A historically low number of divorces were granted in China after a controversial law to discourage couples from legally separating came into effect this year.
In the first quarter of 2021, only 296,000 couples received divorces, a 72% drop compared with the fourth quarter of last year, according to data published last week by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs. Prior to the national data, dozens of cities and provinces — including Hangzhou, Nanchang, and Nanjing — had released their own local data showing similar declines.
In January, China enacted a new law stipulating that divorcing couples must observe 30-day “cool-off periods” during which the proceedings will be halted if either spouse changes their mind. Experts have attributed this year’s divorce rate decline to the new law.
Zhang Yan, the secretary-general of the Shenyang Lawyers Association’s marriage and family law committee, told Sixth Tone the so-called cool-off period may slow down the divorce process while also reducing the likelihood of “irrational separation.”
“After reconsidering their relationship, child custody, and property disputes, many couples end up forgoing divorce during the cool-off period,” she said. “Or it could be that some fail to show up for their second appointment.”
Under the new law, a mutually agreed-upon divorce can take 30 to 60 days to complete. Couples must make two appointments with their local civil affairs bureau, and if they don’t show up for both meetings, their divorce requests are canceled automatically.
Part of the impetus for making divorces more difficult to obtain can be attributed to China’s aging population. With a higher proportion of elderly people straining social welfare programs, the country needs more young workers, and authorities are hoping that keeping couples together will lead to more births.
As such, the first-quarter data has been officially framed as a success — even as many on social media have been quick to question the cool-off period policy for limiting the freedoms of divorce-seekers, as well as putting domestic violence victims at risk.
“The title of this news should be ‘70% of couples weren’t able to get divorced,’” one user commented under a related media post on microblogging platform Weibo. “(Authorities) have tried so hard to intervene that of course the number of divorces will decrease — but you can’t calculate people’s pain with data,” commented another.
In late December, many couples in big cities rushed to get divorced before the end of the year so as to avoid the new policy. But even when compared to first-quarter data from 2019, the divorce rate decline in 2021 was almost the same at 71%.
A 26-year-old Shenzhen resident surnamed Lian, who asked that her full name not be used to protect her privacy, said she went through the cool-off period before her divorce was approved in April. First, she said, she and her husband had to attend a “reconciliation session” at their local civil affairs bureau. Then they had to visit again after 30 to 60 days to receive their legal separation.
“To me, the cool-off period is completely unnecessary,” Lian told Sixth Tone. “I don’t think anyone would change their mind in one month. If anything, their pain might only grow.”
Chen Yaya, a gender researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told Sixth Tone that although she understands the public backlash against the policy, the focus now should be on solving the issues that come with the new law.
“Now that the cool-off period is a reality, we should start to focus on the problems that can realistically be solved — for example, researching its effects on women, and how to eliminate the negative ones,” she said.
Meanwhile, Zhang, the lawyer, added that the first quarter’s divorce data isn’t enough to draw conclusions about the long-term impact of the cool-off period. “After all, the Civil Code has just been implemented,” she said, referring to the legislation that introduced the new policy. “Further research and observations are needed to gauge its impact.”
China isn’t the only country with a restrictive divorce policy. Domestic authorities said that in drafting the new marriage law, they referred to related policies in other countries such as the United Kingdom, France, South Korea, and the United States.
Earlier this year, China released its national marriage data from 2020, which showed the steepest decline in new marriages in the past 17 years.
Additional reporting: Liu Mengqiu; editors: Bibek Bhandari and David Paulk.
(Header image: A court official applies an official stamp to a divorce document in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 2013. Zhang Qingyun/IC)