Netizen Voices: “Divorces Haven’t Decreased, Just Been Postponed.”

In 2020, China registered more divorces than marriages. Just one year later, divorces are down by 70%. At the same time, however, 20% of Chinese women now say they regret marrying, while only 9% said the same in 2012. One factor behind the discrepancy is a new divorce “cooling-off” period which requires couples to wait 30 days before divorce applications are granted, among other restrictions. At The Guardian, Helen Davidson wrote about the policy-driven drop in divorce

According to data published by the ministry of civil affairs, 296,000 divorces were registered during the first three months of 2021, down from 1.05m in the previous quarter, and 1.06m in the same time period the year before, according to state media.

[…] The announcement of the cooling-off period sparked anger at the time, especially among women, and drew suggestions from young people that they were now more likely to avoid marriage altogether.

The new data also drew criticism, with online commenters querying whether the rates were down because people changed their minds or because the process had been made so difficult, noting reported struggles to get divorce appointments before the time ran out. In February Chinese media reported fully booked appointment slots in Shenzhen, Shanghai and other cities, with some being sold by scalpers. [Source]

CDT’s Chinese editors curated a selection of online comments on the news, many of them bitterly sarcastic about the pain the new divorce restrictions have foisted upon women: 

猪圆玉润-: No kidding!. Get rid of divorces altogether and the rate will go to zero.

赌东道的秋刀鱼:Divorces haven’t decreased, just been postponed.

水马上就开:The “cooling-off” period’s effects are so terrific! But it’s meaningless to look at this statistic alone. Only after looking at domestic violence rates, spousal killings, marriage rates, and birth rates will it be interesting.

史塔克工业保洁小妹:Nice, the hospital set up a treatment “cooling-off” period and national medical malpractice deaths declined by 99% because everyone died at home.

大王王二:Lots of people just walked out. A certificate says they’re still married, but they’ve long gone their separate ways. It’s a piece of paper with only statistical significance. [Chinese]

State media suggested that the decline in divorce might stem from the elimination of “impulsive divorces,” but neglected to define the term. Sham marriages and divorces used to skirt restrictions on purchasing things like homes and license-plates have earned significant media attention, yet it seems unlikely that deterring such activity could account for hundreds of thousands of divorces. Meanwhile, women who have been through the new process scoff at the notion that the “cooling-off” period can inspire couples to reconcile. At Sixth Tone, Zhang Wanqing interviewed a Shenzhen woman who had been subjected to the new rules and found them likely to increase women’s pain

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.” [Source]

The arbitrary nature of divorce restrictions came into sharp relief when news broke that two Chinese cities were planning to suspend divorce registrations on May 20 in order to focus on handling a spike in weddings. May 20 is sometimes called China’s Valentines’ Day because “Five Two Zero” is loosely homophonous with “I love you.” The municipalities backtracked after an outpouring of criticism on Weibo pointed out that the policy was discriminatory against those seeking a divorce. One user wrote, “There are many ways to better serve new couples that day, such as arranging more staffers on duty or extending your working hours… You can’t simply shut out those who want to divorce.”

China’s feminists are also fighting back against the state’s anti-divorce stance. In an essay translated by CDT, Zheng Churan wrote of the logic behind feminists’ struggle for equal rights, “Well, you only live once. Why not give it a try!” The struggle for the legal right to divorce has some parallels with feminist activists’ attempts to pursue #MeToo cases in court. 

Last year, dozens upon dozens of supporterss gathered to “surround and watch” as Xianzi (Zhou Xiaoxuan) went to a Beijing court to pursue a sexual harassment claim against a prominent CCTV anchor. The outcome of her case, which is still pending, is of great interest to China’s feminist movement. Other #MeToo cases have stumbled in court because China’s legal system makes it difficult for victims to prove sexual harassment. For The New Yorker, Han Zhang wrote about Xianzi’s case and the legal machinery that leaves victims in a nearly impossible situation

Since 2018, only a handful of criminal and civil cases alleging sexual harassment have been filed and reported in the press in China. A few plaintiffs have won nominal relief, such as a formal apology. It was only in 2020 that the Chinese legislature clearly defined sexual harassment in its first civil code; in previous cases, including in Zhou’s suit, alleged victims had to sue instead for “injury of personality rights,” a vague category covering individuals’ rights to health and dignity. Last year, Zhou asked to modify her suit to a sexual-harassment case; the court denied her request.

In practice, the system remains skeptical of cases such as Zhou’s. In a case decided in January, 2021, in which an influential journalist and philanthropist sued his accuser for defamation, the court ruled that the accuser had to prove that the harassment happened “without any doubt”—an unusually high standard for a civil lawsuit. (In China, the usual civil standard is to establish that the allegation is “highly probable.”) “The standard of evidence failed to consider the uniqueness of individual sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence cases,” Li Ying, a lawyer who specializes in family law and domestic violence litigation, wrote on Weibo. “In the dominant conventional view, the society continues to be prejudiced against these kinds of cases and stigmatize their victims.” [Source]

For the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, Darius Longarino, Yixin (Claire) Ren, and Changhao Wei explained the specific legal standards that make pursuing sexual harassment claims in court so difficult:

Sexual harassment often occurs in private, leaving little evidence. In cases that boil down to the litigants’ two conflicting accounts, the party who carries the burden of proof will almost certainly fail. The Supreme People’s Court’s rules on evidence in civil litigation provide that the testimony of a litigant cannot be the sole basis for establishing a fact in a case. Chinese courts also strongly disfavor witnesses related to a litigant, including friends, family, or employees. China does not have restrictions on the use of so-called “character evidence.” Lawyers can ask plaintiffs probing questions about their personal life and sexual history to insinuate that they had “invited” the sexual advance or to generally undermine their credibility before the judge. In a 2018–2020 case against Liu Meng (刘猛), a prominent NGO figure, Liu’s lawyer brought up the plaintiff’s social media posts, including an article about The Vagina Monologues. The plaintiff later told a journalist that the lawyer’s goal was “to demonstrate that I am a [sexually]open woman, therefore establishing that the [defendant’s] behavior did not constitute sexual harassment” (Sohu, July 15, 2019).

[…] Just like individuals who sue their harassers, employers in these cases have a hard time meeting the burden of proof. One person’s account—no matter how credible the company considered it as a basis for its termination decision—is not strong enough to win in court. Even if there are other employees who witnessed the incident, courts often consider their accounts insufficiently credible because of their employment relationship with the company. Having several witnesses whose accounts corroborate each other can overcome this disadvantage. Still, a company that fires an alleged harasser needs to be prepared to incur the costs of litigation. On the other hand, no employers to date have been sued, let alone successfully sued, for failing to adopt anti-sexual harassment policies or for failing to respond to a sexual harassment incident (The Diplomat: March 9; December 4, 2020). [Source]


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