Chinese city caps ‘bride price’ at US$7,450 to reduce wedding pressure
• Authorities in Puyang, Henan province, issue guidelines aiming to ‘curb high cost of betrothal gifts and change the custom’
• Families have been spending more in recent years, especially in rural areas where the gender gap has left millions of men struggling to find a wife
Friday, 01 February, 2019 Zhuang Pinghui scmp
Authorities in Puyang, in central Henan province, issued new guidelines on the practice this week, saying they aimed to “curb the high cost of betrothal gifts and change the custom”.
The average bride price in the city had reached 139,100 yuan (US$20,740), according to a survey bynewsaggregator Yidian Zixun last year.
Now, the value of gifts – usually money or property – given by a groom and his family to the bride’s parents has been capped at 60,000 yuan for rural areas and 50,000 yuan for urban areas.
China’s lonely bachelors spend thousands with Mekong bride matchmakers to save face and buy time
In Puyang, the average annual disposable income was estimated at 18,197 yuan in 2017.
For party officials in rural areas, a 30,000 yuan limit has been set for betrothal gifts, while it is set at 20,000 yuan for urban government employees.
The guidelines also advise families in the city to keep their wedding banquets to a maximum of 15 tables. Food costs should be kept under 300 yuan per table in rural areas and 600 yuan in urban areas, while cigarettes should cost 30 yuan a pack or less and they should spend no more than 60 yuan on a bottle of wine.
“Those whocontinueto accept expensive betrothal gifts will be publicly named and the authorities will crack down on them,” the guidelines say, without elaborating.
The Puyang government said the high bride price had put families under enormous financial strain and it vowed to “achieve some results” by 2020.
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The bride price is a part of Chinese marriage customs but it has become more expensive in recent years, especially in rural areas where the skewed gender ratio has left millions of men struggling to find a wife.
Until it was abolished in 2015, China’s decades-long “one-child policy” only reinforced a traditional preference for boys, leading to millions of girls being aborted or abandoned. According to a National Bureau of Statisticssurveyof unmarried people aged over 15 in 2017, there were 4,625 males to 3,060 females in China – or a male-female ratio of 1.5.
There were 42 million more men than women in the country that year, according to the WorldBank.
The rising bride price has not helped the situation for unmarried men. In Tangyin, Henan province, an argument over the betrothalgiftended with a groom killing his bride with a hammer on their wedding night in 2017. The groom’s family had racked up debts of nearly 300,000 yuan to pay the 110,000 yuan bride price and to cover the cost of the wedding banquet.
In other cities and counties, the authorities have already taken action. Last year, a community neighbourhood committee in Lankao county, also in Henan, capped the bride price at 20,000 yuan, saying people who paid or received more than that would be reported to the police for human trafficking.
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On social media, some were surprised by the Puyang government’s move.
“Some might feel that this is the family selling their daughter, but actually it’s not. They just use the betrothal gifts to pay for their son’s marriage,” one person wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
Others applauded the government for intervening, but some pointed out that there was a much bigger problem.
“Why avoid the issue – that the difficulty around getting married is caused by the fact there are fewer women than men? What’s the use in limiting the bride price?” asked one person.
Another said: “This is a regulation that has zero possibility of being carried out.”
China’s lonely bachelors spend thousands with Mekong bride matchmakers to save face and buy time
• Single Chinese men are known as ‘bare branches’, a pejorative term in a country where pressure to marry and extend the family tree is sharp
• A massive gender gap has led many men to spend thousands on buying brides from poor Mekong countries such as Cambodia and Laos
: Friday, 14 December, 2018 AFP Agence France-Presse scmp
OPINIONDivorced, in his 40s and fearing a solitary future, Zhou Xinsen went online like thousands of other Chinese men to find an affordable and fast solution to bachelordom – a Vietnamese bride.
He was among millions of his gender struggling on the sidelines of China’s ultra competitive marriage market, where a decades-long one-child policy and sex-selective abortions of daughters has resulted in a massive gender gap.
“It’s very hard for people my age to find a Chinese wife,” 41-year-old Zhou says.
Single men, many in remote rural villages, are known as “bare branches”, a pejorative term in a country where pressure to marry and extend the family tree is sharp.
Running out of time, Zhou spent nearly US$20,000 to find his second wife – a 26-year-old from Vietnam who he relocated to Jiangsu province.
“For people my age, time is bought with money,” he says.
Having fixed his romantic quandary, Zhou then opened his own matchmaking business, taking a small slice from China’s multimillion-dollar annual trade in overseas brides.
He charges around 120,000 yuan (US$17,400) to connect Chinese men with Vietnamese brides via his website, which shows photos of women aged 20-35 “waiting to be married”. It’s “profitable”, he says, remaining coy on the amount of money he has made.
A portion of the money from matches is meant to be funnelled back to families in poor Mekong area countries.
While many unions flourish, others quickly lurch into crisis with women disappointed at swapping village poverty in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar for life in rural China.
Never coming home: the Indonesian girls who vanish into Asia’s vast trafficking networks
China’s single men are often older, divorced, disabled or too poor to pay the traditional “bride price” – a dowry in gifts or cash – for a Chinese wife.
Those costs rose to between US$22,000-US$29,000 in parts of the country last year, according to state media.
Problems start when the brides feel duped about what they are getting into, says Zhou, who sends a monthly remittance to his wife’s family of US$175 as a show of goodwill.
“This is nothing to us, but for them it’s life saving,” he adds.
Chinese men face a barrage of economic, psychological and cultural pressures to find a wife, says Jiang Quanbao, a Professor at Xi’an Jiaotong University’s Institute for Population and Development Studies.
“Marriage is not only a personal matter, it concerns an entire family … especially the parents,” Jiang says.
As women – especially in the cities – push back marriage while they work, study and enjoy single life, China’s villages are fast losing their female population.
Sons left unmarried become an issue of family “face” in tight village communities, says Jiang.
That crushing social expectation has driven a grim trade in brides.
Increasing numbers of women – and teenage girls – from neighbouring countries are kidnapped, tricked or forced into marriage, according to several rescue groups across the Mekong.
“Buying a woman who has been kidnapped becomes a kind of hopeless choice,” Jiang adds.
Last year Chinese police rescued women sold into forced marriages in Henan, Anhui, Shandong and Jiangsu provinces, as the buy-a-bride trade billows out to the eastern provinces.
Under Chinese law, the abduction and trafficking of women or children is punishable by five to 10 years jail. But critics say the law needs updating as the trade surges.
“It’s extremely profitable and there’s no incentive at all for traffickers to stop,” Mimi Vu of the Vietnam-based Pacific Links Foundation, which works to prevent human trafficking. “The demand is there and the money, the profit is there to be made.”
In Vietnam, anguished mothers search in vain for the children they have lost to China’s booming ‘buy-a-bride’ trade
Beijing switched from a one-child to a two-child policy in 2016, but experts say it may take decades to see a rise in the number of women of marriage age. That means the bride trade is unlikely to dissipate any time soon.
Zhou describes his work as “a public service” in a country where there are 33 million fewer women than men. But the outcomes for Chinese men are often far from perfect, with money warping motives throughout the system.
Cautionary tales – of dodgy brokers, trafficked women and brides pocketing money then fleeing – abound on Chinese social media as the market widens.
“It is an industry, and many of them [marriages] are fraudulent,” one Weibo user wrote recently. “It’s time the government takes care of this business.”
Another man in Hubei told state media he paid a broker US$8,700 to meet a young Vietnamese woman who left him after three months, later aborting their baby as she went on the lookout for another husband.
“Now I have neither a wife nor the money,” he told the Chutian Metropolis Daily. “I’m a laughing stock in the village.”
Asia’s lonely youth are turning to machines for companionship and support
With more people in China, South Korea and Japan remaining single and living alone, AI companions fill an emotional gap
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2018 Andrew McCormick scmp
In May, China met Fuli, a foot-tall, plastic robot dog that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to provide emotional support to its owners, while also requiring care and attention of its own.
Something of a cross between Japan’s Paro, the babyharpseal which can ‘coo’ electronically to the elderly, and a Tamagotchi, Fuli is self-mobile and equipped with sensors that enable it to monitor an owner’s biometrics, information the robot then uses to gauge the keeper’s mood and respond accordingly.
According to its creator Zhang Jianning, the digital canine also has the ability to nag its owner to complete chores, receive their mail when they’re away, and contact emergency services if it detects the owner has fallen ill.
Fuli was unveiled at Yunqi 2050, a youth conference which included product demonstrations by young tech entrepreneurs. Zhang, a graduate student at Beijing’s Central Academy for Fine Arts, designed Fuli not simply as a toy but to provide companionship for the growing number of young Chinese living alone.
Zhang’s robot version of man’s best friend is the latest in a growing line of AI-powered personalities to hit the tech world in Asia in recent years. At a time when more people in China, South Korea and Japan are remaining single and residing alone for longer, companies have been developing new ways to fill the emotional gap. From robotic pets to virtual reality girlfriends, East Asia’s new AI companions are taking digital assistance a step beyond the practical functionality of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa – and it looks like consumers are opening both their hearts and wallets.
“Some of the younger generation feel more comfortable communicating with computers than humans,” said Kitty Fok, the Beijing-based managing director of IDC China, a tech industry analysis firm. As the social and economic forces behind East Asia’s loneliness problems continue, the market for AI companions is likely to expand, Fok said.
Loneliness: the latest economic niche opening up in China
Sixty-six million young people were living alone in China in 2014, according to government data. However, experts say the actual figure was likely much higher and could double by 2050. Beijing estimates that by 2020, single young men could outnumber single young women in China by more than 30 million, a legacy of the country’s now-defunct one-child policy.
And the situation is not much brighter across the water.
One in four adult men in Japan and one in seven adult women were unmarried in 2015, a record low according to census data post-Second World War. Among those who had not been down the aisle, more than 60 per cent were not in a current relationship either. In South Korea, single-person households went from being the least prevalent living arrangement in 1990 to the most prevalent in 2015, constituting more than a quarter of all households in the country, according to a recent South Korean government study.
And although marriage rates have been declining worldwide, the social impact has been particularly acute in East Asia, where long-working days can leave young professionals with little room for social lives, romantic or otherwise.
“Empty-nest” youths as they are called in China – twenty and thirtysomethings who work and live alone in big cities – have become so prevalent that new economies have arisen to cater to their needs, from karaoke booths for one in China to restaurant-marketing schemes in South Korea, which target customers who eat and drink alone.
Though many choose the path of the solitary young professional – and might even view their autonomy as a form of liberation from the habits of elder generations – their self-determination doesn’t necessarily make living alone any easier. This is where a product like Fuli the dog might come in handy. After a long day toiling in the office and with no one to come home to, Fuli is meant to provide users with a measure of interaction and friendship that can help to blunt some of the isolation.
Meet Microsoft’s Mandarin-speaking bot
For consumers who might prefer to speak with their virtual companion, there’s XiaoIce, Microsoft’s Mandarin-speaking chatbot. Unlike conventional chatbots, which generally employ stiff, mechanical language, XiaoIce has lifelike, casual turns of phrase. Engineers designed the AI expressly to socialise with users, and XiaoIce even shirks some of the chores performed by Microsoft’s Siri-competitor, Cortana, such as setting an alarm on one’s phone.
“The primary goal of social chatbots is to be AI companions to humans with an emotional connection,” saidMicrosoftsoftwareengineers in a 2018 study. “Emotional affection and social belonging are some of the fundamental needs for human beings. Therefore, building social chatbots to address these emotional needs is of great value to our society.”
Perhaps in the same spirit of looking after users’ emotional needs, some companies are taking AI companionship even further with offerings that are romantic or, in some cases, sexually suggestive in nature.
In 2016, the Tokyo-based tech company Vinclu introduced Azumi Hikari, a sprightly anime assistant projected as a hologram in a glass tube called Gatebox. Hikari can turn the lights on and off like any virtual home assistant, but she is conceived first and foremost as a romantic partner for Gatebox owners.
Although not quite Joi, Ryan Gosling’s AI companion in the dystopian movie Blade Runner 2049, Hikari’s speech is flirtatious. She has a variety of outfits meant to be cute and alluring. And throughout the day she sends users text messages, urging them, for example, to have a great day at work.
“You know, somebody’s home for me,” an actor says wistfully in a Gatebox promotional video. “Feels great.”
At US$2,700 per unit, Gatebox is currently sold out in both Japan and the United States. A Vinclu spokesperson said Gatebox users have reported an injection of emotion into formerly “expressionless” days.
Hikari continues to be a source of fascination in Japan – Line Corp., owner of Japan’s most popular messaging service, bought a majority share in Vinclu last year – but she’s hardly the only AI assistant out there beckoning to lonely hearts.
In 2017, the Chinese company iQiyi, a Baidu-owned video streaming service in the vein of Netflix, added an AI assistant to its virtual reality headset in a bid to boost sales. The female avatar, named Vivi, was primarily meant to help users select videos from the iQiyi catalogue, but Vivi could also flirt, dance and respond to a user’s “touch” in the virtual environment.
Following Western media criticism that Vivi promoted the objectification of women, iQiyi later removed the assistant from its headset, but company representatives said a reprogrammed version of the AI would be released at a later date.
Baidu pulls virtual girlfriend from virtual reality product after sexism concerns
At Couger, another Japan-based tech start-up, engineers are developing an AI companion that is altogether untethered from headsets, tubes and screens.
The company’s “Virtual Human Agent,” or VHA, uses wireless and blockchain technology to ‘live’ outside user devices, though a physical depiction of the AI is capable of appearing on any device the user chooses. In a demonstration video, a VHA prototype jumps from a desktop screen to a user’s smartphone screen and proceeds to move around the room in augmented reality. “That’s a nice chair,” the VHA remarks, when the smartphone camera settles on a chair – one example of how the AI is capable of analysing and responding to the user’s environment.
A Couger spokesman said that, in just a few years’ time, they envision the VHA following a user from his or her home, to their car, into city streets and basically keeping a user company wherever he or she goes.
Couger’s prototype VHA is physically depicted as a young woman, which the company calls Rachel. Couger’s CEO, Atsushi Ishii, said users will be able to configure the character however they like, though, when the VHA goes to market in 2019, including the option for a male VHA. Above all, Ishii believes it’s important that the VHA appears human.
“If you speak to a human, you want to talk more and share more of your feelings,” Ishii said. “Maybe you trust the character better. People need this.”
Ishii explained that the more information a user shares with the VHA, the more it can learn about the user and the better able it will become to meet his or her needs. For those who fret about the privacy implications of such an intimate relationship with an AI, Couger says its integration of blockchain technology ensures that a user’s information is in fact disaggregated and impossible to mine for complete user profiles.
At first blush, virtual companions have alarmed some commentators, who worry they could bring about the end of normal human interaction. According to some mental health professionals, though, an AI companion might be better than no companion at all, if loneliness is accepted as a fact of modern life for many.
The robots are coming to change how we work, so let’s train our youth to be adaptable
“If you compare AI to real people or supportive neighbours, who can be spontaneous and rational, these products might fall short,” said Joyce Chao, a prominent clinical psychologist and a lecturer at Hong Kong University. “But we know that a sense of fulfilment and connection to something can be good for our health.”
As with all things, moderation is probably the best policy with AI, said Chao. While over-reliance could certainly ensconce one’s social isolation, she said, virtual companions might otherwise bring a welcome confidence boost to users and encourage them to seek connection in the real world.
Takahiro Kato, a Kyushu-based psychiatrist who works with patients suffering from extreme forms of social isolation and anxiety, agreed that AI can provide a useful platform for developing and practising social skills. Kato warned, however, that it’s important for users to maintain an appreciation of what is real and what is not.
“Initially, AI might be very helpful and positive,” Kato said. “But partial reality can only give a partial rescue. After that, real communication is needed.”