Zhang Peijuan, 58, scans the thousands of young men and women gathered in Shanghai Expo Park, looking for an eligible bachelor. “He should have a college degree, be about 1.75 meters tall, and property is a must,” says the retired researcher, who is seeking a husband for her daughter and carries three photos of the 28-year-old in her handbag. “When I see someone I think my daughter may like, I approach him for his contact.”
Zhang was among 38,000 singles and parents at the June 1 matchmaking event, Shanghai’s largest, as the city seeks to revive a birth rate that has collapsed to almost half the level of rapidly aging Japan. China’s richest city, leading financial center, and largest port will see marriage registrations fall 17 percent this year, according to official estimates. “Shanghai is at the frontier of these broad social changes, and this is what is happening across urban China,” says Wang Feng, Beijing-based director for the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy. “We will see it spread.”
China faces an urban shift that will shrink the pool of factory workers, who sustain economic growth, and expand the ranks of the elderly, who push up health-care and pension costs. Higher education levels, a focus on careers, and greater expectations are causing city-dwellers to marry later and have fewer children. Shanghai’s fertility rate—the number of children the average woman in the city will bear over her lifetime—was 0.79 in the year ended October 2010, about half the national level, government statistics show.
Better education opportunities have given more women the ability to choose their own partner, says Juemin Zhou, director of the Shanghai Matchmaking Trade Association, the main organizer of the event. “In the past, women were match-made by their parents,” says Zhou. “Then, it didn’t matter how old you were, or if your partner was blind in one eye, you still had to get married. Now, if you don’t find someone suitable, you just don’t settle.”
The number of single Shanghai women in their late 20s tripled in the last 15 years, to almost one in three, according to the Brookings-Tsinghua Center. Nearly 40 percent of college-educated women between 25 and 34 in the city were unmarried in 2005, the center says. That compares with 6 percent for women with only a junior-school education.
“Both men and women tend to look 45 degrees upwards when searching for a partner,” says Gong Haiyan, co-chief executive officer of China’s largest online dating agency, Jiayuan.com, with 62 million members.
When Gong founded the website nine years ago, female customers listed owning a house as one of the nice-to-haves. Now it’s almost the main criteria, she says. Hansen Huang, 34, from Anhui province, agrees. “The first thing they look for is if you have a decent job, what is your salary like, if you have an apartment,” says Huang, who has worked in Shanghai’s information technology industry for 12 years. “Women are looking for a partner who can provide so they can live relatively comfortably.”
With a friendly smile, checked shirt, and glasses, Huang came to the fair with a friend “to give myself a chance,” he says with a chuckle. As he talked about the kind of girl he wanted—24 to 28 years old and 1.6 to 1.7 meters tall—two sets of parents came up to speak to him.
Like Huang, many in the crowd have relocated from other parts of China, a reflection of how Shanghai and other urban centers are making up for the decline in births. While Shanghai’s population rose 38 percent to 23 million in the 10 years through 2010, the number of migrants almost tripled to about 9 million, accounting for most of the increase, according to the last national census.
About 2,000 couples were successfully matched at last year’s event, says Zhou. This year parents studied profiles of single men and women in dozens of matchmaking booths around the park, including one decorated with pink feather boas. A typical poster read: “1.67 meter female working in a research field, born in 1983, looking for 1.77 meter male born after 1977.”
While some women now look to marry later, a younger bride is still considered the best catch. A survey by Jiayuan.com in Shanghai this year categorized women over 29 as “leftovers.” “Women can be very picky when they’re young,” says Huang. “But if you don’t sell when it commands the highest value, you may miss the golden opportunity. There are so many women for us men to choose from. We really have no reason to pick a 28-year-old when you can find a 26-year-old.”