A few years ago, a report by a state-run newspaper in the central province of Hubei caused a brief stir online when it revealed that an employee of a local marriage registration bureau had refused to process more than 500 divorce applications over the course of nine years. If the official decided that a couple hadn’t given their decision due thought, she would give them an excuse, such as “the printer is broken” or “the internet is down,” and tell them to come back later.
Yet the report in question was neither an in-depth exposé on government malfeasance nor a scathing commentary on official malpractice. It portrayed the official in question not as a cautionary tale, but rather as a good-natured woman who had saved more than 500 marriages by lying to couples and not allowing them to file for divorce — instead giving them time to “think it over.”
According to a Xinhua report, a recently proposed law may take this official’s mindset nationwide. In its current form, the draft law includes a “cool-off” provision, which would mandate couples filing for divorce through their local Ministry of Civil Affairs branch — as opposed to the court system, which handles more contentious cases — return to the office a month later to finalize the paperwork. During that time, either partner may — should they no longer agree to the divorce — withdraw the application. The divorce will also be voided if the couple does not return to process the final paperwork. The official justification given by the law’s drafters is that China's current divorce procedures are too simple, causing a rise in the number of so-called impulse divorces and the destabilization of the Chinese family.
Netizens are skeptical that delaying divorce will accomplish anything, however. In the most upvoted comment on a Beijing News post about the proposed law, one commenter points out that, “It might be better to institute a cool-off period for marriages [than for divorces].” The comment is a reference to the phenomenon of “flash marriages,” in which couples get married shortly after they start dating — and sometimes divorced not long after.
The notion of a government-mandated cool-off period for divorce is not new. As early as 2017, courts in Sichuan, Shaanxi, Shandong, and Guangdong provinces began experimenting with similar plans of their own. And in July 2018, China’s Supreme Court recommended the country’s lower courts mandate a cool-off period of up to three months — provided that both parties in the divorce consent — during which time couples could take advantage of court-offered counseling and mediation services.
Supporters argue that cool-off periods can reduce the number of impulse divorces and improve people’s attitudes toward marriage. Opponents dismiss the idea as more government overreach, and worry that such laws will put limits on people’s right to divorce — particularly important in cases involving domestic violence. There is also concern that the law could be used as a pretext for local officials to drag out divorce proceedings and keep the local divorce rate down.
This last point is generally seen as a key motive behind the proposed cool-off period. In recent years, the central government has expressed increasing concern about a brewing crisis of family values, as evidenced by the country’s rising divorce rate, growing unmarried population, and declining fertility. In China, no branch of government is immune to political pressure, and should the central government decide to take more active measures to curb the divorce rate, local officials may feel it better to infringe on couples’ rights than risk the wrath of their superiors.
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the number of couples filing for divorce increased from 1.33 million in 2003 to 4.37 million in 2017. Over that same time frame, the country’s divorce rate rose from 2.1 per 1,000 people to 3.2 per 1,000 people. Meanwhile, the country’s marriage rate has declined steadily since 2013.
To some, rising divorce rates are a sign of a growing generational divide. The difference between the traditional and modern Chinese view of marriage is aptly summed up in a line from “Love is Not Blind,” a Chinese romantic comedy. “People of my generation treat marriages like a refrigerator,” one older character says. “Every time it breaks down, we fix it. Not like you young people: Every time something breaks, you want a new one.”
Older Chinese increasingly believe today’s young people treat marriage as though they are playing house, rather than as if they are part of an institution worthy of respect. The proposed cool-off period may be a sign that the government agrees, and that it plans to take action to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.
But many Chinese citizens — especially among the younger generation — are wary of what they view as yet more government interference into people’s private lives. Earlier this year, proposed tax cuts for married couples were criticized online as being tantamount to a “single’s tax.” Media commentaries — some calling for the government to force married couples to pay into a fund until they have two children, some calling childbirth both a family and a national matter — also provoked widespread ridicule. Now young Chinese worry that their right to divorce is also on the chopping block.
The freedom to marry and divorce as one wishes has long been seen within China as a key indicator of modernity and social progress — so much so that one of the first things the Chinese Communist Party did upon taking power in 1949 was pass a new marriage law guaranteeing these rights to all citizens, at least on paper.
In practice, however, the government has viewed people’s family lives as being subject to state control. In 1994, the government required couples filing for divorce to subject themselves to a month-long investigation by the relevant authorities to ensure their divorce met legal requirements. The law, which also required couples to get permission from their work unit or village committee, was only repealed in 2003.
And despite the speed with which the Party originally moved to guarantee marriage and divorce rights, China has made only halting progress since then toward protecting the rights of vulnerable parties in marriages. For example, when victims of domestic violence — a factor in 14.86 percent of divorce cases — report the abuse to the police, investigators often refuse to act on the grounds that domestic violence is a family matter that should be dealt with between husband and wife. In such cases, divorce is often the last or even the only means of protection that vulnerable spouses have.
In reality, it is only natural that China, as a rapidly developing and modernizing country, would see its marriage rate fall and its divorce rate rise. At best, instituting a mandated cool-off period before couples can get divorced will do nothing to reverse this trend; at worst, it could devastate those at the lowest rungs of society, for whom getting a divorce will now be far more costly and time-consuming.
It is important to remember that the current proposal is just that: a proposal. Already, scholars and experts have filed formal comments with the government, suggesting exemptions be granted in cases involving domestic violence, gambling, drug use, or other serious circumstances.
Even with exemptions, however, I do not believe a cool-off policy is the right way to strengthen China's marriages. Instead, we should be trying to resolve some of the underlying problems that cause couples to file for divorce in the first place. This means helping young married couples to become more independent from their parents, develop a sense of appreciation for the importance of marriage as an institution, and cultivate important communication and conflict-resolution skills. Meanwhile, parents must be taught to intervene less in their children’s marital lives and give their children time and space to resolve issues on their own.
There is a traditional Chinese saying: “Even demolishing a temple is preferable to ruining a marriage.” Yet some temples — and marriages — are irreparable, and clinging to them will only put people in danger. Rather than spend all our time trying to save the family unit by forcing couples to stay in broken marriages, we should focus our efforts on helping married couples improve their relationships before it’s too late. And if and when they ultimately decide that their marriage cannot be saved, we should support them as they build a new life, not seek to trap them in their old one.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A woman waits for a local divorce registration office to open in Shanghai, Aug. 30, 2014. IC)