CHINA: Factory worker Wang Haibo is single, lonely and looking for love. But in a country with 34 million more men than women – more than the population of Malaysia – his search has often ended in disappointment, heartbreak and rejection.
“The women’s expectations are high … They’re spoilt for choice,” he lamented. “Sometimes you take the initiative to contact them, but they’d tell you they’re not willing to go out with you (on a date).”
Referred to as China’s “leftover men”, bachelors like Mr Wang, 28, face a future in which even more men will be chasing too few women.
These unmarried men are also called guang gun, “bare branches” in Chinese – or the “biological dead ends of their family tree”, explains Ms Mei Fong, author of the book One Child.
China’s gender gap – one of the biggest in the world – is approximately 118 males to 100 females, compared with the average sex ratio of 105:100.
With the reversal of the one-child policy, there is hope that this gender disparity can be redressed.
But as the programme Insight discovers, if the imbalance is not resolved, there would be consequences not only for Chinese men and their parents but also for the country at a macro level, socially and economically. (Watch the episode here.)
COST OF ONE-CHILD POLICY
Three years have passed since the one-child policy was dropped, but the scars run deep, the recollections are still raw and its impact will only get more serious.
Mr Li Shunming and his wife Dai Ronghua, who sell fresh produce in Jiangsu province, were expecting a third daughter in 1995 when the local authorities came looking for them. The couple escaped, but the police took everything they owned.
Said Mr Li: “They tore down our home. They went up to the roof and tore away the tiles one by one.” His wife added:
They reduced the house to a hole in the ground. All the walls were stripped.
The strict enforcement of the policy drew outrage, especially in the countryside, where people could not afford the fines.
Women were dragged out of their homes to abort their baby in hospital. Photographs of mothers lying in clinic beds after a forced abortion reflect how cruel the one-child policy had been.
These extreme measures, coupled with Chinese society’s preference for sons and the accessibility of ultrasound scans for sex selection, led to a systematic elimination of baby girls.
Mr Xing Gengshan, one of an estimated 36 to 50 million volunteers recruited to report any violation of the policy, recounted: “The streets were littered with boxes. In those boxes, you’d find baby girls. Many were abandoned like that.”
By one estimate, 37 million Chinese girls were lost since the policy came into force in 1980. That surpasses the number of people killed in the major genocides of the past century.
Experts have warned that, by 2055, there will be 30 per cent more single men than women.
The gender imbalance is severest in rural farmlands, where women are leaving to search for jobs and husbands in the cities – leading to the emergence of “bachelor villages” across China.
In Qishan, a county in Shaanxi province, families with male offspring often compete for a bride as a result. Impatient parents also commonly engage matchmakers to find their sons the right life partner.
Farmer Xing Gengshan’s 32-year-old graduate son, for example, is already considered too old to remain single, in a village where the average marriage age for both genders is 20.
“As long as my son doesn’t settle down, his old man won’t be at peace because I haven’t fulfilled my duty as a father. I thought he’d have settled down once he secured a job upon graduation,” said the 68-year-old.
“I have a younger son. As long as the elder brother isn’t married, the second son will drag his feet too.”
WATCH: Men in China who live in 'bachelor villages' (Dur 4:44)
Playing cupid has been a challenge for matchmakers like Mr Wang Luxi, who has been in this business for 17 years.
“It has been a tough job … The success rate has constantly been declining since 2010,” he said. “In this village, there are dozens of young men but only one or two young women left.”
He has many customers in need of a daughter-in-law but too few customers looking for a son-in-law.
NO MONEY, NO BRIDE
Scarcity has also given families of eligible girls more bargaining power to demand that potential suitors own at least a car and a house in the city, otherwise “they won’t even consider meeting him”, said the matchmaker.
Which is bad news for Mr Wang the factory worker, who hails from Qishan. And it is adding to his desperation. “I saw my friends getting married over the years, and I realised that I’d reached the age to marry,” he said.
His worried mother Zhao Xue knows that the longer he waits, the harder it would be to find a wife. The matchmaker she engaged has shown her the candidates on his list.
She said: “There were only two girls against 50 boys on that list. Those two girls were highly educated; they either attained a master’s or a bachelor’s degree. I was shocked to see the high demands they had set.”
In Hainan province, China’s largest island, the gender ratio is the most disproportionate in the country: About 130 men to every 100 women.
Mr Zuo Yahe, 57, lives here with four nephews. And poor, unmarried men like him are often viewed as an embarrassment to the family and the community in a culture where wealth is emphasised and often used as a marker of one’s social status.
He once dated a girl when he was teenager, but they broke up because he was regarded as too poor.
“I didn’t dare bring her home,” said Mr Zuo, whose small home had a straw roof. “So I didn't continue to pursue her. Someone else courted her.”
He dropped out of high school and started working at a watermelon farm in a neighbouring village. As time passed, he lost all motivations for finding a soul mate, and many of the women also left to get married elsewhere.
But it is not just the men who are being left behind. The progress achieved by women in education and employment have led to a phenomenon called “sheng nu”, which refers to “leftover women” who are in their late 20s onwards.
At the age of 30, Ashley, who declined to give her full name, is a senior executive at a public relations firm who should have no shortage of suitors. But she is willing to wait.
“I don't want to be bound by expectations of what I should be doing at this age, like once I'm 30, I should be looking for a man,” she said. “Those aren’t the kinds of values of my generation.”
While she accepts that a man raised in the countryside might still be interesting to a city-born woman like her, she would rather not take any chances.
She has a friend who married a man from a farming background, but her family did not respect him, and that affected their relationship.
Said Ashley: “Having seen such an example … I think it would be easier to be with someone of a similar background. It would be easier for our parents to get along.”
As a growing number of empowered urban women like her tend to “marry up”, men at the bottom of the social scale – the less-educated farmers or factory labourers who hail from rural villages – are losing out even more.
“We’re left with men outnumbering women by the tens of millions in the rural areas, while the cities are filled with leftover women,” noted Dr Jiang Hongyi, the vice dean of Hainan University’s School of Politics and Public Administration.
“Under these conditions, it’ll be harder for more men to find partners.”
PRESENT AND FUTURE PROBLEMS
So has the reversal of the one-child policy come too little, too late? What will happen to China’s single men, and what might the country be like in 2050 if the government today fails to address these demographic trends?
Ever since the policy was enforced, there has been a contraction in the fertility rate. The nation is also ageing at an unprecedented pace.
In 1980, China’s median age was 22, a population profile that helped power the country's economic boom. Today, that figure is 37, and by 2050, it will rise to 49.
Currently, 10 per cent of the population is aged 65 or older, but by 2050, that will increase to about 26 per cent, higher than most developed countries. The large number of bachelors will only exacerbate the problem.
“They’re not contributing to our future population growth. This will add pressure to our ageing population problem, as many of them won’t have anyone to care for them in their old age,” said Dr Jiang.
In this situation where males outnumber females in the country, many unmarried men go abroad to look for their prospective brides, such as those from Vietnam. But the demand for foreign brides belies a sinister trend: Human trafficking.
This is a serious problem in China, where women are sold to men mostly in rural areas and particularly in the poorer regions. Many farmers see “buying” a foreign bride as cheaper than paying a dowry for a Chinese bride.
While many Vietnamese women married Chinese men of their own free will, others have been forced to do so.
Chinese police rescued and repatriated 1,281 abducted foreign women in 2012 alone, most of them from Southeast Asia. In 2015, the Cambodian government also helped 85 trafficked brides to return from China.
“These illegal activities are becoming more common, and this could be destabilising to the society,” said senior research fellow Zhao Litao from the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute.
Although it is hard to establish a direct link between the one-child policy and crime, a study conducted between 1992 and 2004 showed that the crime rate had nearly doubled during that period.
It indicates that unmarried men “may represent a larger proportion of lawbreakers”, said Dr Zhao.
If we don't tackle the problem (of gender imbalance), if these tens of millions of men can't find partners of their own … (they) would be a huge social problem, to the point where it may affect China's economic growth.
He added that, in retrospect, the country should have adopted more socially acceptable and less disruptive ways to deal with past population challenges.
“In fact, the Chinese government in the 1970s encouraged later marriages, fewer births and also longer intervals (between) giving birth,” noted Dr Zhao, who believes that the situation today could have been better if this practice had continued.
NOT ALL GIVING UP
While the end of the one-child policy has met with widespread approval, the likes of Mr Zuo can only pray that his nephews will not end up like him.
“They’re still strong, they can do hard work, they should find a wife. I'm too old, so I’m not looking any more,” he said resignedly.
But all is not lost for the millions of young men who have become the by-product of a social engineering experiment.
China could, for example, start an aggressive campaign to encourage families to have more children, to make up for the shortfall. Single men could also try harder to upgrade their work skills and, in turn, prospects of finding a partner.
“China is modernising at a strong pace. If the bachelors in the rural areas can benefit from the modernisation of China and improve their lives, that would be an excellent solution,” said Dr Jiang.
With a gradual erosion of old habits and attitudes towards daughters, coupled with other efforts to bridge the gender ratio, there can be some hope. But unravelling traditional Chinese culture and 35 years of a controversial policy will take time.
Mr Wang is one who remains hopeful, waiting for his Miss Right to come along while the search continues.
“Sometimes it’s meant to be, sometimes you have to take the initiative or call up friends (for help),” he said. “If (potential dates) reject my proposal, I’ll have to try harder. I can’t give up.”
Watch the episode here. The programme Insight is telecast on Thursdays at 8pm.