Girl trouble

Can China’s economic problems be explained by the one-child policy?

Girl trouble

Looking for love, and a man with a very big car

“You don’t have a car, you don’t have a house/Don’t expect to get a hottie into bed.”

Not, as it turns out, the boast of a gold-toothed American rapper (or a delinquent English footballer). Instead, the lyrics of a music video released online by five amateur Chinese songstresses (who have taken to calling themselves the Golden Over-Aged Beauties).

Their unexpected hit was inspired by a song last year (this time written by a man) which lamented that bachelors were being grilled mercilessly on their financial prospects by their prospective wives.

The Over-Aged Beauties’ response quickly went viral (accumulating more than 1.5 million online views in two days, after being uploaded on March 8, International Women’s Day) and reiterates their expectations that a husband must prove himself to be financially secure.

In China, unmarried women of a certain age (historically that meant unmarried at 25) are classified as sheng nv, which means ‘leftover women’. But the ranks of leftover ladies have been growing, and are now of sufficient size to have become “a social force to be reckoned with”, says the China Daily. The number of sheng nv in Beijing alone is believed to exceed 500,000, for instance.

The Beauties’ fifteen minutes of fame also suggests that sheng nv are rejecting much of the former stigma attached to their labelling. This is no longer a bunch of desperate wallflowers. Social commentators say that the typical sheng nv embraces the ‘three highs’ – highly educated, highly paid, and highly independent – and that they are often single by choice. “I admit that I want a husband, but I won’t get married only for marriage’s sake,” insisted a 29 year-old sheng nv called Qi.

Forget being left on the shelf, the power dynamic is moving in sheng nv favour. WiC has written before about the gender imbalances in Chinese society, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences recently predicted that more than 24 million men of marrying age could find themselves with no marriage prospects by 2020.

The problem here: sheng nan – or leftover men.

Experts say the implications of the gender imbalance run much deeper, including a contribution to the global financial crisis. That’s because China’s demographic situation — 1.15 pre-marital-age men for every one woman — is a factor in the country’s high savings rate. The theory goes this contributed to China’s current account surplus and some of the pool of savings used to fund the glut of cheap capital which fed the housing bubble in the US in the lead up to the 2008 crisis.

“Do you have a car, do you have a house”, sing the Over-Aged Beauties, “My mum will be asking about the size of your savings account”.

According to Columbia University professor Shang-Jin Wei – one of those to propose the theory – the one-child policy creates intense pressure for the single child to marry and produce a grandchild. But a shortage of potential wives means that families with boys must improve their sons’ competitive appeal. So the sex-ratio imbalance has households wanting “to save to outcompete others in the marriage market,” says Wei. The thinking among households now? “If you reduce your savings, you doom your son.”

The corollary, of course, is that women have more bargaining power in the marriage market, another potential factor in the surge in sheng nv confidence.

In fact, demographers have been lobbying for reforms to the controversial one-child policy. During last week’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), one proposal under consideration was to introduce a two-child policy, says the People’s Daily. Wang Yuqing, a deputy director of the CPPCC’s National Committee of Population, Resources and Environment, told the newspaper that the new rule could be implemented as early as 2015 in certain parts of the country. But he doesn’t expect it to result in rapid population growth. After a generation of controls, it would not make that much difference to birth rates, he says. Other experts have predicted that birth rates among the wealthier Chinese would rise least.

Meanwhile, Liang Bei, the director of the Real Estate Research Centre at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics has a proposal to resolve the leftover men problem, albeit it one that might not curry favour with many of her younger male audience.

Also speaking at this year’s CPPCC, Liang proposed that 20-something women whose boyfriends cannot afford to buy a house should ditch their partners in favour of 40-something men who already have one.

“If they have the means,” Liangwent on, 20-something men “can then wait until they’re 40 and marry a 20 year-old [once they have a house].”

Presumably, the Golden Over-aged Beauties would give this proposal the thumbs up…

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