Divorce Restrictions Endanger Women as Leaders Focus on Demographic Crisis

China has implemented a mandatory “cooling-off” period for divorces, mandating that spouses observe a 30-day waiting period to deter impulsive divorces. But the new requirement, which went into effect on January 1st of this year, has created a variety of side effects, from a surge of divorces in the final days of 2020 to appointment “scalping” under the new system.

The controversy about the waiting period and how to manage China’s growing divorce rate comes as Chinese lawmakers wrestle with a long foretold demographic crisis of an aging population and falling birth rates, which reached a new low in 2020. Observers are watching the annual “Two Sessions” meetings in Beijing this week to see if Beijing will respond with reforms to its family planning policies.

Last week, The New York Times’ Elsie Chen and Sui-Lee Wee reported on the phenomenon of escalating rates of separation that led to the rule change last year, and noted a surge in late-December divorces:

“Some couples would fight in the morning and divorce in the afternoon,” Long Jun, an expert who worked to include the rule in the country’s new civil code, said in an interview with the official Legal Daily newspaper. “In order to reduce this phenomenon, the civil code was designed to address this in a systemic way.”

Data released by the civil affairs ministry last week showed that there were more than a million filings for divorce in the last three months of 2020, up 13 percent compared to the same period a year earlier.

[…] On Dec. 30, [Emma Shi, a 38-year old engineer,] found a fixer on Xianyu, an app for trading secondhand items, who promised to closely monitor the civil affairs bureau’s website for any slots that might free up. She paid him $50.

That same evening, Ms. Shi got an appointment — and her divorce came through the next morning. “I’m very grateful,” she said. In her view, she said, “it is marriage that needs a cooling-off period,” not divorce. [Source]

The national divorce cooling-off requirement, which was earlier trialled on a provincial level in Guangdong, was condemned by many on social media when it was announced last year. Critics said it would worsen the problem of domestic abuse in China, a crisis highlighted by a series of shocking cases last year that were widely publicized on social media. The new law does not technically apply in cases where a spouse is a victim of domestic violence, but as South China Morning Post’s Phoebe Zhang reported, legal hurdles mean the requirement still disadvantages and even endangers women:

The new law does not apply if a spouse files for divorce on the grounds that they are a victim of domestic violence. However, Zhong said the law would still disadvantage women, particularly those without an independent source of income.

“Men can decide whether they want to divorce or retract their application. If a woman wants to and the man doesn’t, the woman will then have to sue, hiring a lawyer at great personal and financial cost. Many women – particularly full-time housewives – aren’t in a position to do this,” Zhong said.

Dong Xiaoying, a Guangzhou-based lawyer and founder of the Advocates for a Diverse Family Network, believes women victims of domestic violence will find it even more difficult than previously to divorce.

“If a man doesn’t want a divorce, the female domestic-violence sufferer needs to file a lawsuit. That takes time,” Dong said. “But China does not provide support for women suffering from domestic violence, such as providing sanctuaries.” [Source]

In January, CDT translated an article about the death of Kan Xiaofang, an aspiring teacher who was brutally murdered by her husband during their “cooling-off” period, after she filed for divorce.

Even registering with the government to initiate the 30-day waiting period has become a challenge since the new requirements took effect. For SupChina, Jiayun Feng reported on how separating couples in Guangzhou have had to compete with divorce “scalpers” who have been hoarding appointment slots and selling them to couples at extortionate rates:

The Beijing News reported (in Chinese) that scalpers in the city of Guangzhou, whose main businesses used to be selling appointment slots at prestigious hospitals and concert tickets at inflated prices— have discovered a new revenue stream — abusing the divorce appointment system by snatching up just about every available slot, and reselling them to separating couples.

When speaking to the newspaper, furious couples said that they had to push back their separation because no dates were available for them to submit divorce documents to local officials until next month. They called out resellers for charging up to 600 yuan ($93) to grab a slot for them in the online reservation system, which has no mechanism to fight bots when releasing new slots around midnight. [Source]

The recent rise in divorces in China may also be related to the coronavirus pandemic. Globally, break-ups and divorces have spiked during the pandemic as the virus takes a toll on close interpersonal relationships. Even though China’s success in containing the virus domestically has meant that most people have been able to live their lives with few social distancing restrictions, new data released in February showed that birthrates across the country plummeted last year—a possible reflection of the strain of the pandemic on marriages. The Washington Post’s Lily Kuo reported on the birth rate decline, which repudiated any predictions of a coronavirus-induced baby boom:

It turns out that few couples were in the mood. New data this week showed that birthrates in the country continued to plummet, with 10.04 million births registered in 2020, a 15 percent drop from the year before, according to the Ministry of Public Security.

Although not the official birthrate, the latest figure was a third lower than the number of births recorded in 2019 — already the country’s lowest since the early 1960s, when China was in the middle of a famine. Yet, residents were not surprised by the data.

“A baby boom? You’ve got to be kidding me. Who would have a kid now? Raising a kid is asking for death,” one commentator wrote on the microblog Weibo. “When you have no income, who would dare make another life?” another said, referring to the economic strain many felt as the country ground to a halt.

“Whoever predicted a coronavirus baby boom must be disappointed. Faced with panic, we care more about survival,” one user wrote. “Who was in the mood to make babies?” another asked incredulously. [Source]

In light of the worsening demographic crisis there is much anticipation over whether China’s top leaders will reform the country’s family planning policies at the “Two Sessions” meetings being held in Beijing this week. State-affiliated tabloid Global Times reported that “multiple representatives call for further loosening of family planning policy.” The South China Morning Post’s Sidney Leng and Amanda Lee reported on potential changes that could be expected at the meetings:

Over the past five years, a number of Chinese legislators and demographers have repeatedly proposed completely abandoning the government’s birth control policy, which is still in China’s constitution, with the impact following the change to a two-child policy in 2016 fading.

[…] “I think that the words ‘family planning’ will not appear in this year’s government work report just like in recent years. No mention of it means that the birth control policy is being phased out,” said He Yafu, a Chinese demographer.

“It is unlikely that the two sessions this year will explicitly be abolishing the family planning policy, because last year’s fifth plenary session only vaguely mentioned ‘enhancing the inclusiveness of the birth policy’.”

[…] “I estimated a while back that population policy adjustments would not take place at the two sessions, but rather at the sixth plenary session at the end of the year, after the results of the census are released,” said Yi Fuxian, senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. [Source]

Amid the controversy over changes to China’s divorce and family planning policies, one women undergoing divorce proceedings received good news: Last week, for the first time, a Chinese divorce court ordered a man to compensate his ex-wife for housework done during their marriage, a move hailed by activists as a significant step towards recognizing unpaid housework as a legitimate form of labor. The Guardian’s Helen Davidson reported on the ruling, which was the first case to implement China’s new civil code in the case of a divorce:

Under a new civil code that came into effect last month, a person may seek compensation from their partner during a divorce if they were the primary carer for children or elderly parents, or did most of the unpaid household work. The amount should be negotiated, but if that fails then it will be decided by court.

A Beijing court ruled the husband, surnamed Chen, must pay his now ex-wife, Wang, the sum of 50,000 yuan for not pulling his weight around the house.

[…] The presiding judge, Feng Miao, said the division of property related to “tangible property”, of which it was impossible to include housework. Housework “for example, can improve the ability of the other spouse to achieve personal, individual academic growth, and this is not reflected in the tangible property.”

[…] More than 427,000 people responded to an online poll by Chinese media outlet, Pheonix Weekly, which asked if the compensation was right, wrong, too small, or too big. Almost 94% said it was right but not enough, with commenters saying it underestimated the job of stay-at-home wives and mothers. Some quoted an increasingly popular idiom: “to keep yourself, don’t get married or give birth”. [Source]


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