NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 8, 2009

Thanks to its 30-year-old population-planning policy and customary preference for boys, China has one of the largest male-to-female ratios in the world.  Using data from the 2005 China census -- the most recent -- a study published in last month's British Journal of Medicine estimates there was a surplus of 32 million males under the age of 20 at the time the census was taken.  That's roughly the size of Canada's population.

Now some of these men have reached marriageable age, resulting in intense competition for spouses, especially in rural areas, says the Wall Street Journal.  It also appears to have caused a sharp spike in bride prices and betrothal gifts.  The higher prices are even found in big cities such as Tianjin.

According to a study by Columbia University economist Shang-Jin Wei:

  • Some areas in China with a high proportion of males have an above-average savings rate, even after accounting for factors such as education levels, income and life-expectancy rates.
  • Areas with more men than women, the study notes, also have low spending rates -- suggesting that many rural Chinese may be saving up for bride prices.

China's cultural preference for boys has resulted in a dearth of marriageable brides.  Some Chinese young women are scamming rural bridegrooms by accepting proposals and betrothal payments, then absconding with the dowry, says the Journal.

Customs dictate the groom's family pay the bride's family a set amount -- known as cai li -- while the bride furnishes a dowry of mostly simple household items:

  • In the 1980s, before the start of China's economic reforms, cai li sums were small (maybe several sets of clothes, for instance).
  • In the 1990s, cai li prices rose to several thousand yuan (about $200 to $400 at today's conversion rates), mirroring the country's growing prosperity.
  • But it was only starting in 2002-03 that villagers noticed a sharp spike in cai li prices, which shot up to between 6,000 to 10,000 yuan -- several years' worth of farming income.

Not coincidentally, this was also the period when the first generation of children since the family-planning policy was launched in 1979 started reaching marriageable age, says the Journal.

Source: Mei Fong, "It's Cold Cash, Not Cold Feet, Motivating Runaway Brides in China," Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2009.

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