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More Chinese women choosing singledom as economy stutters

XIAN, China — Freelance copywriter Chai Wanrou thinks marriage is an unfair institution. Like many young women in China, she is part of a growing movement that envisions a future with no husband and no children, presenting the government with a challenge it could do without.

“Regardless of whether you’re extremely successful or just ordinary, women still make the biggest sacrifices at home,” the 28-year-old feminist said at a cafe in the northwestern city of Xian.

“Many who got married in previous generations, especially women, sacrificed themselves and their career development, and didn’t get the happy life they were promised. Living my own life well is difficult enough nowadays,” she told Reuters.

President Xi Jinping last year stressed the need to “cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing” as China’s population fell for a second consecutive year and new births reached historic lows.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang also vowed to “work towards a birth-friendly society” and boost childcare services in this year’s government work report.

The Communist Party views the nuclear family as the bedrock of social stability, with unmarried mothers stigmatized and largely denied benefits. But a growing number of educated women, facing unprecedented insecurity amid record youth unemployment and an economic downturn, are espousing “singleism” instead.

China’s single population aged over 15 hit a record 239 million in 2021, according to official data. Marriage registrations rebounded slightly last year due to a pandemic backlog, after reaching historic lows in 2022. A 2021 Communist Youth League survey of some 2,900 unmarried urban young people found that 44% of women do not plan to marry.

Marriage, however, is still regarded as a milestone of adulthood in China and the proportion of adults who never marry remains low. But in another sign of its declining popularity, many Chinese are delaying tying the knot, with the average age of first marriage rising to 28.67 in 2020 from 24.89 in 2010, according to census data.

In Shanghai, this figure reached 30.6 for men and 29.2 for women last year, according to city statistics.

“Feminist activism is basically not allowed (in China), but refusing marriage and childbirth can be said to be … a form of non-violent disobedience towards the patriarchal state,” said Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist based in the United States.

After decades of improving women’s education levels, workforce participation and social mobility, Chinese authorities now face a dilemma as the same group of women have become increasingly resistant to their propaganda.

Long-term single lifestyles are gradually becoming more widespread in China, giving rise to online communities of mostly single women who seek solidarity from like-minded people.

Posts with the hashtags “No marriage, no children” from female influencers often in their thirties or forties on Xiaohongshu, China’s Instagram, regularly gain thousands of likes.

One anti-marriage forum on Douban, another social media platform, has 9,200 members, while another dedicated to “singleism” has 3,600 members who discuss collective retirement plans, among other topics.

Liao Yueyi, a 24-year-old unemployed graduate in the southern city of Nanning, recently declared to her mother that she “wakes up from nightmares about having children”.

“No marriage or kids is a decision I’ve made after deep consideration. I don’t owe anyone an apology, my parents have accepted it,” she posted on WeChat.

Instead, she has decided to “lie flat” – a Chinese expression that means doing just enough to get by – and save money for future travels.

“I think it’s okay to date or cohabit, but children are a huge asset investment with minimal returns,” she said, adding that she has discussed renting a house with some female friends when they all retire.

Many of the women interviewed cited a desire for self-exploration, disillusionment with patriarchal Chinese family dynamics and a lack of “enlightened” male partners as the main factors behind their decision to stay single and childless.

Gender equality also plays a role: all the women said it was difficult to find a man who valued their autonomy and believed in equal division of household labour.

“There’s an oversupply of highly educated women and not enough highly educated men,” said Xiaoling Shu, professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis. Decades of the one-child policy have led to 32.3 million more men than women in 2022, according to official data.

“College-educated women become stronger believers in advocating for their rights and status in society,” Shu said. “Well-educated women in search of supportive life partners find fewer suitable men who also endorse women’s rights.”

While not all the women interviewed identified as feminist or viewed themselves as deliberately defying the government, their actions reflect a broader trend of Chinese female empowerment expressed through personal choices.

And even though some analysts believe that the number of people who remain single for life will not grow exponentially in the future, delayed marriages and falling fertility are likely to pose a threat to China’s demographic goals.

“In the long run, women’s enthusiasm for marriage and childbirth will only continue to decrease,” said feminist Lü.

“I believe this is the most important long-term crisis that China will face.” — Reuters

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