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China bucks a Western import: divorce

Once rare, divorce has risen sharply with freedoms. A new lawaims to slow the trend.

Beijing's market-oriented economic revolution, aimed at transforming China into a world power, is also triggering rapid-fire changes in the spheres of social and family life here.

Growing freedom among China's 1.2 billion citizens to map out their own professional and personal lives is generating not only rising incomes, but also rising expectations for the "perfect" marriage. As a result, divorce is skyrocketing.

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"In the past, many marriages were political," says Ma Fengzhi, a sociology professor at Beijing University. "Everyone from Army officers to bureaucrats to workers had to have their potential spouses approved by party bosses," says Ms. Ma.

"Today, people have the freedom to choose their own partners, so it's natural that some want to discard their political matches...." she adds.

Western influence may also play a role. "Chinese youths raised on Hollywood films and American television say, 'If young Americans can fall in and out of love so easily, why can't we,' " Ma says.

"That could be leading more and more young people into hasty marriages and hasty divorces," she adds.

A generation of Chinese have grown up since Beijing ended its global isolation 20 years ago.

The number of couples seeking divorce has nearly quadrupled in the two decades since China began jettisoning its state-planned economy and society.

In 1997, while 9.1 million couples got married, 1.2 million got divorced, according to the Chinese civil affairs ministry. A dozen years before, 8.3 million couples married while only 450,000 formally split.

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The trend has apparently alarmed the Chinese leadership, which is proposing a new marriage law that could make it much more difficult to obtain a divorce.

The suggested changes, which include strict penalties for adulterers, are sparking a charged debate among the people, in the press, and in parliament over how closely to regulate the marriage contract.

Yang Dawen, who heads a committee that is revising and expanding the family and marriage law, says that current regulations "provide too few guideposts to judges considering whether to grant a divorce and on what terms."

Mr. Yang, a law professor at People's University in Beijing, says many scholars being consulted "think that no-fault divorce rules should be amended to punish those who break their marriage vows with extramarital affairs."

One idea being floated includes sanctions on not only the spouse, but also the "third party" who commits adultery.

Yet contrary to widely circulating rumors, the police are not going to be enlisted in any drive to track down adulterers for prosecution.

"The new law would punish adulterers with civil fines rather than criminal penalties," says Guo Jianmei, who runs a women's rights clinic in Beijing.

And although the party once tried to monitor every aspect of the Chinese people's political and private lives, "spouses seeking to prove adultery will have to gather their own evidence," says Ms. Guo.

Many Chinese say the strengthened divorce law is designed to help mask a moral vacuum that has followed the collapse of communist beliefs since troops fired on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989.

"Communism destroyed our Confucian traditions, and no one believes in communism anymore, so our moral codes have disappeared," says a young university lecturer in Beijing.

Sociologist Ma says, "China's social changes are rushing ahead at a breakneck speed, and the law is trying to catch up."

Professor Yang agrees, and adds that the reemergence of private property in China requires an entire new set of rules to guide divorce settlements.

In the decade following the 1949 communist revolution, landowners and factory heads were executed or imprisoned while their holdings were nationalized.

During Mao Zedong's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, privately owned jewelry, religious relics, artworks, and even books were forcibly seized by Red Guards.

The rare divorces granted during Mao's era involved very simple divisions of pots and pans, but market reforms launched since his passing in 1976 have already created 1 million Chinese millionaires.

"We need more precise rules to calculate and split communal property in light of the new economic era," says Yang.

Yang says the new law is likely to provide protection for the rich who want to hold onto their riches.

For the first time in communist Chinese history, he says, the marriage law "will approve the writing of prenuptial agreements on the division of property in the event of a divorce."

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