Page last updated at 10:12 GMT, Monday, 23 May 2011 11:12 UK

Chinese men find mortgages a prerequisite for marriage

Watch Justin Rowlatt's film in full

The difficulties Chinese men have finding partners is having a significant economic impact around the world as they hold back on spending in the hopes of saving sufficient money to attract a bride, as Justin Rowlatt reports.


Yang Jiahe's home is entered through a non-descript door in the side of a huge Beijing apartment building, but instead of leading up, the stairs lead down.

Upon arrival, Yang, who is in his twenties, gestured for me to follow him and we headed down a series of wide concrete steps.

Yang Jiahe
If I don't own my own home no decent Chinese girl is ever going to consider marrying me
Yang Jiahe

At the bottom we turned into a corridor running the entire length of the building - a good 200 metres (218 yards). There were no windows and florescent bulbs illuminated the place with a harsh flat light.

I could hear the soft murmur of voices and, at the end of the corridor, saw a cluster of people laughing and talking in the communal washing and cooking area.

But the space where they live was not designed for long-term human habitation. Yang, along with more than one hundred other people, lives in a converted bomb shelter.

It is estimated that a million people live in similar converted bomb shelters and cellars across China.

'Subterranean slum'

As I followed Yang down one of the many side passages, a gaggle of children ran past us playing tag in the corridors, which had doors on either side.

Yang stopped outside one, produced a small key and unlocked the door to his tiny, windowless room.

The room was just big enough for a single bed with a small space beside it, and a single bulb hanging from the ceiling the only light source. All of Yang's clothes and possessions sat on open shelves.

Toilets and cooking facilities are shared with the other residents of this underground home.

The obvious assumption was that this was some kind of subterranean slum. But as Yang and I talked it became apparent that he could afford to live somewhere much more salubrious if he chose to.

Yang Jiahe and Justin Rowlatt
Yang's room has just enough space to fit a single bed

"Now I am in Beijing," Yang told me, "the first thing is to work and to save money".

Yang rents his cramped little dwelling out of choice and, according to the landlord, most of the other tenants do the same.

As we sat on Yang's bed with our knees tucked in against the wall he explained that living in the converted shelter costs just 10% of the income he gets from selling mobile phones on a stall - allowing him to save much more of his cash.

So, why is he saving? The walls of his room tell the rest of the story.

Like many young men Yang had chosen to decorate his home with pictures of beautiful women - so far so predictable.

What was intriguing were the other images - a series of flyers and posters advertising the "Water Villas of Beijing", luxury homes with huge stone columns, surrounded by fountains and pools - a stark contrast with Yang's current circumstances.

He is saving to buy himself an apartment but not just because he wants a nicer home. Here in China there is an intimate connection between Yang's two obsessions.

"If I don't own my own home", he explained to me, "no decent Chinese girl is ever going to consider marrying me."

'Sweat and old socks'

In another low rent home on the other side of Beijing I learned just how closely linked property and marriage are in China.

China money
Chinese people save more than a third of their total incomes

Gong Benru is a successful computer programmer who, like Yang, chooses to save up his cash to buy a home.

He earns a good salary by Chinese standards - a little more than a thousand dollars a month, but nevertheless has chosen to share a small room in an illegally built block above a shop with two friends.

His two room mates share a bunk bed. Gong is lucky, he gets the single bed. Unlike Yang they do get a window, but their room smells faintly of sweat and old socks. Gong told me that he had no choice but to live there.

Savers not spenders

Chinese women are very practical, he told me: "You need to have your own house to be an eligible bachelor, so I have to go through this to be able to afford it."

"What about love?" I asked.

"If I met someone I really liked I'd chase her," Gong told me with a rueful smile, "but if she was a practical girl I don't think I'd manage to catch her."

It is this link between owning property and finding a wife which is an issue for the world economy. It is a key reason why the Chinese save so much of their money.

Chinese people save more than a third of their total incomes, way more than Americans, for example, who currently set aside just 5% of their incomes.

Many countries have been urging China to boost domestic demand. They want the Chinese government to persuade its citizens to save a little less and to spend a little more in the hope that they will buy more products from abroad.

But so long as it is near impossible to find a wife without first buying a property, then it is going to take a lot to persuade young Chinese men like Yang Jiahe and Gong Benru to stop squirreling away their money.



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