Oct 10, 2021, 19:15
After 17 years of growth, China's divorce rate has registered a precipitous decline. About 966,000 couples divorced in the first half of this year, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. That is a nearly 40 percent decline year-on-year or a 52 percent plunge compared with the same period in 2019.
The statistical about-face came after China's first Civil Code took effect this year. A new rule in the code's family and marriage chapter requires couples to go through a monthlong cooling-off period before a divorce can be granted.
The delay, as legislators have explained, is intended to stave off impulsive decisions by young couples and it does not apply in split-ups involving domestic violence. But some maintained the rule can also delay divorces for victims as domestic violence is hard to prove in court.
Ding Jianlue, an associate professor of psychology at Jilin University, sees the new rule as the immediate cause for the downtick. But he doubts if the trend will continue.
"It's possible that couples calm down and decide to call off their divorce, but they can only calm down temporarily," he said. "I suspect that divorces will increase in the coming years."
Figures from a number of registration offices pointed to the effectiveness of the new rule, with large numbers of couples who filed for divorce earlier this year not going ahead with the decision after the cooling-off period.
For example, more than 1,200 couples visited such offices in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, in January to dissolve their marriages, but only one-third followed through with their decisions. Nearly 60 percent of applicants did so in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei province.
Wan Fei, who heads an anti-domestic violence group in Hubei, said the new rule means a couple needs to visit registration offices at least twice, making it harder for those living in separate cities to proceed.
"It's very inconvenient, making people postpone a divorce indefinitely," he said.
His theory is relevant given that about 376 million people, or one in every four people in the Chinese mainland, were classified as migrants in the latest census data published in May. It's not uncommon for husbands to work all year long in coastal factories where they can earn considerately more than in their hometown, while their wives care for their children in rural areas.
The husband's enlarged social circle and the readily available dating apps have all made long-distance relationships less stable, said Wan, a retired police officer.
Couples in China can divorce by agreement, and in that case husbands and wives can go directly to registration offices to file for a split-up. Divorces can also be granted by a court if couples cannot reach an agreement on issues related to property and children.
When China scrapped a monthlong approval process for divorce in 2003, the nation had what some experts have called a very streamlined divorce process. In most cases, divorces were granted on the day of application.
That led the number of divorces by agreement to soar. In 2001, roughly 42 percent of divorces were by agreement, and by 2015, the ratio was 82 percent, according to the ministry.
Now with the cooling-off period in place, Wan feared more couples are heading to courts.
Apart from the prolonged divorce process, Zhang Jing, a family development researcher at Beijing University of Technology, said the easing of epidemic-control measures may also have played a role in the downtick.
Early last year, stay-at-home mandates were widely introduced to control the COVID-19 contagion. The confinement strained faltering relationships, according to many relationship experts. A surge of divorce applications inundated registration offices nationwide, ranging from northwestern China's Shaanxi province to the central province of Hubei and Shanghai on the wealthier eastern coast.
Now that the world is well into the second year of the pandemic, "Chinese people have psychologically adapted to the virus and know how to better deal with relationships amid the recurring restrictions," she said.
The sharp drop in divorces came as the central authorities have emphasized the role of the family in social governance and the central authorities are moving to bolster marriage and fertility rates to decelerate the aging process.
The Fourth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee in November 2019 passed a resolution to bolster modern social governance, which said the family should play a large role in community-level governance and serve as a vehicle for moral education.
Officials say that the family is the basic unit of society, and given these circumstances, divorce is discouraged in policymaking, said Ding from Jilin University.
Many researchers said measures aimed to let couples think twice before deciding on a divorce are particularly relevant in China, where the family plays a large part in caring for the young and old.