“Chinese People Unwilling to Get Married” – What BBC Forgot To Mention

Fewer people are tying the knot in China, the New York Times recently reported. The news triggered the hashtag “Chinese People Unwilling to Get Married” on Chinese social media. BBC News covered and contextualized the discussion in a recent article. But the article misses one incredibly important aspect of marriage in China, What’s on Weibo’s Ryan Myers says.

BBC News recently published an article titled “Chinese web users discuss hitches to getting married“, discussing a trend on Chinese social media hashtagged “Chinese People Unwilling To Get Married” (#中国人不愿结婚#).

The article by Kerry Allen discusses how Chinese social media users have been expressing doubts about the institution of marriage. The trend was triggered by a New York Times article published on September 11, that was subsequently picked up by Chinese media.

 

“Although the article has valid points, there is one major issue missing from this discussion.”

 

The original New York Times article states that Chinese people are increasingly disinclined to get married. Because of higher education and better-paid jobs, the financial incentive to get married allegedly is less important now than it was in the past.

According to the BBC, many Chinese social media users have expressed why they no longer believe in marriage. “The institution is not as relevant as it once was”, “marriage is not a necessity”, or “the cost of marriage is too high”, are amongst the reasons mentioned.

BBC contextualizes the comments by highlighting that China’s ageing population and former one-child-policy have led to an age and gender gap that leaves many men unable to find a partner.1

The article also mentions changing attitudes among young women, as there are many who want to pursue higher education and a career rather than to be financially dependent on a partner.

Although the article has valid points, there is one major issue missing from this discussion. The BBC stresses that there is not as much incentive to get married anymore in China, with people no longer “believing” in marriage, but they do not mention the fact that it is nearly impossible to register a newborn baby without a marriage certificate – which is a major reason for people to get married anyway.

In other words: the BBC article suggests that lowered marriage numbers in China linked to a general “unwillingness” to get married, while in fact people still marry (i.a. for the sake of having babies) despite their “changing attitudes” about the institution of marriage.

 

“Birthing a child out of wedlock is next to unheard of in China.”

 

The People’s Republic of China requires couples to be legally married if they want to have a child. This is related to the Chinese hukou or ‘household registration’ system. A person’s hukou basically is their geographic citizenship within China. One’s hukou is directly linked to one’s parents, city, town, and province, and determines almost all aspects of social welfare, including how much one pays to buy housing in their city of residence and the cost of education.

People without a hukou are called ‘heihu’, which translates directly to ‘black resident’. A heihu cannot apply for a national ID, and thus cannot have a mobile phone account, a bank account, or a health insurance policy, and cannot buy train or plane tickets legally.

Clearly, it is impossible to lead a normal life in China without hukou, and since a marriage license is required for parents to register their children in the system, birthing a child out of wedlock is next to unheard of in China.

 

“Any media that does not look at the policies behind negative emotions expressed via social media will not have a complete understanding of the situation in China.”

 

While many men and women in China express negative or ambivalent attitudes towards marriage and the accompanying social pressure to tie the knot, if these people truly wish to remain single, or unmarried in any other context, they are automatically forgoing the right to have a child. While many people complain about marriage as an institution, very few in China actually follow through on their gripes.

Perhaps the reason that people indeed complain, saying they do not wish to marry or they have negative feelings about the institution, stems from a deeper, often subconscious trend to self-censor. In a country where directly criticising government policies can have serious repercussions, it is much easier and safer to express views and opinions as feelings. Instead of criticising government policies on carbon emissions, for example, netizens are likely to talk about how depressing the grey air is.2

Complaining about China’s marriage system, or saying ‘the government should not let us get married to have children’, is something less likely to be found trending on Chinese social media.

Because of this indirect style of expressing grievances, any media that does not look at the policies behind negative emotions expressed via Chinese social media will not have a complete understanding of the situation in China, and indeed might be even so nearsighted as not to grasp a larger, more pertinent trend.

 

“Where are all those women who supposedly do not want to get married?”

 

It is, however, true that marriage rates have been declining in China. As the Chinese population is getting increasingly old, with a surplus of men on the lower end of the social scale, and a large number of educated and ambitious (“leftover”) women on the higher end of the social scale, and people getting married at a later age, it is not surprising that marriage registrations in China have been falling for the last few years.

Looking on Weibo, I found that there also were many netizens with other points of view than those expressed in the BBC article. One TV presenter wrote: “Chinese people unwilling to get married – these Americans are talking nonsense. What we as Chinese value most in life is family. But because the costs to get married and start a family are now too high, many young people are forced to work hard first. But to “start a family and make a career” (成家立业) makes sense. The family is our driving force and natural harbor. Making a career is a goal and a hope.”

Others also said: “This news is nonsense. This is one big generalisation. Where are all those women who supposedly do not want to get married? It’s not that they do not want to get married, it’s that they cannot find the right person!”

By Ryan Myers

1 Since it is mostly those at the lower end of the social ladder who stay behind, they end up in a negative spiral: they are already at a disadvantage for statistically not being able to find a wife, but because of their economic situation, they also cannot afford to buy a home for his potential partner – making them even less popular on the marriage market.

2 This type of expression may, at least with regards to social harmony, have a positive affect. After all, China has experienced much less social unrest in recent years than most western countries.

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Author

Ryan Myers is a teacher and Chinese language & culture specialist who has been based in Beijing for over a decade. Myers conducts professional workshops throughout China for Chinese audiences, ranging from professors in university to young students, and is specialized in cross-cultural teaching.

3 comments

Ryan,

I find your second footnote rather interesting in light of the context of your article and your explanation of the differences between Chinese and Western cultures. More specifically, I find it interesting to say that China has experienced much less social unrest in recent years than most Western countries; are you so sure of that?

I recall many different instances of social unrest, ranging from Wukan village to the Occupy movement in Hong Kong to petitions and protests against paraxalyne plants in various cities, to attempts to raise awareness of women’s issues on public transit (which led to the arrest of the Feminist Five) and criticism of the 2015 Chunwan and its obvious sexism/chauvinism, which quickly became censored by social media watchdogs. These are a just a few examples where people were vocal about the issues, and almost all of these in the past few years – this does not include food scandals, “Watch Brother”, issues in Xinjiang or Tibet, forced evictions, or many other similar issues that would result in what we could call (whether local or national) “unrest.”

My point is that a lot of the social unrest/disharmony is quietly swept under the carpet or ignored by media based on the government’s desire to maintain the appearance of social harmony (call it mianzi writ large) or to keep people from actively thinking about it or speaking about it in large forums. Within the Chinese context though, there is plenty of unrest, equal to many Western countries – just not as publicized.

‘the government should not let us get married to have children’
I think you mean ‘make’ instead of ‘let.’ Were you translating from Chinese (让)?

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