This is a part of a Tea Leaf Nation series covering gender issues in today’s China.
On February 22, a report released by Internet portal Sina made waves among China’s youth. A post on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, attracted heated discussion: “According to relevant regulations, the first marriage of males aged 25 or older and females aged 23 or older are considered ‘late marriages.’ A bit of simple math shows that 2013 is the first year that some post-80’s (those born in 1980 or later) are turning 33, and the first year that some post-90’s (those born in 1990 or later) are of ‘late marriage’ age.” Over 400,000 web users discussed the topic on Weibo, and with print media covering it as well, the subject of “late marriage” has generated discussion on a variety of issues related to marriage, age, and gender roles in China.
Surprised by the airing of a well-known but seldom-discussed tension, many Web users shared feelings of melancholy and loss. Wrote Weibo user @糖糖咖啡物语: “If the post-90’s are already late to marriage, how can we un-married post-80’s survive?” User @New-姜浩 wrote: “I always thought of the post-90’s as little kids, and now I suddenly realize that post-90’s girls are considered late to marry…I am old, old, old, old. Time is a butcher’s knife!”
Many users shared other concerns, hopes and the feelings about bearing the “post-90’s” label. Some remained optimistic. Use @Grace-贞 wrote: “[Being one of the post-90’s]…however old we are, we should never lose our ability to be patient in waiting for and loving someone. We are still young, we should do what we are supposed to – trust in love, find love and pursue love.” User @资海小鱼 commented: “Marriage? No way. I just graduated from college, how can I afford to get married? Marriage is too far away and unrealistic for me. ‘Post-90’s’ has never sounds like praise, the elderly always see us as extremely frivolous, and I don’t understand why.”
But current regulations’ classification of some “Post-90’s” are “late” to marry collided with stereotypes surrounding the generation, whose members are seen as poor planners who lead lives that older Chinese might derisively describe as “non-mainstream.” User @李芬尼 mocked both his own single status and the seemingly out-of-touch policy: “I have lived more than 20 years. Though I have not achieved anything big, I have made one single contribution – by practicing the national ‘family planning’ policy and ‘late marriage, late childbearing’ policy, I have sacrificed by precious youth for the sake of the national strategic plan.”
In fact, several decades ago, late marriage was not considered a problem according to China’s so-called one-child policy. The concept of “late marriage” is addressed in the 1980 Marriage Law, in Chapter 2, Article 5: “Late marriage and late childbirth should be encouraged.” Though the age for late marriage was not set in the law, 23 years of age for women and 25 years for men has been the assumed standard at local levels, and has been used in such documents as the Population and Family Planning Policy of Beijing (Chapter 3, Article 16), published in 2003.
Although the original purpose of the Population and Family Planning Policy was to curb population growth by encouraging late marriage, policy-makers today have far different concerns. A recent letter signed by many prominent academics in China has also pointed out that China’s population will begin to shrink in ten years, even if its one-child policy were to be scrapped immediately. Faced with an aging population that may begin shrinking very soon, China has a vested interest in hurrying its post-90’s citizens into marriage.
In 2012, the National Population and Family Planning Commission and Jiayuan.com, an online dating website, conducted a survey on marriage with approximately 80,000 participants. Results showed that while 52% of the women respondents believed owning a house to be a prerequisite for marriage, 41% of all respondents believed that men should be financially responsible for the majority of household expenses–another 40% believe the burden should fall on whoever is financially better off. Whether this schism is due to traditional ideas about gender roles or China’s gender imbalance, the reality is that bachelors are under great pressure when it comes to buying a home. In fact, according to a CNN.com report based on a study by Columbia University Professor Shang-Jin Wei, 48% or (US$8 trillion worth) of the rise in property values across 35 major cities in China is linked to the country’s gender imbalance.
With pressure on men to buy property – and on women to help them – men are more than twice as likely to have legal sole or joint ownership of property as women, with two-thirds of men owning property compared to only one-third of women. Due to this imbalance in financial security, men have more leverage and more options in romance and relationships.
China’s gender imbalance means that more men than women between the ages of 25 and 29 are unmarried. But men in this group are not marrying women of their own age, instead searching for younger partners. Women aged 27 or older, according to the Chinese government and many media outlets, are “leftover,” less likely to find matches than their younger counterparts.
Becoming “leftover” has long been a source of anxiety among women from the post-80’s generation, but the blogosphere has shown strong pushback against claims that post-90’s are already late to the altar. Many saw through the buzzwords of ‘late marriage’ and ‘leftover’ to the heart of the matter.
Weibo user @MaDingMaLittleTiger wrote: “If the post-90’s are not in a hurry to get married, real estate won’t sell, and then developers won’t buy up property. The marriage industry will slow down, and lawyers will be afraid that with all these late marriages, people will be mature and less likely to divorce. All kinds of industries will cease to make money, and tax revenues will decrease. Without tax revenues, and unable to sell property, our leaders won’t have the excellent results they want or a high GDP. Therefore, post-90’s must be late for marriage, whether or not you’re in a rush to do it. It’s a serious social problem!”
Media and the government continue to emphasize issues like “leftover women” and “late marriage,” but critical discussion of the subjects by Internet users shows that Chinese are no longer taking these buzzwords at face value. “Sometimes,” wrote Weibo user @jiuyue2010, “Our anxieties are the product of outside forces.” As time goes on, the post-90’s late marriage crisis, both real and imagined, will continue to shed light on China’s larger issues.