Economist calls for lowering China’s minimum marriage age

Call comes amid growing concern over falling birth rates and shrinking population.
By Chen Zifei and Gao Feng for RFA Mandarin
2023.02.09
Economist calls for lowering China’s minimum marriage age A wedding couple takes shelter from the rain as visitors pass through the popular Nanluoguxiang alleyway in Beijing on Saturday, July 3, 2021. Credit: Associated Press
Photo: RFA

A prominent Chinese economist has called for the government to lower the minimum age at which couples may marry in a bid to boost dwindling birth rates around the country.

Ren Zeping, an economist with a large number of followers on Weibo, said the move would serve to shift people's thinking after decades of family planning policies that encouraged late marriage and child-bearing in a bid to curb population growth.

"Lowering the legal age for marriage would be to return power to the people, to give them back their right to choose," Ren wrote in a post to his Weibo account, suggesting that the minimum age for women be lowered from 20 to 18. The minimum age for men is 22.

"People should be able to choose independently. There’s no need to force them to marry at 18,” he wrote, addressing online comments that feared the authorities would start pushing people to marry earlier if the legal age was lowered.

Widespread rights abuses around forced abortion, forced sterilization and the often violent enforcement of birth quotas that was widely reported during the "one-child policy" between 1980 and 2015 has left many concerned that similarly oppressive measures could be used to “encourage” more births now that the population is shrinking.

That policy was an attempt to slow the country’s population growth and manage economic development, although in 2021 the government said couples could have up to three children.

Fewer marriages

Marriage rates have been falling rapidly in China over the past decade, with approximately 7.64 million marriages registered in 2021 compared with 8.14 million marriages in the previous year.

An aging population, a gender imbalance following decades of selective abortion, the high cost of raising a family and changing notions of what marriage should be are all driving the trend, according to Ren, who called for subsidies to help house and support young families, more relaxed rules on adoption and for single women to be allowed to have children.

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Children play with bubbles at a park during the Dragon Boat festival holiday in Beijing, China, June 4, 2022. Credit: Reuters

Last year, China's population fell for the first time in over 60 years, with 9.56 million babies born compared with 10.41 million deaths, according to data published by China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

It was the first decline since 1961, the final year of the famine brought on by failing economic policies during Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward,” the campaign to transform China from a mostly agrarian society into an industrial one that ended in disaster.

‘Definitely not a good idea’

Former high school teacher Guo Jian said allowing even younger teenagers to marry would be a mistake because they aren’t mature enough.

"It's definitely not a good idea," Guo said. "Kids these days may be quite precocious in some respects, but they come very late to shouldering responsibility."

"An 18-year-old is still a child – even 23 or 24 isn't a very good age [to marry], because people still want to have fun," Guo said. 

Guo said his sister's family were happy with a single child, because they don't want to lower their standard of living any further.

"For me, it's a financial issue, because I already have two boys, and that means pressure in China because you have to pay for them to buy a home and to get married," Guo said. "I would need to be in a much better financial situation to have another kid."

Current affairs commentator Fang Yuan said Ren appeared to be viewing population issues as primarily economic, rather than driven by real-life stories.

"It's pretty blatantly regarding people as tools for running the country," Fang said. "It's about farming humans for their labor and the concept of added value." Ren ignores a series of problems that would crop up if women were allowed to marry under age 18, he said.

Link to political suppression?

A number of provinces and cities have followed up with falling birth rates since last year's population figures were published, with the southwestern megacity of Chongqing reporting fewer than 200,000 new births last year for a population of 31 million, and many other cities and provinces reporting drops of around 10% in their birth rates.

Health rights activist Lu Jun, who now lives in New York, said he believes people's unwillingness to have children is linked to political and social changes under Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

"Xi Jinping broke with the system of presidential term limits ... and there has been [widespread] suppression of public speech, freedom of association and public interest lawyers," Lu said. "The political ideas of an entire generation are being suppressed ... which has left people with a very strong sense of insecurity."

"There have been cases where local government officials have used the children of people who try to stand up for their rights in local communities to put pressure on them," he said. Radio Free Asia has reported on several cases of the children of activists being denied access to schooling in recent years.

"People don't have enough trust [in the future] to have kids, because it's hard to imagine there will be a bright future for them in [China]," Lu said.

Running away

Lu said many younger middle-class Chinese are leaving the country in a bid to give their families a better life overseas, which has also had an impact on birth rates.

"It's become quite common for Chinese people to ‘run’ in recent years, particularly as the zero-COVID policy and lockdowns made life unbearable for them," he said. "A lot of people are voting with their feet and for a brighter future for their kids."

Economic commentator Jin Shan said there is little hope of economic prosperity either in today's China.

"Economic development, internal reform, and opening up to the outside world have become a thing of the past," Jin said. "There has been far more attention paid to the consolidation of state power in recent years."

"After three years of intensive pandemic restrictions, it can be said that the economy is on the brink of collapse," Jin said. "The developments of the past 10 years, especially the last three years, have dealt a fatal blow to China's middle class."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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