SHANGHAI: Last year, as her career took off following her move to Shanghai, China’s financial capital, finance executive Zhao Miaomiao felt it was time to look for a significant other.
So she went on a series of blind dates. Using a dating app, she met “quite a lot” of guys in person — more than 100 — within three to four months.
After they all struck out with her, she “realised that finding a partner is a really difficult task”.
“The first thing (guys) look at is whether the woman is attractive. And then they proceed to understand her personality and family background,” said the 28-year-old.
“However, … (women) prioritise the sincerity of the man. For example, they hope that the man who pursues them demonstrates effort and sincerity.”
Over in Beijing, media executive Liu Shutong has a boyfriend, but “it doesn’t matter” to her whether she gets married or not in future.
Among the urban youth, 44 per cent of Chinese women do not plan to marry, compared with nearly a quarter of the men, according to a 2021 survey conducted by the Communist Youth League.
While a decline in marriage has become a global phenomenon — almost 90 per cent of the world’s population live in countries with falling marriage rates — and the reasons can be complex, there are also particular factors in play in China.
The programme Insight finds out what is getting in the way of young Chinese finding love, and the different ways the authorities — and parents — are trying to reverse the trend.
A GROWING MISMATCH
One person who can offer an insight into why young Chinese are not coupling up is professional matchmaker Qian Lei, 27.
WATCH: Love(less) in China — Why aren’t young Chinese getting married? (45:53)
“In general, if a man tries to find a partner in the matchmaking market, he may say he doesn’t need a rich or beautiful woman, but he’s actually picky,” she said.
“He’s looking for someone who gives him a good first impression, and this is when he becomes more selective.”
As to why girls may reject a guy, it may be “because he doesn’t meet their height requirements”, said Qian. “Girls tend to value height a lot, and they often prefer guys who are at least 1.7 metres tall.”
Such eligibility “criteria” may seem superficial but are one aspect of the changing views on love and marriage in China.
The country’s rapid development has also created a mismatch between what men and women want in marriage, with China’s social conservatism at odds with decades of female empowerment.
“China’s transition from traditional to modern values has been very short. Other countries and regions may have taken 50 or 100 years, but we’ve experienced this phenomenon in just 20 to 30 years,” said sociologist Zhu Hong at Nanjing University.
The difference between what men and women want is especially clear in the cities, added Hang Seng Bank (China) chief economist Wang Dan. “Most women are looking for love, and most men are looking for a wife.
“The difference in their purpose also causes a very different attitude. And we’ve seen a lot of frustration when it comes to closing the deal, on both sides, on whether they want to get married.”
More time spent at school and the focus on careers also mean a delay in marriage, which is common as countries develop.
But in China, this has led to the term “sheng nu” (leftover women), used to describe single women in their late 20s and 30s. They are deemed undesirable owing to fertility concerns over their age.
THE ONE-CHILD POLICY
China’s falling marriage rate could also be partly due to the one-child policy, which was implemented nationwide in 1980 and ended on Jan 1, 2016.
A whole generation of only children “grew up on their own”, noted Wang. “Naturally, they’re more individualistic than the previous generations.”
And according to one study by the Ohio State University, only children are less likely to get married, compared to those with siblings. Each additional sibling is associated with a 3 per cent increase in the odds of getting married.
The argument is that siblings provide children with opportunities to negotiate conflict at home, which could help in navigating friendships and romantic relationships later in life.
Only children are also likely to be more independent and value their alone time.
“In this generation, when it comes to responsibility, selflessness and compromise, they may lack these social skills.”
They may find a partner “too bothersome” instead. “That’s why there are so many young people nowadays who have cats and dogs as pets,” she added.
THE ‘MOONLIGHT CLAN’
As they chase individual desires, a growing number of Chinese youths are now calling themselves the “Moonlight clan”, or “yue guang zu”. “It usually refers to young people (who’ll) spend everything they earn every month,” said Wang.
“Some of them are also deeply in debt because they now have access to online borrowing, (with) platforms like Alipay (and) JD Finance.”
One of the youths who identify as part of the Moonlight clan is Liu. She told Insight: “People who spend all their money each month consider it normal not to have savings. And they don’t save.”
Their live-for-today attitude leaves them ambivalent about the future. And as they delay financial security, they end up delaying marriage.
“If you’re someone who lives a ‘pay cheque to pay cheque’ lifestyle, your potential partner might realise it isn’t a good fit,” said Qian.
“In a way, it can be (a challenge) for a Moonlight clan person to find a partner. After all, building a life together involves managing finances.”
There is also an argument that dating apps promote a hook-up culture, where users are interested in flings rather than something long-term. This has been Zhao’s experience, which led her to lament that guys “primarily consider” the sexual aspect.
She had thought using a dating app would be an efficient process because of the “large user base”. But the platform is not quite a godsend to the loveless in China.
“Dating apps give … the illusion that you’ll always have the next choice. Just swipe left, swipe right, then you’ll always have more choices down the line,” said Wang.
“It doesn’t necessarily create more happiness among couples or among the young generation. But I guess it’s one of these new realities that China as a whole has to (become) accustomed to.”
“This trend still continues … because for many of the urban young generation, they don’t have enough time to really get into the dating market (through) trial and error, basically,” said Wang.
Matchmaking corners can be found in major Chinese cities, such as Guangzhou and Shanghai. In Beijing, one famous spot is Zhongshan Park, which artist Hao Wenxi, 35, knows well because his father used to frequent its matchmaking corner.
Hao shared that he had been looking for Miss Right since his early 20s but was unlucky in love for almost eight years. “I met a lot of different people, but the chances of success were relatively low,” he said.
“I didn’t know how to date. I didn’t know how to (be) charming and be emotionally present. I might’ve only known that I earn more than you. I own property.
“It was really no different to dating 100 years ago — saying that you have cows and land.”
“The correlation between marriage and birth rates isn’t as strong (in Western society),” noted Wang. “People can still have children even if they aren’t married. … But in China, the correlation is almost 100 per cent.”
Besides conservatism, the Hukou system — the household registration system that allows citizens to access healthcare and education — is one big reason why. Until recently, only married women were allowed to register their children.
But last year, China’s population declined for the first time in six decades. And the falling marriage rate combined with an ageing population has the government fretting even more.
So authorities are trying various means to encourage marriage and childbirth, including efforts to control house prices.
By May last year, at least 13 Chinese cities were providing housing subsidies for families with multiple children. Local governments have also given one-time coupons to families for home purchases.
While China’s labour laws now require companies to pay extra for hours worked beyond an eight-hour working day, “when it comes to the execution stage, … the 996 culture is still quite prevalent”, said Wang.
“As a result, I think we’re now in this sort of … stalemate when it comes to the reality in dating.”
Many other Asian countries have tried ways to improve marriage rates, with more failures than successes. It remains to be seen whether China will buck the trend.
Zhao thinks it is “worth encouraging” youths who still believe in love. But for her part, she is having a break from the dating scene after using a matchmaker’s services on top of her use of dating apps.
“I want a high-quality marriage. But the people I currently know can’t meet my expectations. So even though they want to be with me, I still reject them,” she said.
“Being single is a good state for me right now. I enjoy my current single status, and I feel happy.”
Watch this episode of Insight here. The programme airs on Thursdays at 9pm.