HONG KONG — Facing a rapidly rising divorce rate, China’s ruling Communist Party last year introduced a rule to keep unhappy marriages together by forcing couples to undergo a 30-day cooling-off period before finalizing a divorce.
According to government statistics released this week, the rule appears to have worked, showing that divorce filings fell sharply in 2021.
Local officials have hailed the new rule as a success in the country’s effort to grow families and curb a demographic crisis that threatens China’s economy. But the party has a much bigger challenge to face: fewer and fewer Chinese citizens are getting married.
Coupled with the decline in divorce rates, the number of marriage records fell to a 36-year low in 2021. The decline in the number of marriages has contributed to a decline in the birth rate, a worrying sign in China’s rapidly aging society and a phenomenon that is increasing more and more. known in countries such as Japan and South Korea.
Many young Chinese say they prefer not to get married because it makes it more difficult to find a job, competition intensifies and the cost of living less manageable.
“I don’t want to get married at all,” said Yao Xing, a 32-year-old bachelor who lives in the city of Dandong, near China’s border with North Korea. His parents pressured him to get married and have children, but Mr. Yao said his job buying and selling kitchenware had made it difficult to maintain a steady income, which he considers a prerequisite for marriage. . In addition, he added, many women don’t want to get married anyway.
“I think more and more people around me don’t want to get married, and the divorce rate and the marriage rate in China has dropped significantly, which I think is an irreversible trend,” said Mr. yao.
Rising gender inequality at work and at home has led many women to think twice about marriage as well. Younger women, better educated and more financially independent than their mothers, have seen their economic position change, while the societal view of them has not.
“We call this a package deal, where a woman marries not just a man, but the entire family,” said Wei-Jun Jean Yeung, professor of provost and founding director of the Center for Family and Population Research at the National University of Singapore. . “This package doesn’t seem to be a good deal anymore.”
The couples who marry in China often prefer not to have children because they are concerned about the rising cost of education and the burden of taking care of elderly parents while also having young children. Some postpone getting married and instead choose to live together without the ceremony and, often, without the children.
“The relatively lower marriage rates coupled with rising divorce rates may indicate the deinstitutionalization of marriage, meaning more people may prefer cohabitation over marriage,” said Ye Liu, senior lecturer in the department of international development at King’s College London.
Fearing the day the population could shrink, the Chinese government has for years enacted policies to encourage marriage and childbearing. It has twice revised strict family planning rules in the past decade, first by ending a decades-old “one child” policy in 2015, and later allowing married couples to have three children.
Officials have promised better maternity leave and protections for working mothers, although many pregnant women still report discrimination in the labor market. Some cities have tried incentives such as maternity leave, which gives newlyweds extra vacation days, to encourage couples to get married and start a family.
Despite these efforts, marriage rates have fallen every year since 2014. About 7.6 million people married in 2021, the lowest figure since officials began recording marriages in 1986, according to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs.
Concerned that married couples were moving too fast to end their relationship, officials imposed a “cooling off period” for divorce in January last year. The rule requires couples to wait 30 days after filing for divorce to proceed with the divorce proceedings.
“Some of the previous divorce cases have been impulsive divorces,” Dong Yuzheng, a population expert and president of the Guangdong Academy of Population Development, told Chinese state media this week.
“Some people often argue when confronted with a trivial issue, and the so-called lack of common language is actually the result of the wrong attitude of both parties, who do not put themselves in the right position and impulsively want to separate when their emotions come. up,” said Mr. Dong.
Chinese officials and academics such as Mr Dong have credited the cooling-off period with helping to slow the divorce rate. Officials said 2.1 million couples successfully completed divorce filings by 2021, down 43 percent from 3.7 million in 2020.
Other experts say other factors may have played a role. Ethan Michelson, an expert on Chinese matrimonial law and gender inequality at Indiana University, said the decline in the divorce rate may be related to the difficulty of planning divorce settlements during the pandemic.
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The data reported by the government is limited to what are known as “divorce divorces,” which is processed by civil law firms and not courts, where lengthy legal battles can take place. In the types of cases reported, spouses are required to file for divorce jointly in person. After the 30-day cooling-off period, the couple must return or the divorce petition is withdrawn.
Lockdowns and social distancing rules made the logistics of that process more difficult. There were also indications that the divorce demand remained strong. In the three months before Chinese officials introduced the cooling off period, people rushed to get divorced. More than a million registrations were made, an increase of 13 percent from a year earlier. And as state media this week announced the declining divorce rate, many Chinese took to the internet to question the news.
On Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, a discussion of the new data was read by more than 310 million people. Many of the comments were derogatory. One commenter asked, ‘How many people don’t get divorced because they can’t? And the number of marriages is the lowest in 36 years.” Another person asked, “Why should we get married?”
Others were concerned about the impact on victims of domestic violence. Rights activists have warned that the cooling off rule is harmful to people living in abusive marriages. Officials have refuted that argument by claiming that victims of domestic violence can ask the court to dissolve their marriage. But many victims, as well as stay-at-home moms, have no income to pay their own legal costs.
The overall message to women in China has been overwhelmingly negative, said Mr. Michelson, the professor at Indiana University and the author of a forthcoming book on divorce in China. “Women learn that if they get married, they risk losing everything,” he said. “They risk their freedom to get out of a marriage.”
Liu Yi research contributed.