Implications for China’s Growing Group of Single Men

Posted: May 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Thoughts On... | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

china men(photo reference)

In the Nov/Dec 2010 Issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine, there is a fantastic article entitled “The Demographic Future” by Nicholas Eberstadt, where he introduces what the world of 2030 will look like from a demographic standpoint. As he explains:

“It is already possible to draw a reasonably reliable profile of the world’s population in 2030. This is, of course, because the overwhelming majority of those who will inhabit the world 20 years from now are already alive. As a result, one can make some fairly confident estimates of important demographic trends, including manpower availability, the growth in the number of senior citizens, and the resulting support burden on workers.”

Mr. Eberstadt spends a portion of his essay on China’s future situation, and he paints an outlook most people familiar with China’s demographic trends have known for some time: a doubling of the number of senior citizens, a shrinking of the younger working class, and rudimentary social welfare and pension systems that incapable of coping with the massive imbalance.

This coming reality is shared by the US and all developed nations, except China’s is pushed to the extremes because of its much larger population, much poorer per capita income, much lower education levels, and a more ill-equipped pension system.

Yet, for all these colossal national challenges, Eberstadt’s essay adds one more demographic trend unique to China that will have significant social and cultural implications:

“…China will face a growing number of young men who will never marry due to the country’s one-child policy, which has resulted in a reported birth ratio of almost 120 boys for every 100 girls…By 2030, projections suggest that more than 25% of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married. The coming marriage squeeze will likely be even more acute in the Chinese countryside, since the poor, uneducated, and rural population will be more likely to lose out in the competition for brides.”

Can you even begin to comprehend living in a society where 1 in every 4 adult men you meet will have never married, and not by choice? How could this change the social and cultural dynamics of China?

Here are some ideas to get you pondering:

China Old Marry Young

Men Marrying Younger Women

If a man cannot find a woman to marry in his peer group, perhaps he will find greater opportunity to marry a girl of a younger generation. By then, perhaps this man will have saved a little more money and may be desirable enough for a younger woman (and that young woman’s family) to consider. In fact, this is already a part of China’s reality today. It is quite common to meet Chinese couples where the man is 10, 20 or 30 years older than his wife. Chinese men are already putting off marriage until they can properly afford to provide for a wife and family. Chinese pragmatism and a continued income-imbalance based on gender play roles here. Perhaps the demographics of 2030 will show this trend to strengthen and become even more commonplace in the population instead of shrinking.

Sexuality in Question

There is great support on both sides of the argument as to whether Homosexuality is a genetic or social outcome. However, if you are persuaded that Homosexuality is in part influenced by social factors, then it is worthwhile to explore what impact such a large population of unmarried men might have on the issue of sexual orientation. There is already a thriving LGBT community and subculture in China, but as ‘coming out’ continues to find acceptance and support in the younger generations, will this significant gender imbalance have any effect on the perspective of the LGBT community in the China’s future mainstream consciousness?

Anger and Frustration

The prospect of never finding a life partner can be one of the greatest fears in a person’s life. In a culture like China’s, where the mainstream societal expectation continues to put heavy emphasis on progeny, family network strength, and family unit establishment as a benefit to status-building, for these one in four adult Chinese males, being single adds extra dimensions of undesirability. Deep personal anger and frustrations must inevitably be a byproduct of these societal pressures.

If these single men will be found predominantly in a single demographic – namely rural, poor and uneducated men – what we might see is the emergence of a distinct sub-group of people, or a new class segregation. An entire class of potentially angry, frustrated, relatively poor and uneducated single men can mean serious threats to societal stability, if this group builds a class identity that feels antagonized by society as a whole.  China’s history is full of examples when a group lashes out in defiance and/or violence. This potential new class of single, frustrated men will number in the tens of millions in 2030.

Resilience of Chinese Endurance

There are also a number of examples in history of the Chinese (and other Asian cultures) enduring harsh, distressed, unfair circumstances for generations. It speaks to the resilience and strength of Chinese culture in helping the particular afflicted group align its interests with the general collective society, enabling them to live out their lives enduring the pains of their life situation.

Perhaps this group of single men will not affect anything socially or culturally, but instead stay silent and endure their circumstance as other groups of Chinese have done in the past. For this to happen though will depend on the state and strength of China’s collective culture in the coming 20 years.

China Migrant Children(Photo Reference)


The Chinese government has been aware of these demographic trends for some time now. They have known, likely before the rest of the world did, that China’s fertility rate fell below the minimum population-replacement fertility rate (2.1 children per family) more than two decades ago.  So why hasn’t the government done anything if it can see the problems that may lie waiting ahead?

The more immediate challenges China faces must be addressed first. Enacting and maintaining the one-child policy alleviated growing pressures on agriculture and natural resources to give China a chance to shift industries and redirect capital into transforming China into an industrial nation and then a privatized economy. Without first accomplishing the short-term goals, China will never be in a position with the right resources to solve any longer-term issues.

Second, having a unified, single-minded governing body and a mass society that generally trusts and believes in the decisions of its government have its unique advantages. One of those advantages is the ability to enact sweeping and often extreme changes very quickly.  The Chinese government thirty years ago asked a nation to limit child bearing to one per family. It is not inconceivable that the same government can ask this same nation thirty years later to double its children – for the betterment of the society.

one child policy(Photo Reference)

While the official government rhetoric until now has been no changes in the One Child Policy, we are starting to see experimentation in a few selected demographics, and the creation of small policy loop-holes that are allowing more Chinese families to legally have more than one child. A good friend of mine who was a former UN officer working on the issue of China’s birth and fertility concurs with the expectation that China will sooner rather than later reverse its stance on the one-child policy and push some new form of incentive to drive birthrates up.

The question is whether the incentives will be enough. One of the biggest concerns facing Chinese families today is how to afford raising one child, let alone two. As one recent article from Reuters explains, some couples who have the opportunity to have a second child still choose only to have one as the costs of living and education are so substantial.  In our own research work at China Youthology, we observe an increasing number of young post 80’s and 90’s kids who say they have no desire to have any children at all. They simply are not interested in a life with parenting responsibilities.

This could all mean for the Chinese government, that something a bit stronger than incentives may be needed in order for fertility rates to rise again. If there is any country that has the political audacity and executional strength to do something so drastic, it is China.

However, for this coming generation of frustrated, single men, any policy changes now are too little too late. This emerging reality is almost here. The only thing we can do now is develop a richer and stronger Chinese culture so they can find some relief from any feelings of alienation or frustration. New initiatives that will help cohesion of family, community, and collective social units will be integral in enabling those unable to find a life-partner to cope and have other life-meanings to pursue.

If You Are The One China TV ShowIf You Are The One TV Show
Hunan TV””s “If You Are The One”, a massively popular TV show where one man tries to persuade a panel of 24 eligible single girls that he is husband-material.


5 Comments on “Implications for China’s Growing Group of Single Men”

  1. 1 Martin said at 8:38 pm on May 10th, 2011:

    A few remarks.

    First, the surplus in men does not seem to be uniquely Chinese. India experiences the same kind of problem, as sex rates of new borns are similar as in China.

    Second, I have thought about homosexuality as a solution to the gender imbalance too, but it seems a very unlikely path. At this moment, homosexuality officially does not exist, making its practice very hard. Besides, homosexuality, if accepted in China, would not only be something of men, but also of women. So no (or hardly) a solution there.

    Third, the one child policy, including its rhetorics (no rhetorics no change), has been undergoing chances practically from the moment it was invented. The 1 child policy nowadays is hardly a 1 child policy anymore. Minorities, rural families, and also couples who consist of two single children (which is almost everyone in the near future), are (in most cases) allowed to have 2 or even 3 or more children. So yes, the government does interfere with private citizen””s family planning, but the term one child policy is rapidly becoming obsolete (if it isn””t already).

    There is another possible solution for the gender imbalance problem that I can think of: allow women to marry more than one men. (A two men policy? ;-) ) However, this might be a little too much on the creative side for the Chinese government…

  2. 2 Schamotnik said at 2:38 am on May 13th, 2011:

    You forgot one – possibly more obvious – solution.. foreign women.
    While you seldom see Chinese men with western women, I have read about Chinese men who go to south east asia to find women..

  3. 3 Jin @HK Girl Talk said at 9:59 am on August 11th, 2011:

    Very insightful article.

    I agree with Martin that the One-child Policy is not really “one child” at all. Many Chinese families have more than one child by making use of the loop-holes of the policy and by going to Hong Kong to give birth to their children. Some of them even get divorced with their spouse just to give birth to more children, and get re-married after.

    Homosexuality is hardly a consequence of this trend, as far as I can see. Chinese men are not likely to come out because of the social layer and emphasis on sustaining their progeny. There might be some, but I don””t see it as a feasible solution to solve the problem.

    For the frustration of the Chinese men who can””t get married, I agree with you that those men might develop resentment to the society which creates defiance. Yet, the Chinese philosophy of endurance might ease out this effect a bit. In the future, who knows?

    More Chinese men are getting rich because of the booming economy and they are getting married with younger girls now. Young men who are still at the beginning of their career might just work their way up to climb up the social ladder. In the end, it might be like that girls getting married to older men while young men having no girlfriends.

    But yes, your article is very cool. I love it.

  4. 4 Ricky said at 12:16 pm on October 17th, 2011:

    One of the issues currently arising in Hong Kong is the large community of female helpers from the Philippines and Indonesia not being able to find romantic heterosexual partners. The latest trend being that many of the women have started homosexual relationships due to the lack of male suitors.

    Although conclusions cannot be drawn simply by this trend, it does, however, serve as a sample possibility of what could happen if large amounts of single sex communities arises. The assumption here is that if there were male suitors that the choice is still to find heterosexual partners. But the reality is that there is a need to be filled and to most filling it with any peg is better than none (no pun intended).

    On a slightly different note, although changing policies and laws may help to alleviate part of the problem, the root still lies in the cultural values and beliefs; that having a male is better than having a female child.

    Although I would prefer to remain politically correct and to write without bias, change cannot be made without a set of core values that are compromized . And for me, that belief is that both men and women are created as equals.

    We are made to desire human relationships and specifically romantic relationships. We are made for each other as a support and to fill in what both genders may lack. Progressive cultures are migrating towards over masculinity or feminism with a belief that one gender is capable of upbringing the next generation in a healthy manner.

    There can be other underlying reasons such as males in China may have more opportunities at bringing in income to the family currently. But still this place the value of a life on what he or she is able to be or earn rather than the individual.

    Although the hurdles are great and the obstacles are many, changing the perspective of China’s culture to valuing humanity rather than valuing gender is the country’s best long term solution.

    Despite my efforts this comment may be seen as casting judgement towards certain groups and for that I apologize. However, the issue arises from a core cultural value of favouring males. Addressing that issue will be more prominent than simply eliminating the one child law.

  5. 5 Ricky said at 12:18 pm on October 17th, 2011:

    I meant to say:

    “….change cannot be made without a set of core values that are NOT compromized.”

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