As a recent grad of the prestigious Central University of Nationalities, Wang Chengzi did not think finding a job was going to be tough. "I first thought I'd start a career at a law firm with my law degree, but no one seems to be hiring," says Wang, 22. "I've sent out 200 résumés, and I have no response."
And so Wang did what an increasing number of 20-something women in Beijing are doing. She went to a matchmaker. "I thought I'd give it a try," says Wang, who registered at xiaoyuanlove.com, a service that specifically targets women with college degrees. "I will get married sooner or later anyways, and I might as well start looking now. If I find someone I like and who is well off enough to take care of me, I will feel less stressed about not finding a job." (See pictures of life on the fringe in China.)
The economic downturn has nearly frozen the job market in China, and the situation for college graduates with no work experience, like Wang, is not looking good. Government statistics released earlier this year forecast that by the end of February, only 35% of the 6.1 million students who will graduate from college this year grads in China usually start the hunt during their last semester will have found a job. Faced with having to leave campus in two months, seeking marriage as a buffer from temporary unemployment is becoming an increasingly accepted practice among women in their senior year at university. "None of the six girls in my dorm has received any job offers," says Wang. "But one was able to find a good husband. Her parents are really pleased."
Matchmaking agencies across China are enjoying a sudden boom as a growing number of college seniors are signing up for their services. Unlike online dating, the matchmaking industry mediates dating through a broker. People who want to find a spouse register at a given agency, and the broker will pick and arrange their dates based on their requirements. The first date usually takes place at the office of the matchmaking business. Marriage is still seen as a compulsory step in life in China, and as women get older, they grow increasingly anxious to find a spouse, providing a huge market for the matchmaking business. Beijing Marriage Introduction Service, which is organized by the official city women's association, has taken note of the sudden increase in student members. "We have received lots of registration from college girls during the recent months. Many of them are still in school," the company recently told Chinese media. Meeting in Beijing, a 10-year-old matchmaking business that caters to the affluent middle class, has seen the same trend. (See 10 things to do in Beijing.)
In some cases, it's other students who are peddling the service. Xiaoyuanlove.com, which translates to "love on campus," was founded by a group of recent university graduates in Shanghai who saw the business's huge market potential. "We spent six months doing market research and campus surveys, and launched on March 1," says Wang Reman, 23, one of three people who manage the site. "The service is free to girls in college, and we charge male members a fee from 99 renminbi to 9,999 renminbi to browse through their profiles looking for suitable matches." Within the past two months, the site has attracted about 10,000 members, two-thirds of whom are women. "The majority of the girls are college seniors, and a lot of them are under job-hunting pressure," says Wang. One xiaoyuanlove.com ad, placed by a 22-year-old college senior in Guangxi province who specified that her prospective mate should make more than 5,000 renminbi a year and be no older than 38 read: "I don't need a fancy wedding, and I will look for work to support myself. All I require is that you have a place for me to live!"
Many in China have responded to the trend with indignation. Sociologists, college career advisers and even psychologists have been quoted in Chinese media lamenting the lack of "self-respect among college girls" and their "utilitarian attitude toward marriage." The new wave of marriage hunting has even been compared to prostitution. Tang Haibo, director of the Mental Health Education Center at Central South University, thinks the motivation of the girls is understandable but says, "The pragmatic approach to marriage as solution to financial difficulties could be disastrous ... College graduates have little social experience, and can be very immature about relationship and marriage. It is the responsibility of schools and parents to provide guidance."
But not everyone is opposed. Despite the steep price tag of a college education in China, many parents support a daughter's decision to get married in the face of unemployment. Some even pick the husband themselves. And those in the business, not surprisingly, have jumped to their clients' defense. "These college girls are no less vulnerable than those laid-off migrant workers," says Wang Reman. "There are girls from very poor backgrounds with struggling families in rural areas ... Gender discrimination, together with the financial crisis, is leaving many unemployed after graduation and driving them to despair. These 'experts' are very quick to judge their choice, but have any of them tried to extend a helping hand to them?" According to its owners, the website already has a success rate of 10%. "This has nothing to do with women trading their independence for material comforts," says Wang. "For most of them, some extra support is all they are looking for."
As for Wang Chengzi, she is clear about what she wants. "There is no denying that a shoulder to rely on is a nice thing to have at the moment," she says, brushing aside the critiques that matchmaking customers have gotten in the press. "I never imagined living a dependent life. I won't give up looking for a job. I just need some backing, emotional and practical, to help me through the hard times."