing China’s birth rate. However, with the passage of time this public policy began deeply impacting the gender balance ratio of Chinese society and led to phenomena like “surplus men'' and “left-over women'' (Lindberg 2017). In particular, the longstanding preference for a male infant has led to sex-selective abortions and practices like female infanticides, especially in rural areas, has furtherskewed the sex ratio. Moreover, the rapid rates of urbanisation and the shortage of women in cities have led rural women to migrate to urban areas in search of a prosperous life, leaving rural men behind.
What are the Prospects for the Future?
These past policies have resulted in one problem: China has too many men. These “left-over men” are more prone to commit violence than their married counterparts, which may in turn lead to a rise in crimes, especially rape and sexual harassment. Moreover, unemployed single men constitute a major share of China’s 150 million pool of migrant labour and are on average more likely to be involved in physical violence in factories and even attack the local population. Currently, there is a debate about whether China’s People Liberation Army should recruit these men so as to prevent them from turning violent.
Recently, China has begun to take steps to address its demographic problems, amending the decades-old “one-child policy” to “two-child policy” in 2015. Moreover, China’s Family and State Population Commission admitted that “the increasing difficulties men face finding wives may lead to social instability”. The rising awareness amongst the top leadership might save China from the potential hardship associated with soaring skewed-sex ratio. However, it remains yet to be seen what social and economic reforms the top leadership will take to save the Chinese economy from the dangerous fallout of a rising gender imbalance. Whatever the chosen solutions, it will take China many years to achieve a gender-balance ratio.