China's lonely hearts find freedom to choose is not the answer People in China are learning that the newfound freedom to choose who they love is no guarantee of happiness Love is never easy and to Zhao Kunming it came harder than most. Three times, the military officer asked for permission to marry. Three times the answer came: No. "My work was very secret â€“ researching missiles and rockets â€“ so everyone introduced to me had to be seriously checked," the 73-year-old explains. "If they were involved with landlords or bureaucrats from the old days, it was not allowed. There were a few people I had nice relationships with, but the Communist party stopped us." Finally, his superiors let him wed a young soldier, Xie Yuqin. Four decades on, they are "very satisfied" with their marriage and still staunch party members. In retirement, they have found another way to serve the people â€“ setting up a free matchmaking service. You might assume Zhao envies members of the younger generation, able as they are to pick and choose. But the 8,000 singletons on his files â€“ from factory workers to company bosses â€“ can attest that personal emancipation does not guarantee happiness. China's breathtaking pace of social change across six decades has left many bewildered as well as liberated, with an ever-expanding range of options â€“ but few safety nets. The advance of capitalism has brought soaring inequality and dismantled the country's common sense of purpose. Relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and neighbours, and families and the wider community, have changed almost beyond recognition. This transformation raises intimate questions about people's values; their understanding of love and duty. But it also creates immense practical challenges for individuals, households and â€“ multiplied hundreds of millions of times â€“ the state. Who, for instance, will pay for and care for the elderly? Until 2003, your work unit had to approve your marriage â€“ or divorce. At one stage, it might even have helped you find a partner. As late as the 1990s, your job was assigned, not chosen. A little further back and your friendships could be judged unsuitable, while your choice of clothing or music or reading matter was minimal. Changing habits eroded the rules and led to their formal repeal. But as China embraces personal freedoms, it sees the same problems as the west, from the isolation of urban residents to increasing mental illness. "Freedom and choice come hand in hand with responsibility and risk," said Yunxiang Yan, author of the forthcoming book The Individualisation of Chinese Society. "Individuals have to take more responsibilities and work harder for personal interests with much less protection and support from the collective." Fazed by etiquette Each weekend, Zhao and his wife leave their modest apartment lugging heavy sacks of papers and catch the bus across town to verdant Bijiashan park. There they string out posters on lines between the trees, like washing: page after page of tiny characters covering clients' names, ages, heights, weights, education level, hometowns, jobs, marital status. Some weeks see more than 1,000 lonely hearts, but thunderstorms are forecast today so it's a quiet afternoon. Just a few scores of clients scan the sheets. Some drift past with studied indifference as if they're not really looking at all; others frown over them, notebook and pencils in hand. A Hong Kong woman in a hounds-tooth jacket is fazed by the etiquette of introductions. In her 40s, she last dated some time ago. "What if they call me up and think I'm weird, sort of mentally strange?" she frets. Xie Bihong is bright and smiley as she chats to Zhao, but there's a nerviness to her, too. The petite nursery teacher has been coming to these events for months. "Of course I'd like to find a love, but the main thing is to make some friends to make me less lonely. I know too few people and it's difficult to communicate," she confides. "In my hometown it would be easier, because I'd know their backgrounds and stories. In Shenzhen, the population from outside is so large; sometimes I feel scared." Scanning the posters, she picks out a few prospects: "Doctors are good â€“ health is very important â€¦ Engineers are OK too â€¦ I don't really like drivers; it's too dangerous a job. I know bus drivers work hard to get me here and there, but I think I would worry a lot if he was my husband." She tried a commercial dating agency before, but it set her up with fake -clients â€“ already married â€“ because it had no one suitable and hoped she would renew her subscription. Still, not everything can be reduced to cash: Zhao and Xie treat her like one of their daughters, she says. Clad in an immaculate cream coat with black velvet bows, she is a youthful 32. "She likes dancing, she sings â€“ she's very enthusiastic," Zhao says -encouragingly. He thinks her child from a previous marriage may be putting men off. China's divorce rate has soared from 4.8% in 1978 to more than 21%; people can escape abusive or unhappy relationships, but also responsibilities. "Many people give up too easily and quickly. But men always give up more easily than women," he adds. There are new pressures, too. -Migration from the countryside to urban factories has rendered family life -unrecognisable. Spouses can live -thousands of miles apart, but the strain is not just on conjugal ties. In villages, grandparents are bringing up infants who may see their parents once a year at best. Old people can no longer rely on their children for financial support. Communities are weakening. Shame and stigma are on the wane, but so are sympathy and support. China is witnessing rising rates of mental illness, which has overtaken heart disease and cancer as the biggest burden on the Chinese health system, according to the World Health Organisation. "In the past, when people had more chances to communicate with their neighbours and friends, gossiping and complaining in their social network was a good way to release pressure," said Lei Wang, professor of psychology at Peking University. "Nowadays people value more privacy and live in separate -apartments where they seldom get opportunities to chat with neighbours and share their troubles." Rise of market values In fact, the last 60 years have seen not one shift but two, says Yan, the sociologist, who grew up in the Chinese countryside and now teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. First, the advent of communism liberated people from the country's Confucian legacy. "To build a socialist new society, the Chinese party-state actually made great efforts to liberate the individual from the previously all-encompassing social groups, such as the patriarchal family, kinship groups, and local community," said Yan. Peasant households were replaced by rural collectives; urban ones by work units. Political campaigns and education programmes were used to reform traditional value systems. Then, with the economic reforms of the late 1970s, the state began to retreat from private lives and market values gained ground. All societies evolve, of course. What marks China out is the scale and speed of mutation in what remains a poor country. The breathtaking pace of social transformation makes its blistering economic progress look almost lackadaisical. Last month, the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies warned that by 2050, China would have just 1.6 working-age adults to support every person aged 60 and above â€“ compared with 7.7 in 1975. The one-child policy is a major cause, but development often produces sharp falls in fertility. China's real problem is that it is caught between the security of traditional family relationships and a modern welfare system. Welfare spending rose almost 20% last year, to 276bn yuan (Â£26.8bn). Yet less than one-third of China's workforce gets any kind of pension cover at present, the report argues. At the same time, fewer parents live with their children; many are not even in the same town or province. Who is going to pay and care for 100 million over-80s? The government is so worried that it has funded research to develop a robot that will feed, monitor and play chequers with elderly people. Yet the older generation still enjoys the respect and companionship lacking in much of the west: Zhao's advice is sought and appreciated by those several decades younger. The social pressure to marry and wed endures â€“ hence his many clients. And as Chinese society atomises, the desire for shared meaning and experiences increases. Religion is on the rise in China; Christianity alone can boast at least 70 million adherents. Confucianism is making a comeback. People are creating their own, informal structures, from elderly associations to environmental groups. All reflect, suggested Yan, "the need of the disembedded individuals to re-embed out of their own choice". So far, Zhao and his wife have matched 1,000 clients successfully. Perhaps many of those who remain are seeking money or status. But others ask for friendship, or a spouse who will care for their parents. Zhang Yi will soon stop attending Zhao's meetings: he has plans to marry. "I haven't decided whom yet, but I have one or two candidates," he says, praising the "traditional Chinese" view of marriage, with its focus on companionship. "This year I turned 40, so it's time to sort it out. Although living on my own feels free, having the warmth of a family is something I'm looking forward to." Lonely hearts | World news | guardian.co.uk ********************************* Understanding China. The woes of quick modernisation!