China’s divorce rate is down, but so are marriages

HONG KONG — Faced with a soaring 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 “reflection” period before to finalize a divorce.

The rule appears to have worked, the government says statistics published this week, which show a sharp drop in divorce applications in 2021.

Local officials have welcomed the new rule as a success in the country’s efforts to grow families and stem a demographic crisis threatening the Chinese economy. But the party has a much bigger challenge: Fewer and fewer Chinese citizens are getting married in the first place.

Along with falling divorce rates, the number of marriage registrations plunged to a 36-year low in 2021. Falling marriages contributed to falling birth rates, a worrying sign in Chinese society which is aging rapidly and a more familiar phenomenon in countries like Japan and South Korea.

Many young Chinese say they would rather not get married because jobs are getting harder to find, competition fiercer 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 the China-North Korea border. His parents are pressuring him to marry and have children, but Mr. Yao said his job buying and selling kitchen utensils has made it difficult to maintain a stable income, which he considers it a prerequisite for marriage. In addition, he added, many women do not want to marry anyway.

“I think more and more people around me don’t want to get married, and China’s divorce rate and marriage rate have come down significantly, which I think is an irreversible trend,” Ms. Yao.

Growing gender inequality at work and at home has also made many women think twice about marriage. More educated and more financially independent than their mothers, young women have seen their economic situation change while society does not perceive them.

“We call it a forfeit, where a woman marries not just a man but the whole family,” said Wei-Jun Jean Yeung, senior professor and founding director of the Family and Population Research Center. from the National University of Singapore. “This package doesn’t seem like a good deal anymore.”

Couples getting married in China often prefer not to have children, citing concerns about the rising cost of education and the burden of caring for aging parents while having young children. Some delay marriage, preferring to live together without ceremony and, often, without children.

“The relatively lower marriage rates associated with rising divorce rates could signal the deinstitutionalization of marriage, meaning more people may choose cohabitation over marriage,” said Ye Liu, senior lecturer at the department. in International Development from King’s College London.

Fearing the day when the population might begin to dwindle, the Chinese government has spent years introducing policies to encourage marriage and having children. He has overhauled strict family planning rules twice in the past decade, first ending a decades-old ‘one child’ policy in 2015, then allowing married couples to have three children .

Authorities have promised better maternity leave and better protections for working mothers, though many pregnant women still report discrimination in the job market. Some cities have tried incentives like marriage leave, which gives newlyweds extra vacation days, to encourage couples to marry and start families.

Despite these efforts, marriage rates have fallen every year since 2014. About 7.6 million people married in 2021, the lowest figure since authorities began registering marriages in 1986, according to the Chinese ministry. of Civil Affairs.

Worried that married couples are moving too quickly to end their relationships, authorities implemented a divorce ‘cooling off’ period in January last year. The rule required couples to wait 30 days after filing for divorce to pursue divorce proceedings.

“Some of the past divorce cases are impulsive divorces,” said Dong Yuzheng, a population expert and president of the Guangdong Population Development Academy. Recount Chinese state media this week.

“Some people often quarrel when they encounter a trivial matter, and the so-called lack of common language is actually the result of the incorrect attitude of both parties, who do not put themselves in the right position and want to impulsively divorce when their emotions rise,” Mr. Dong said.

Chinese officials and scholars like Mr. Dong credited the cooling-off period with helping to slow the divorce rate. Officials said 2.1 million couples successfully registered their divorce in 2021, down 43% from 3.7 million in 2020.

Other experts say additional factors may have played a role. Ethan Michelson, an expert on Chinese marriage law and gender inequality at Indiana University, said the falling divorce rate may be linked to the difficulty of scheduling divorce appointments during the pandemic. .

The data reported by the government is limited to so-called “divorces by agreement”, which are handled by civil affairs offices and not by the courts, where lengthy legal battles can take place. In the types of cases reported, spouses are required to jointly file for divorce in person. After the 30-day reflection period, the couple must return or the divorce petition is withdrawn.

Lockdowns and social distancing rules have made the logistics of this process more difficult. There were also indications that the demand for divorce remained strong. In the three months before Chinese authorities introduced the chill period, people rushed to get divorced. Over one million deposits were made, an increase of 13% over the previous year. And as state media trumpeted the slowing divorce rate this week, many Chinese took to the internet to cast doubt on the news.

On Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, a discussion around the new data has been 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 for 36 years. Another person asked, “Why should we get married?”

Others worried about the consequences for victims of domestic violence. Rights campaigners have warned that the chill rule is harmful to people living in abusive marriages. Authorities have countered this argument by saying 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 fees.

The overall message to women in China has been overwhelmingly negative, said Mr. Michelson, a professor at Indiana University and author of a next book on divorce in china. “Women learn that if they get married, they risk losing everything,” he said. “They are risking their freedom to get out of a marriage.”

Liu Yi contributed to the research.

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