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The Matchmakers

China's 200 Million Singles Are a Big Business

Many people in China who want to get married are having trouble finding a partner. The country's decadeslong one-child policy led to the country having more young men than women, and their growing prosperity is making them pickier.

GILLES SABRIÉ / DER SPIEGEL
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Friday, 8/3/2018   04:51 PM

The fate of eight young men will be decided today inside a cool, neon-lit shopping center in Hangzhou, its façade emblazoned with a sign for "Intimate City."

On their first day of the course, the men fan out in different directions, wearing ironed shirts and gelled hair. Some hook their thumbs into the loops of their jeans, strutting around like peacocks as they try to impress women. Dr. Love, their coach at the seminar on flirting, taught them how.

One of the men is Liu Yuqiang, who works at a Chinese supermarket. He wanders the shiny corridors, wearing wiry glasses, a jacket and polished shoes, all intended to hide the fact that he comes from a village of only 80 families. A man from a rural area would be out of the question as husband material for China's attractive urban women, that much Liu knows. Besides, he's 27, fairly old to be single here.

Liu puts one foot in front of the other and moves shyly. He gazes at young women with shopping bags. They seem to intimidate him. Dr. Love is trying to get him to talk to them, to "go hunting," as they call the exercise here at the Feel Love Flirt Academy.

China is home to around 200 million singles. As a result of the government's decades long one-child per family policy and a preference for boys, an imbalance of the sexes has developed. For every 114 men in China, there are 100 women; overall, there are 30 million more men than women. And no Chinese person wants to end up at the end of the line in the family tree. Those who remain unmarried die a quick social death in the country.

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At Intimate City in Hangzhou, Dr. Love teaches his students how to hunt for their prey. "Walk sideways toward the women," he whispers, looking sternly at Liu. "Think of the safe distance of 5 feet. Pretend you have an appointment, but say you find her enchanting. Take down her phone number, and keep moving."

"I got it," says Liu. You can see the fear and admiration in his eyes.

Dr. Love, 26, wears a red pullover with the words "Fuck Em All" on it. A silver chain dangles above it, with the kind of arrows you might find in a western Film.

"Just let her be nice," Liu whispers before jaunting past the stores. He walks and walks without talking to a single woman. Ten minutes pass. "Hello," he whispers to one. She carries on without noticing.

Dr. Love quietly observes him. Three times he gives him a gentle nudge toward giggling Chinese women. But every time, Liu acts as though he has tripped. He just can't do it.

The Downside of the Boom

Love has become a complicated matter in China. The country's economic boom is estranging people from one another, tearing them out from their villages and small towns. For centuries, parents paired their children with partners who had the same socio-economic background. But the boom has dramatically changed the love lives of the Chinese, and the country is developing faster than many people can cope with. The combination of freedom of choice and social pressure has become overwhelming for many. Thousands of flirt trainers, marriage brokers and love gurus are now employed in China's quest for happiness.

Baihe, the largest online platform for people looking for someone to marry, has over 300 million members and 3,000 would-be matchmaker employees. Baihe's psychologists fly around the country to hold the hands of crisis-stricken singles; its love experts deliver bouquets of flowers to the beloved, and they sneak around, prying like detectives on people suspected of cheating. They review the solvency of marriage candidates and arrange loans for men who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford a home. China's matchmaking businesses have revenues of several hundred million dollars a year. So, why are millions of singles having such trouble finding a match?

The lesson on "Talking to Women" is ending at Intimate City in Hangzhou. One of the eight course participants has succeeded in getting a vague agreement for a date for that evening, but the others are going away empty-handed. "You've got work to do," Dr. Love says in a serious tone before releasing his students.

An hour later, Liu leans against the wall in a café and takes hasty sips of water from his thermos flask. His parents are pressuring him. When he recently visited them in the countryside, he kept taking bites of pork just to avoid their questions. "They've worked hard," says Liu. "Now, I have to make them happy." And it would be a shame not to respect their wishes. Liu is, after all, their only child.

A Fateful Policy

His fate was determined in 1979, long before he was even born. At the time, China's Communist Party began its one-child policy, a radical experiment that lasted 35 years. Until the 1960s, Mao Zedong had encouraged his citizens to have as many children as possible. But then reformer Deng Xiaoping announced that China's rise could only succeed with fewer births. Women were subjected to forced sterilizations and female fetuses were aborted. China's strategists created a population that will be too male, too old and at some point too small to feed its labor market.

For many men, their preponderance isn't the only handicap. "If you're going to be a man, then you certainly don't want to come from Jiangxi," says Liu. The fact that he comes from this relatively poor provincial region in the southeast significantly diminishes his prospects for finding a match. The origin of a potential husband is extremely important for well-educated Chinese women, who value prestige and status: things like an apartment and a car. China is a country of ascension, and nobody wants to be seen as sliding backward.

This makes life especially difficult for millions of unmarried migrant workers. They're separated from love by "three high towering mountains," says Liu: a lack of money, time and connections.

Liu's parents also migrated around the country. And like many other children, he grew up with his grandmother. When his grandfather came home, his grandmother would put rice on the table, but she never showed her husband physical affection. "People who survived China's Great Famine have little time for romance," Liu says, adding that he never had any role models when it came to loving relationships.

He also didn't have any girlfriends as a student. Teachers and parents discouraged teenage flirtation -- they didn't want anything to distract their expensive only child from learning. And so it was that Liu slipped into the marriage market with a typical Chinese inexperience with love and relationships. He should have long since been married by now, but instead he has no experience with women at all.

'Bachelor Villages'

After school, Liu migrated to the city like millions of others. Increasing numbers of brides from North Korea or Cambodia began arriving in the typical "bachelor village" in the provinces they left behind. Parents are seeking foreign women for their sons out of sheer desperation. United Nations workers note that there has also been an increase in human trafficking in China's rural areas.

Liu moved into a tiny apartment in the city. He sells instant noodles for a supermarket and is on the prowl for a wife on the side. He has seven dating apps on his mobile phone, including Tantan, China's answer to Tinder. His profile photo shows him doing archery, even though he has no clue about the sport. Dr. Love took the pictures and recommended Liu use a soft-focus lens on his face. "Chinese women love baby skin," he says.

Sometimes Liu dreams of so many homes, cars and employees that the women come chasing after him.

He doesn't seem to know that even the rich struggle with love. Indeed, there are men in China who invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in their search for a bride. They also suffer as a result of their status, striving for perfection that matches their wealth.

$15,000 a Month for 'Custom Services'

The elite agency Diamond Love has its headquarters about 200 kilometers from Liu, in Shanghai, China's shining business metropolis. It has 5 million members, with the especially well-to-do paying up to $15,000 a month for "custom services" promising them the wife of their dreams. Two hundred consultants and 200 full-time matchmakers are at the disposal of the top tier at six locations across the country.

"We need four women between 5 foot 4 inches and 5 foot 6 inches, a degree from a top university, very white skin, extravagant," Ren Xuemei says to two employees scouting for women for her on the streets.

Ren is a professional matchmaker. The elegant 42-year-old woman, with a canary yellow blazer and shiny hair, studied psychology. She knows the romantic problems of the upper class like few others.

"Our customers have lost their compass with China's rise," Ren says, speaking in a Starbucks café in Shanghai. "They think they're running the world." She opens her MacBook and shows the questionnaire clients must fill out before the agency commences its matchmaking services for them.

For women, the questionnaire distinguishes between "hardware" and "software," between appearance and character. Ren says the trend is toward "very white skin with soft texture," "a fine, oval face and a degree from a top Chinese university." A woman, she says, should be under 30, "warm and hardworking." She says most people want "as little past relationship experience as possible." Ren smiles. "In other words, she should be a virgin."

Ren's trickiest case is a 47-year-old man she calls "Mr. Rich." He paid 1 million yuan, the equivalent of almost 130,000 euros, to find the right match. On the phone, he asks excitedly when there will be "fresh resources." He thought all 50 of the women Ren matched him with were boring. "You're sending me the wrong ones!" he would say after each dinner she organized for him at the Ritz-Carlton.

'Immeasurable Expectations'

Mr. Rich is one of the Fuyidai, as the first generation of wealthy Chinese are called. He comes from a modest background, and he began investing overseas. It's impossible to speak with Mr. Rich, but if one spends time with his agent for several days, a certain worldview emerges. "China's elite are used to always being the boss," says Ren. "Their expectations are immeasurable."

Mr. Rich, she says furtively, isn't particularly good looking. She says he's skinny and smokes too much. Still, she says, he believes he deserves the most beautiful wife, and he has signed a yearlong contract with Diamond Love, through which he is entitled to meet five women per month. She says he treats her matches like luxury cars with unsightly rust marks.

Ren is an extremely polite women, but her clients' behavior can be so extreme that her anecdotes about them can be free-flowing. One client looked at 3,000 women in the agency's database and rejected them if an eyebrow was too high. Another complained about every skin imperfection. The Fu'erdai, the children of the nouveau riche, she says, are demanding. "We failed in our attempt to pair up a couple because neither of them wanted to compromise about the location of the date," says Ren.

She says the one-child policy was a catastrophe that has led to the rise of impossible-to-please narcissists.

Diamond Love's matchmakers drive their red Minis around in nine cities, scouting universities, academies and luxury boutiques for women who stand out in the crowd. Once, they organized the "Oriental Lady" contest in which hundreds of women took part and did singing and dancing performances. They didn't know the contest's head juror was himself a client looking for a wife.

While Ren waits for results at Starbucks, love scouts run after attractive passersby in the shopping quarter. One, wearing skinny jeans and a bomber jacket, stops. "Hey gorgeous, are you single?" the scout asks. "We organize events through the agency for you." She unsuspectingly passes along her information, having no idea that she might soon be drinking tea with Mr. Rich.

The "resources," as Ren calls the women, don't immediately need to know that Diamond Love is screening them as potential wives. She says she doesn't want to give the impression the selection follows the Cinderella principle, and explains that the women need to pass tests and interviews with psychologists before they can meet a client. Out of 100 women, the agency only selects a dozen.

"Mr. Rich would like a young wife, who isn't overly successful," says Ren. "But after the first meetings, he complained they weren't mature enough." When the agent sat down with him again, she remembers how he said to her, "I would like you." She answered: "I have 12 years more life experience than the woman you chose, and I'm married."

Since then, Ren has smuggled in a few older "B-women" among the twenty-something "A-women" who fit Mr. Rich's criteria. She says it was a "battle" for him to recognize it. She calls it "re-education." After six months with Mr. Rich, she says, she has had one success. "He has raised the age limit." His future bride, she explains, can now be up to 32 years old -- up from 30.

They have less glamorous problems at the school of flirting in Hangzhou, where Liu is sitting at a table with five other men, his hands holding a glass of tea. All the students come from poorer rural areas. They work in restaurants or in construction.

'What's Wrong with You Guys?'

Dr. Love straightens his Indian necklace. "What's wrong with you guys?" he asks.

"I don't know which subject I should choose when I talk to a woman," says one. Another responds: "As soon as I ask for a meeting on a dating app, the women block me." Liu says, "When I meet a woman, I get so nervous that none want to see me again."

"You need to talk on their level," says the trainer. "The women, after all, aren't meant to be marrying you for your wealth."

A person's social status in China is determined by the authorities. The so-called Hukou system of household registration, splits all people into two categories: rural or urban. The place where a Chinese person is registered determines their access to doctors, schools - and also to urban, middle-class women. No date takes place in China without someone politely asking about the other person's Hukou status. Someone who moves to the city can, with some luck, attain the same privileges as the people who were born there. A yearslong rural Hukou, however, is like a scarlet letter. At the flirt school, the men are taught how to compensate for their origins through charm.

The syllabus for the course also includes a "one-on-one critique of chatting." Liu is interested in a colleague. But every time he would like to make a move, she leaves the chat.

Dr. Liu connects Liu's mobile phone to a projector, which he uses to read Liu's chronology of failure out loud. Sometimes Liu starts a conversation about their company in the middle of the night. Then he wants to play "truth or dare." He copies a sentence from a dating advice text: "I have something secret to tell you," without any follow up. Dr. Love shakes his head.

He takes the mobile phone and chats, pretending to be Liu. After 20 minutes of small talk, it gets serious.

Her: "I'm sleeping now."

Him: "Don't sleep, let's have a relationship."

Her: "Are you joking?"

Him: "Of course, that was only a joke. Go to sleep."

Her: "Now I can't sleep."

Him: "Sleep."

Her: "Will you give me a foot massage?"

Silence falls over the room. Dr. Love has skills.

"Your online relationship is already taken care of," says Dr. Love to Liu. "Now you just need an offline meeting."

Late in the evening, when the course has ended, Liu steps out into the night. His mind is running in circles. How could he forget how a woman once described him as a "triple zero" and said that a relationship with him would only result in a "naked wedding" -- no celebration, no ring, no financial gifts, no car, no honeymoon. Of course, who would even want that in a China where there are wedding studios everywhere in which you can pose in front of islands, skyscrapers or a home you have allegedly purchased?

The next day, Liu calls his colleague from the chat. A meeting? Suddenly, she doesn't have any time after all.

The Chinese government long ago recognized that the hordes of frustrated men migrating to the cities are a problem. What is to be done with the prospectless, aging, single men from the country? The party now wants more children and is organizing mass group dates across the country that are attracting hundreds of people. It is launching online dating sites and holding romantic game nights in areas where loneliness is particularly prevalent. Managers at state-owned companies have even taken to arranging dates for their employees without being asked.

Leftover Women

It is difficult for women to resist this push for marriage, especially those who aspire to being more than just a wife.

"My parents looked for a husband for me," says Hui Xue, unable to conceal her embarrassment. She's at a marriage market in Shanghai where frustrated parents offer up their single children. Hui is 29, very beautiful, an economist. She has studied in London and the United States, and she now jets between Europe and China in the employ of a large company. And yet her chances of finding a husband are, despite the excessive numbers of men, bad. From a Chinese perspective, she is too career-oriented for a woman.

Since dawn, about 500 mothers and fathers have been fighting for the best spots to place their open umbrellas, to which they have pinned their children's resumes. A female doctor is looking for a partner. A designer wants to get married. A banker is looking for love. Every resume is like a top-level application. Almost all parents are touting daughters in their late twenties. They call these women "Sheng nu" in China, leftover women.

Chinese parents often invest a large part of their money in raising their only child, pampering him or her like a prince or a princess. They're only happy once their project is crowned with the arrival of the perfect spouse.

Hui says her visit to the wedding market is mostly meant to calm her parents. "My parents are asking about a husband," she says. Many parents have been coming with their umbrellas for years, without any success. It makes them feel better to confront their children's fate together.

The state-run women's organization All-China Women's Federation has defined "leftover women" as those who remain unmarried and are over the age of 27. In its official view, women need to "fight" starting at the age of 25, and women between the ages of 31 and 35 are considered "high-ranking leftover women." Beyond the age of 35, a woman might have "a luxury apartment, a car and a company," but is still "left over." The government is using these verbal attacks to encourage women to have children.

Hui's father pushes his daughter to the unremarkable corner where sons are being presented. A doctor gets the family's attention. The father finds his basic parameters acceptable. Hui's mother dreamily looks at the umbrellas. "A marriage," she says, "is a union between two families."

Three days later, when the marriage market has ended and Hui is once again sitting in her office, she calls the journalist. Now that her parents aren't listening, she would like to correct something.

"A marriage," she says, "is a union between two people."

Unlike Liu from the flirting class or Mr. Rich from the elite agency, she believes that feelings are more important than status. After decades of the one-child policy, she says, as a woman, she can choose. "I can afford to wait," she says. "I don't need to feel pushed."

Hui hasn't told her mother yet, but she's dating a colleague. A polite man who treats her well, but he isn't a high achiever. "I don't know yet if he's good enough for marriage," she says. Her family, she argues, needs to approve her selection. She says she went to the movies with him over the weekend. When the lights went out and the movie started, they kissed.

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