SHANGHAI — On a cold December afternoon, Chen stood waiting for her turn at the packed marriage registration bureau in Shanghai’s Huangpu District. Inside, she would finalize an important life decision: divorcing her husband.
The 28-year-old told Sixth Tone she was on a tight deadline. Beginning Jan. 1, a new rule will require couples seeking divorces through marriage registration bureaus to observe a 30-day “cool-off period” — meaning if one partner changes their mind during that time, the divorce will not be granted.
“The cool-off period policy made me realize that marriage is not a good thing, as there’s a barrier to let you out, but not to let you in. Anything with obstacles for letting you out is not a good thing,” Chen said, her eyes impatiently strained toward the registration counter.
The new provision on divorce is part of China’s first civil code, which was approved in May, despite the public and some top legislators voicing dissent. Many argued that the proposition would limit citizens’ freedom to get divorced — currently, civil affairs bureaus grant same-day divorces — and make the proceedings difficult for survivors of domestic violence.
Outside the marriage registration bureau in Huangpu, a security guard surnamed Yin told Sixth Tone that, by his observation, twice as many couples were visiting the building to sever their marital ties.
“There are so many people coming to get divorced this month. Everyone wants to get it done before the cool-off period,” Yin said, taking a drag from a cigarette. “On typical days, we would have 20 couples on average. Now, there are at least 40 to 50 per day. And people start lining up early in the morning.”
As of mid-December, 14 of the 17 civil affairs bureaus handling divorce requests in Shanghai were booked through the end of the year, leaving couples with no alternative but to wait in line outside. Couples can only get divorced at the marriage registration office closest to where their official residence is registered — meaning if that office is fully booked, they can’t just drive to another one.
Online reservation systems for other big cities, including Guangzhou and Shenzhen, also had no appointment slots available.
Sixth Tone’s repeated phone calls to Guangzhou’s civil affairs bureau went unanswered. A section manager at the marriage registration bureau in Shanghai told Sixth Tone she was unable to comment on the issue due to its “sensitivity at the moment.”
China’s divorce rates have been continuously increasing since 2003. Last year, over 4.7 million couples officially separated, with women being the ones who proposed divorce in 74% of such cases. Experts attribute this to growing independence among women and shifting attitudes about marriage. Still, China’s divorce rate is relatively low compared with other countries such as the United States and India.
The cool-off policy was proposed to deter couples from making rash decisions to separate, according to authorities. Shang Shaohua, a former member of China’s top political advisory body who first proposed the cool-off periods in 2010, said the policy can help reduce “impulsive divorces,” especially among young couples who were born under China’s one-child policy.
“The simplified process has made getting a divorce too quick to regret,” Shang said at the time. “Many impetuous young couples would have a fight one night, get divorced the next morning, and already regret it by the afternoon.”
But experts doubt whether the new rule will actually stop couples from seeking divorces.
Wu Xiaoying, professor of sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Sixth Tone the cool-off period represents a step backward. It may buy couples time, she said, but it can’t mend a relationship that has already crumbled apart.
“The policy reflects the government’s aim to make marriage and society more stable,” Wu said. “The fact that the policy is unpopular among young people also reflects the different marriage values across generations.”
The entrance of a marriage registration bureau in Shanghai, Dec. 16, 2020. Chen Qi’an/Sixth Tone
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has further pushed couples to weigh major life choices, with many realizing they wanted to cut their marital ties. In cities such as Xi’an in the northwestern Shaanxi province and Dazhou in the southwestern Sichuan province, divorce rates sharply increased from February to March, when stay-at-home orders were relaxed. Officials have yet to announce nationwide divorce data for 2020.
Chen said she, too, decided to divorce her husband during the COVID-19 outbreak, when their relationship “wasn’t going well.” She had wanted to finish the procedure by the end of the year. Though there was an online appointment for the last day of the month, she opted to stand outside in the cold, hoping for an earlier slot.
“We don’t want to risk it, so we decided to come here and wait in line,” she said.
Some women are determined to meet the year-end deadline, even if it means they’ll have to bear a greater financial burden.
Vivian Wang from the eastern city of Qingdao was granted a divorce in early December. But the 30-year-old said she managed to convince her husband to complete the proceedings before the new rule went into effect only after agreeing she didn’t need anything in return.
“I must get the divorce done before the cool-off period is enforced,” said Wang. “If that means I lose everything in the distribution of assets, it’s fine. I just want to leave him and start my new life.”
But filing for a legal separation isn’t convenient for everyone, especially those in abusive relationships.
A 24-year-old woman surnamed Lin from the eastern Zhejiang province told Sixth Tone she wants to end her six-month marriage before the cool-off period takes effect, though her husband is unwilling unless she agrees to pay him around 10,000 yuan ($1,500), which she says she can’t afford.
“Sometimes divorce can be really hard, especially when your partner doesn’t want to cooperate,” Lin said. “If there was no impending cool-off period, I might just try to calm him down and persuade him to go with me to the bureau and get the divorce. But now, if he changes his mind during the 30 days, what can I do?”
According to women’s rights advocates, the policy is likely to further burden women who are vulnerable in their marriages, such as domestic violence survivors.
Sixth Tone spoke with a social worker surnamed Hai who works at a hotline responding to survivors of domestic violence at a state-affiliated women’s rights group in the southern Guangdong province. She said that, although some of the people she talks to want to sue their partners for divorce, a majority of them just want to separate before the cool-off period is officially enacted.
“Most of them don’t know about the policy,” said Hai, adding that the survivors who call her for help are mainly middle-aged women. “When I inform them about the policy, they’re usually anxious and surprised — anxious because they don’t know whether they can make it, and surprised because of how hard the divorce can be.”
A photo booth inside a marriage registration bureau in Shanghai, Dec. 16, 2020. Zhang Wanqing/Sixth Tone
Some lawmakers have clarified that the new provision will only be applicable for mutually agreed-upon divorces, and not for domestic violence survivors suing for divorce. But in reality, divorce cases can take at least a couple of months to bear fruit, as over half of such lawsuits are dismissed in their first hearing.
Earlier this month, a 63-year-old woman’s lawsuit to divorce her husband after she had endured 40 years of abuse was rejected by a Shaanxi court, highlighting the perils many women may have to face in the future. Instead, the court told the plaintiff and defendant to be “more understanding and appreciative of each other.”
Meanwhile, in Shanghai, Chen was told she’d have to wait another day to file divorce proceedings, after she had stood in line outside the marriage registration bureau for over two hours. It was 4:15 p.m., 15 minutes before closing time, and the sun was about to set. But Chen knew a new day was only a few hours away.
She walked out of the office, where her husband was waiting. “What happened?” he asked, looking confused.
“We’ll have to do it tomorrow,” she said. “Let’s wake up early and get in line.”
Contributions: Chen Qi’an; editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Fantastic Graphics/People Visual)