In North America and Western Europe, the past forty years have seen a radical shift in the marriage market. Before, there were too few single men, particularly past the age of 25. Now, there are too many at all reproductive ages … and even beyond.
A similar shift has occurred in East Asia, in part for similar reasons. First, with the dramatic reduction in male mortality, especially male infantile mortality, the sex ratio at birth (normally 105 boys per 100 girls) now persists to 50 years of age and beyond. Second, with liberal divorce laws, older men can more easily re-enter the marriage market and remarry with younger women. Finally, there is a synergy between these two trends. With many more men living into their 40s and 50s, younger men have to reckon with a source of sexual competition that never existed before.
But East Asian societies face another reason for the steady rise in the ratio of single males to single females: a higher sex ratio at birth. To begin with, this ratio seems naturally higher among East Asians, i.e., in the range of 107 males / 100 females. As elsewhere, this higher ratio is now lasting well into adulthood.
To make things worse, the sex ratio at birth has been steadily rising in some East Asian countries because many parents are now using ultrasound technology to abort female fetuses. In China, this ratio has risen from 1.07 in 1980 to 1.18 in 2005 (Poston & Zhang, 2009). Similar increases have been reported from South Korea and Taiwan (Hudson & Den Boer, 2002).
The result? A worsening wife shortage throughout much of East Asia. With not enough prospective brides in their home countries, more and more East Asian men are looking elsewhere. In South Korea, international marriages rose from 4.8% of all marriages in 2001 to 13.6% in 2005. In Taiwan, the rise has been even more dramatic: 32% of all marriages in 2003.
Unlike the situation in North America and Western Europe, governments are recognizing this problem as something to be dealt with and not simply ignored:
In both Korea and Japan, there is concern to maintain ethnic homogeneity, which leads to a basically conservative stance by the government with regard to international marriages, but at the same time in both countries, there are groups of men who are seen to be missing out in the domestic marriage market (in particular, the low educated, and farmers in certain regions of the country) who are seen to require assistance in finding brides internationally. The end result is interesting: the promotion in Korea of marriages between Korean farmers and Korean Chinese women who, although foreigners, are at least of the same ethnicity […]; the involvement, in Japan, of local government in mail order bride programmes in areas such as rural northern Honshu where there was a perceived crisis in the marriage market … (Jones & Shen, 2008)
East Asian governments thus tend to promote international marriage while ensuring that the brides-to-be are physically and culturally similar to their own populations. Unfortunately, the pool of ethnically similar women lies almost entirely in China, which itself is facing a wife shortage. In the not-so-distant future, the Chinese government will probably halt this emigration, or it will simply dry up of its own accord.
What then? Will East Asian governments allow their bachelors to look farther afield? Or will they attack the problem at its source? Will they start paying women to have daughters in order to bring the sex ratio back to parity?
In this, China is in the worst situation. On the one hand, it has the most unbalanced sex ratio in East Asia. On the other, its bachelors are poorly positioned in the international marriage market, since they earn much less money than do bachelors in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Where can they go to find wives?
The most likely place seems to be sub-Saharan Africa, with Ethiopia being especially likely. With their relatively light skin and fine features, Ethiopian women seem to be the most attractive candidates. Chinese entrepreneurs are also well established in that country. This topic came up on an online thread about Chinese-Ethiopian marriages. One Chinese commenter wrote:
In China the Ethiopian women is revered as a Holy God. Every day we say prayer that God will send us an Ethiopian woman for marriage so that our children are smart, beautiful, and clever like Ethiopia.
Two Ethiopian commenters added:
Nice.. Heheh but i think Ethiopian woman date chinese. If you go and see Ethiopia, many chinese dating Ethiopian…. 🙂
Overall, considering the shortage of brides in China, I am all for Sino Ethiopian pact to have as many intermarriages as possible.
If the example of South Korea and Taiwan is any indication, African bride immigration to China should increase exponentially and level off only when the ‘market’ reaches saturation. And remember: China has 29-33 million young surplus males (Hudson & Boer, 2002). Bachelors tend to look for foreign wives when they have friends and acquaintances who have already gone this route, i.e., the ‘effect of example’. There is thus a strong potential for exponential growth with no immediate limit, other than the limits imposed by the Chinese government.
And it’s unlikely that the Chinese government will impose any. First, any restrictive legislation would be seen as being racist by a continent that supplies a growing share of China’s raw materials. Second, the Chinese government tends to see international marriages positively, both as a form of ‘soft power’ to increase influence abroad and as a way to reduce discontent among young Chinese bachelors.
Thus, in the near future, we may see the emergence of a partly African minority in China, numbering perhaps in the tens of millions. This is all the likelier because the African brides will tend to have higher fertility than native Chinese women. Of course, the Chinese government could step in to enforce the 1-child policy, but this policy is only weakly enforced now and any efforts to toughen enforcement would be perceived as being racist … not only by the couples involved but also by China’s suppliers of raw materials.
With China being constrained by the dictates of the global marketplace, in this and in other areas of domestic policy, we may eventually see a nasty reaction against globalization that pits the Chinese people against their government and their increasingly globalist business class. At the very least, China will enter a social environment where racism and colorism are real day-to-day concerns, and not simply theoretical ones.
Hudson, V.M. & A.D. Boer. (2002). A surplus of men, a deficit of peace. Security and sex ratios in Asia’s largest states, International Security, 26, 5-38.
Jones, G. & H-H. Shen. (2008). International marriage in East and Southeast Asia: trends and research emphases, Citizenship Studies, 12, 9-25.
Poston, D.L. & L. Zhang. (2009). China’s unbalanced sex ratio at birth : how many surplus boys have been born in China since the 1980s? in J.D. Tucker & D.L. Poston (eds.) Gender Policy and HIV in China, The Springer Series on Demographic Methods and Population Analysis 22.