Breakups to make­ups: why di­vorce is get­ting harder

The World of Chinese - - Cover Story - - HATTY LIU

Around 10,000 cou­ples get di­vorced ev­ery day in China—but un­ty­ing the knot may be get­ting tougher by the year, as tra­di­tional no­tions of fam­ily and mar­riage get em­bed­ded in the state's lan­guage of na­tional re­ju­ve­na­tion and so­cial har­mony.

At a 2016 con­fer­ence hon­or­ing “model fam­i­lies,” President Xi Jin­ping pro­posed a new no­tion of “so­cial­ist fam­ily val­ues,” fea­tur­ing love for the na­tion as well as the tra­di­tional fam­ily, the “cell of so­ci­ety.” Since the found­ing of the PRC, man­ag­ing mar­i­tal re­la­tions have been tied to the state's po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tives.

The PRC'S Mar­riage Law, pro­mul­gated in 1950, legally rec­og­nized di­vorce at the same time as it out­lawed feu­dal tra­di­tions such as ar­ranged mar­riages, con­cu­bines, and child brides. Un­like its pre­de­ces­sor, the 1931 Mar­riage Or­di­nance of the Chi­nese Soviet, the new law re­quired quar­rel­ing cou­ples to first un­dergo me­di­a­tion if only one spouse was ini­ti­at­ing the di­vorce— sup­pos­edly, some new cadres, se­duced by city life and rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vor, were aban­don­ing first wives from pre­vi­ously ar­ranged mar­riages. Still, from 1951 to 1956, “di­vorce fever” (离婚热) saw around six mil­lion mar­riages dis­solved.

The 1980 ver­sion of the Mar­riage Law re­tained the old me­di­a­tion clause, but added “breach of feel­ings” as one con­di­tion where di­vorce was al­lowed ef­fec­tively mak­ing di­vorce eas­ier. The 2001 Mar­riage Law made do­mes­tic vi­o­lence an­other ac­cept­able con­di­tion for di­vorce. In 2011, in an os­ten­si­ble ef­fort to cool the prop­erty mar­ket that in­curred the ire of fem­i­nists, a new rule stip­u­lated that real es­tate would no longer be di­vided be­tween di­vorc­ing cou­ples if bought by one part­ner's par­ents be­fore mar­riage—typ­i­cally the male part­ner, by Chi­nese custom—but would be­long to the pur­chas­ing part­ner.

Court-man­dated me­di­a­tion is also on the rise. In 2016, the Supreme Peo­ple's Court or­dered around 100 lower courts to pi­lot two-year me­di­a­tion pro­grams for var­i­ous “fam­ily con­flicts” in­clud­ing in­her­i­tance, dis­putes over adop­tion, and di­vorce. With goals to “pro­fes­sion­al­ize judg­ing, sta­bi­lize mar­riage and fam­ily re­la­tions…[and] prop­a­gate core so­cial­ist val­ues,” th­ese courts have or­dered manda­tory “cool­ing off” pe­ri­ods, hired mar­riage coun­selors, and made cou­ples take “com­pat­i­bil­ity quizzes” rather than grant quickie di­vorces.

Courts have jus­ti­fied th­ese tight­en­ing reg­u­la­tions by re­fer­ring to China's large pop­u­la­tion of sin­gle men, the prod­uct of a skewed sex-ra­tio. They also claim that di­vorces can lead to ju­ve­nile crime, in­ci­dents of “left-be­hind el­derly,” and other in­jus­tices to­ward women and mi­nors—cases that need to be fought, ap­par­ently, with a united front.

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