China’s marriage rate rebound could be a fluke

Lianhe Zaobao correspondent Chen Jing notes that even though the number of marriages in China rebounded last year, couples could be making up for avoiding getting married this year for various reasons. Will the marriage rate fall back down this year, despite calls from the authorities encouraging young people to get married and have families?
A mass wedding in Sichuan province, on 13 March 2024. (CNS)
A mass wedding in Sichuan province, on 13 March 2024. (CNS)

My Chinese friends in their 20s were sceptical when they saw "marriages rebound for the first time in nearly ten years" trending on Weibo.

They said, “That’s because this year is considered unlucky, so everyone rushed to get married last year. Just wait and see, the number will drop back down this year.”

Driven by practicality and tradition

Statistics released by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs in mid-March show that China processed 7.68 million marriage registrations in 2023, an increase of 12.4% compared with 2022. This marks the first rebound in the number of marriages in China since 2013, exceeding the previous year by 845,000 and surpassing the 7.636 million recorded in 2021.

According to various media reports and expert opinions, there are several reasons for this rare rebound in the number of marriages last year. First, the strict epidemic prevention and control measures in 2022 affected dating and romance, resulting in the number of marriages falling below 7 million that year. The figure hit the lowest level in nearly 40 years, thus forming a relatively low base. The sudden lifting of epidemic prevention measures at the end of 2022, which led to a large-scale outbreak of the virus, also forced some couples to postpone their marriages until 2023.

Meanwhile, this lunar year is referred to as a “widow year” (寡年) or a “year without spring” (无春年) as it does not contain the solar term Lichun (立春), which traditionally marks the start of spring. Influenced by the folk belief that such years are not suitable for marriage, couples deliberately rushed to get married last year in order to avoid doing so this year. Some also decided to get married last year to time the birth of their auspicious “dragon babies” for this year.

... the population aged 16 to 59 had decreased by 10.75 million compared with the previous year, marking the fifth consecutive year of decline. In other words, the number of young people of marriageable age in China is continuously decreasing.

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A couple is seen during a pre-wedding photo session on a bridge in Shanghai on 6 March 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

With practicality and tradition at play, most people who were planning to get married did so last year. Since the number of marriages went up, it is expected that there will be more newborns this year, alleviating the trend of population decline.

However, this also means that the increase in newlyweds and newborns during this period is only temporary, and this year will most likely see another decrease in the number of marriages, leading to a further decline in the birth rate next year. Netizens keenly pointed out: “Last year was just an overdraft taken on this year’s marriages.”

Support from policymakers

The 2023 Statistical Communiqué on National Economic and Social Development released by the National Bureau of Statistics of China shows that by the end of last year, the population aged 16 to 59 had decreased by 10.75 million compared with the previous year, marking the fifth consecutive year of decline. In other words, the number of young people of marriageable age in China is continuously decreasing.

In addition, the China Population Census Yearbook also revealed that the average age of people getting married for the first time has also increased from 24.89 in 2010 to 28.67 in 2020, indicating a trend towards later marriages. All of these factors pose even greater challenges to China’s already grim population situation.

With China’s population declining for two consecutive years and the birth rate reaching a historic low, the ageing population is becoming an increasingly worrying “grey rhino” for the Chinese economy. In May 2023, China’s policymakers called for the promotion of building a society conducive to childbirth, to promote the long-term balanced development of the population.

Delaying or foregoing marriage or having children among the younger generation is a common phenomenon in developed economies. But China is in an awkward position because it is already facing this issue before it has fully become rich. 

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A wedding couple poses for photos on the beach at Xiamen, in China’s southeast Fujian province, opposite Taiwan’s Kinmen Island on 11 January 2024. (Greg Baker/AFP)

In October 2023, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping also emphasised the need to “actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing and strengthen guidance on young people’s view on marriage, childbirth and family”.

When Chinese Premier Li Qiang delivered the government work report two weeks ago, colleagues with children immediately noticed that the report included several new measures encouraging childbirth, such as improving childbirth support policies, refining parental leave policies, and increasing the supply of childcare services through multiple channels to reduce the costs of giving birth and raising and educating children.

Unfortunately, the press conference on people’s livelihood conducted during the Two Sessions did not cover the topics of marriage and childbirth. Indeed, the issue of marriage and childbirth is closely related to other economic and livelihood issues of concern, ranging from the economic outlook to the employment situation, and from property market trends to the distribution of education resources, all of which affect the younger generation’s attitude towards marriage and having children.

Ripple effect on other areas

Delaying or foregoing marriage or having children among the younger generation is a common phenomenon in developed economies. But China is in an awkward position because it is already facing this issue before it has fully become rich. 

Most of my young friends in Shanghai have already made up their minds to not get married even before they reach the age of 30. And they have similar reasons for not wanting to get married: slow salary increments and high costs of living. It is already a challenge to support themselves, let alone get married, buy a house and have children, which exponentially increases expenses. 

Only by strengthening the social safety net through the prompt implementation of practical measures can the people’s sense of security be improved and they feel less reluctant to get married and have children.  

Children carrying lanterns visit a park in Beijing, China on 24 February 2024. (Wang Zhao/AFP)
Children carrying lanterns visit a park in Beijing, China, on 24 February 2024. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

Most of them feel that they will be much happier and far more carefree if they were to stay single. Some female friends are also worried that having children would lead to workplace discrimination, and thus simply choose to “not marry and not have children to stay safe”.   

The involuted society has resulted in a “lying flat” generation, and the ensuing trend of declining birth rate is in turn affecting social development. Due to the decrease in births, the number of kindergartens in the country decreased for the first time in 2022, with further declines in 2023. Nearly 15,000 kindergartens were closed, and tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs. This wave of closures subsequently spilled over to elementary schools, high schools and even universities, dealing an even bigger blow to upstream and downstream industries.    

In the long term, this huge country, which has long enjoyed a demographic dividend, will face the challenges of declining industrial competitiveness due to a shrinking labour force, as well as reduced social vitality and limited innovation and research and development due to the declining youth population.

Studies have already found that the country’s ageing population could reduce the potential average annual growth rate of the Chinese economy by 1.6 to 1.7 percentage points between now and the middle of the century. This would undoubtedly slow down China’s pace of basically achieving socialist modernisation by 2035 and building a modern socialist power by the middle of this century. 

People visit a pedestrian street on the Bund in Shanghai, China on 14 February 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
People visit a pedestrian street on the Bund in Shanghai, China, on 14 February 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

With the myriad of issues that China has yet to resolve, it is unsurprising that the topic of marriage and childbirth was not the focal point of the Two Sessions. However, this does not mean that the urgent implementation of relevant policies can thus be overlooked. Only by strengthening the social safety net through the prompt implementation of practical measures can the people’s sense of security be improved and they feel less reluctant to get married and have children.  

The first uptick in marriage rate in nearly ten years is more of a wake-up call than a piece of good news. As the younger generation’s confidence in the future continues to wear thin, the next warning signal may not be the birth rate alone.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “透支结婚”.

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