Male Singlehood
Over the past few decades, China has experienced an increase in unmarried young males aged 30 years and older. And this is especially the case in rural China. In the cultural context of China, marriage is a highly valued social norm, so there is a stigma that people attach to male singlehood. Rural men in China, who stay single in their late 30s, face the risk of being on the receiving end of mockery from their relatives. Although many young men in rural China are willing to marry, they are likely to suffer the experience of life-long singlehood, according to an exploratory survey. Here is some information about the link between male singlehood and poverty in rural China.

Harmful Customs in Rural China

The high cost of marriage is one of the leading causes behind the low rate of marriage. Low-income people in rural areas in China cannot afford to marry. As per the Chinese pre-wedding customs, the groom has to give betrothal gifts, including cash, jewelry and even motor vehicles to the bride and her family before the marriage. Most rural families make their livelihoods from agriculture and their recorded annual income was only 20,133 yuan (or 2,930 U.S. dollars) in 2022. However, the betrothal gift also called the “bride price” can cost tens of thousands of dollars which is 10 times higher than a rural family’s annual income. Therefore, low-income families cannot afford the cost of marriage.

In rural China, many believe that after daughters marry, they should transfer economic loyalties to their husbands. Therefore, many regard the tradition of “bride price” as the groom’s financial compensation to the bride’s family for raising their daughter. Old parents in rural China, especially those who live in extreme poverty, rely heavily on their sons to support them through old age. Considering these conditions, many rural couples have exercised gender selection by aborting female fetuses or even killing female newborns. As a result, the sex ratio in rural China increased to approximately 108 males to 100 females in 2021. The lack of women in rural China’s marriage market has increased the “bride price,” thereby imposing a significant financial burden on poor men who want to get married.

Women’s Education in Rural China

To solve the problem of male singlehood, suggestions point toward eradicating harmful traditional customs. The possible first step could involve elevating rural women’s socio-economic status. Women’s education could also be impactful. Since 1989, with the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) has launched the “Women’s Literacy Action” and the “Learning and Competition” campaign. According to a report by UNESCO, these programs have encouraged 200 million rural women to receive agricultural training and helped 1.5 million rural women to obtain agricultural qualifications and certificates.

These programs have enabled many rural women to receive education and skills training, increasing their workforce participation. Furthermore, these programs have helped women to realize that harmful traditions such as gender selection and betrothal gifts deprive women’s rights, and therefore, should have no place in society.

China’s New Cooperative Medical Scheme (NCMS)

In rural China, low-income childless single men have high financial risks. Over the past few decades, the Chinese government has been improving the elderly care and medical insurance system in rural areas. In 2003, the government launched the New Cooperative Medical Scheme (NCMS), an insurance scheme designed specifically for rural residents with the goal of “providing equal financial protection for all enrollees.” Its coverage rose from 11.63% in 2005 to 80.34% in 2014. Since 2003, it has helped hundreds of millions of rural residents reduce the risk of catastrophic health expenditure.

Looking Ahead

There are around 30 million unmarried men in China, mostly from poor rural communities. To solve this problem, China made great efforts in rural education and poverty reduction, with the support of international organizations such as UNESCO. While there is still a long way to go due to the scale of the issue, the progress so far offers a glimmer of hope.

– Chengyan Zhu
Photo: Flickr

North Korean Defectors in China
Every year, thousands of North Korean nationals attempt to escape their home country, fleeing from poverty, famine, forced labor and political persecution. Many smuggle into China, as it represents the best chance of escape in comparison to the highly guarded South Korean border. Unfortunately, once in China, defectors are hardly safe. The questionable legal status and vulnerability of these North Koreans make them uniquely susceptible to human trafficking, sex slavery, forced marriages, prostitution and more. These rampant human rights violations in China happen across the country, leaving hundreds of thousands of victims suffering in silence.

Living Conditions in North Korea

For many, the living conditions in North Korea are so grievous that they would rather take their chances in China than stay. According to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, North Korea has detained “an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 persons in political prison camps and an undetermined number of persons in other forms of detention facilities, including re-education through labor camps.” Regularly, authorities hold these citizens without any formal criminal charge, trial or conviction. Reports also indicated many cases of detention of accused persons’ family members.

Inside the prison camps, everyone from children to the elderly is “subject to forced labor, including logging, mining, manufacturing or farming for long hours under harsh conditions.” Children get little to no access to education and all prisoners face routine beatings, sexual assault, unhygienic living conditions and insufficient food or medical attention. Closing its borders, North Korea made it impossible to gauge exact numbers, but many do not survive this treatment.

Even outside detention facilities, living conditions are bleak. Since the Arduous March of the 1990s, millions of North Koreans have died from starvation. Largely attributed to a Stalinist economic system and Russia and China’s halted food and oil subsidies to North Korea after the Cold War, this period of sweeping destitution caused a massive spike in migration. Though the estimated rates of defection have slowed since then, starvation is still an issue across North Korea and a prominent reason for an escape to China.

Life in China

The pervasive human rights violations North Korean defectors face in China are appalling. Victims face sexual assault and kidnapping and are often part of perpetually abusive situations. A 2019 report by Korea Future Initiative alleges that tens of thousands of North Korean women and girls become a part of the sex trade and sale–an industry that generates roughly $105 million annually.

This report also revealed that “an estimated 60% of female North Korean refugees in China are trafficked into the sex trade. Of that number, close to 50% are forced into prostitution, over 30% sold into a forced marriage, and 15% pressed into cybersex,” according to Forbes.

Prostitution in China reportedly accounts for about 6% of China’s GDP. Cybersex trafficking is becoming a more prevalent issue, with girls as young as 9 years old becoming victims in front of cameras live-streaming to a global audience.

Forced marriage has long been a practice of abusers of this vulnerable population. China’s “long-standing one-child policy and penchant for sons have resulted in a massive gender imbalance, making it challenging for Chinese men to find wives.” The physical and psychological abuse of “bride trafficking” that victims face is often overwhelming.

What is more, victims of these atrocities are unable to speak up. A simple recognition as a North Korean national has dire consequences, primarily due to China’s ruthless repatriation policy. If Chinese authorities discover them, they forcibly return trafficking victims to North Korea, “where they are subject to harsh punishment, including forced labor in labor camps, torture, forced abortions” or even executions, according to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report. Many choose to endure the conditions in China rather than face retribution from their native country.

Legal Gray Area

The legal status of North Korean escapees is a major contributor to their unique vulnerability. They are typically classified between categories in international law that divide migrants into “deserving and undeserving groups–forced or voluntary, political refugee or economic migrant, trafficked or smuggled.”

North Koreans usually want to leave their country, making them arguably complicit with their smugglers. Therefore, many perceive them more like ‘economic migrants,’ defined as “smuggled” instead of “trafficked.”

The U.N. Protocol on Trafficking calls on governments to protect the victims of trafficking. However, as China classifies North Korean defectors as economic migrants, they do not make any protective efforts, instead opting for their notorious repatriation policy.

Refugee protections would almost certainly benefit these defectors. However, the U.N. defines a refugee as a person who has “fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and has crossed an international border to find safety in another country.” This definition does not include economic migrants, meaning that North Korean defectors do not apply the protections a refugee gets either.

However, according to UNHCR, the same people that China deems “economic migrants” could arguably be considered refugees “sur place” given the “well-founded fear of persecution” and grave consequences they would face upon their return.

All said, there is no perfect classification of North Korean defectors in China, leaving them to fall between the cracks of international law. With no protections, nowhere to turn for help and no resources, their abusers are free to act without consequence.


Some organizations have taken steps to help address these atrocities. The All-China Women’s Federation, an NGO headquartered in Beijing, has established ongoing projects to address and “alleviate the problem, including, in four provinces, the establishment of transfer, training and recovery centers” that have assisted more than a thousand victims to date. China has also hosted a number of Children’s Forums in Beijing to raise awareness for child trafficking, and in 2007, the government agreed to a Plan of Action Combating the Trafficking of Women and Children. 

Nonprofit organizations around the world, such as Crossing Borders and Liberty in North Korea, have done what they can to assist North Korean refugees. However, they are facing pushback due to China’s 2017 Foreign NGO law. The U.N. has called for this law to be repealed, stating it “can be wielded as tools to intimidate, and even suppress, dissenting views and opinions in the country,” E-International Relations reports.

While it is a relief to see governmental and non-governmental organizations taking steps to address this complex and distressing issue, advocates are calling for increased attention and an international response. Some North Korean escapees, such as activist Yeonmi Park, have amassed broad followings by sharing their harrowing stories. By uplifting the voices of these survivors and demanding action, the global community can make a vital difference in the lives of these individuals.

– Carly Ryan Brister
Photo: Unsplash

children's safety
The U.N. Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women has recently been coordinating with local leaders to create resource centers to educate young “left behind girls” in China on self-protection and sexual education.

China’s rapid economic growth has been driven by the manufacturing industry on the Eastern seaboard of the country. This combined with high unemployment rates in the Central and Western regions of the country, has caused a steady increase in families traveling across the country to find work. Because of a household registration system that only allows public school access for children in their home towns, many children are left behind while their parents pursue work.

According to a 2012 report from the All-China Women’s Federation, the number of left-behind children increased by 7.57 million since 2005, or 47 percent – a total of over 61 million children. Many of these children are left with extended family members or other villagers, but approximately four percent are left to fend for themselves.

Newly created spaces for children’s safety are looking to empower these left-behind children while giving them the knowledge to succeed. The program has so far implemented six centers that offer protection for children from abuse and sexual violence. Three centers that are community-based have established managerial groups, while the other three that are established in schools have teachers coordinating activities like reading, lectures and performances to educate left-behind children.

The U.N. Trust Fund and U.N. Women have been providing financial and technical assistance to help these centers achieve their goals. The U.N. agencies mostly provide technical assistance, with a focus on left-behind girls and increasing their sexual knowledge and self-protection. They also provide help in the form of national experts and a series of handbooks promoting education on these issues.

So far, the program has clearly had an effect in the areas where it has been implemented. By the end of 2013, 500 teachers, 5,000 students and 2,200 guardians had participated in training programs on awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse. With any luck, this trend will continue and more left-behind children will be given the education and safety they need to succeed.

-Andre Gobbo

Sources: UN Women, National Bureau of Statistics of China, Women of China
Photo: UN Women