With the number of divorces skyrocketing and marriage rates on a steady downward slope, China is experiencing a crisis of faith in the ideas of love and marriage. This predicament has only been exacerbated by a recent hoax that tragically ended the life of programming entrepreneur Su Xiangmao, who developed WePhone — an app that allows users to make international calls at extremely low rates. Su killed himself earlier this month, apparently fearing that his ex-wife sought to blackmail him.
At 4 a.m. on Sept. 7, 37-year-old Su leapt to his death from the window of his Beijing home. In a message posted to his social media account, he wrote: “I am the inventor of WePhone, but today I am leaving. The app will cease to work; I am sorry. I never thought this would be how things ended for me.”
In June, Su had married a woman named Zhai Xinxin, an architect from eastern China’s Shandong province whom he met through online dating website Jiayuan.com. Just a month later, the two agreed to a divorce. The day after Su’s death, his family and friends found a file in his office narrating every day of Su’s relationship with Zhai, from their first encounter on March 30 to the end of August.
Su divided his account of the relationship into 13 sections, with titles like “Getting to Know Her,” “Shopping in Beijing,” “Going Home to Fujian,” “An Argument in Hong Kong,” “Married,” and “Divorce Is Proposed.” The final chapter was titled “How the Divorce Was Used to Swindle Me.”
According to the terms of their divorce, Su agreed to grant Zhai ownership of a house in the southern island province of Hainan and to pay her a settlement of 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) in two installments. The initial installment, totaling 6.6 million yuan, had already been paid in full. The remaining 3.4 million yuan was to be paid within 120 days of signing the divorce papers.
Beginning in late August, Zhai began messaging Su constantly, pressing him to pay the remaining sum. “My access to capital has been severed; things are truly hopeless,” Su posted online the day he died.
The circumstances of Su’s death, coming so soon after the demise of a whirlwind marriage, led to a public outcry. Lawyers representing Su claim that he was the victim of a so-called hoax marriage, accusing Zhai of wedding Su so that she could divorce him and get her hands on part of his estate. Zhai, however, denies the charges. The case is due to open next week.
In light of the accusations, three government departments — the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the National Health and Family Planning Commission, and the Communist Youth League — took the unusual step of issuing a joint decree on Sept. 18 calling on all online dating platforms to tighten user verification rules and raise awareness of hoax marriages. Jiayuan.com also issued a statement agreeing to comply with the ongoing investigation.
Su’s case drew public attention to hoax marriages, a growing phenomenon in a society that both traditionally emphasizes the importance of financial security in choosing a mate and is producing a growing number of extremely wealthy people. To me, though, widespread fear of hoax marriages is causing a more general and disturbing crisis of faith in marriage itself, a traditional institution that is being undermined by rising mistrust between potential partners.
Fewer and fewer people in China are getting married these days. Last year, nearly 15 percent of the national population was single, an increase of 6 percent from 1990. That’s around 200 million people. Jiayuan.com has more than 170 million registered users, most of whom we must assume are unmarried. In the first half of 2017 alone, the number of registered divorces stood at more than one-third the number of registered marriages.
Despite a conspicuous rise in the number of people choosing to stay single, traditional attitudes toward marriage still hold fast among most Chinese, particularly older generations. Young singles often find themselves under immense pressure from overeager parents to marry early, carry on the family line, and avoid becoming one of China’s “leftover population.” Likewise, sociologists warn that a generation of singletons will exacerbate China’s aging problem.
The choice to remain unmarried is based on an individual’s values, and just because someone isn’t married doesn’t mean they aren’t happy. However, we must consider the possibility that many young Chinese harbor hopes of getting married but have come to doubt marriage, distrust potential partners, and even eschew the idea of emotional attachment. Marriage scams deepen these doubts as they do not solely affect the wealthy: Chinese media gleefully report on hundreds of marital fraud cases, women who extort money from dozens of “boyfriends,” online “catfishers,” and whole networks of people making money from arranging hoax marriages.
Rising divorce rates are problematic in a society where, traditionally, leaving one’s marriage was regarded as highly taboo. As the first generation to normalize divorce and bachelorhood, today’s unmarried Chinese still find themselves at the sharp end of ample social critique. To traditionalists, couples who divorce decide to upend their families and restart their lives without a clear sense of where they are headed. This attitude is frequently taken to improbable extremes: Ye Tan, a well-known economist, recently argued in an article on news website Vccoo.com that in the internet era, the institution of marriage will inevitably fade away.
I don’t believe that marriage, an institution that has survived for thousands of years, really will disappear. What is true, however, is that many of China’s divorced citizens who are now seeking companionship in middle age have found that the dating game has changed dramatically since they were last single: In major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, for example, the demands of potential partners routinely include ownership of an apartment, the price of which can hit seven figures.
The debate between marriage traditionalists and liberalists rages on. I identify more with the former camp and tend to frame marriage as a union between heterosexual people based on biological needs. That is not to say that family life is more valuable than individual pursuits, nor is it meant to offend marriage skeptics or the homosexual community.
China’s marriage liberalists argue that marriage is a social construct and that there is nothing that biologically predisposes humans to get married. I disagree with this statement and worry that an increasingly atomized and individualized world will undercut society’s faith in marriage for my generation and many more to come. At times, traditionalists like me feel besieged, an uncomfortable feeling that is only heightened by hearing about the country’s rising divorce rates and hoax marriages.
Compared with the millions of Chinese who still choose to tie the knot every year, several hundred cases of hoax marriages are not representative of the dating landscape. However, they receive a disproportionate amount of media attention and deepen the mistrust that characterizes so many romantic relationships. Public attention will center on Su’s tragic suicide, though it may transpire that it was not a hoax at all. As the facts of the case come to light, media interest will fluctuate, with each tidbit of information eating away further at traditional faith in love and marriage. We Chinese say that an ant’s burrow can be enough to breach a vast dam. To liberalists, hoax marriages mean that the traditionalist argument holds less and less water.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Yan Zhi/VCG)