Mar­riage re­form lets peo­ple fol­low their hearts

China Daily (USA) - - SECOND THOUGHTS - Con­tact the writer at jo­ce­[email protected] chi­

Ona sum­mer day in 2004, a young Chi­nese man and a young woman from the United States walked up to a stage draped in bur­gundy vel­vet cur­tains, be­fore the red na­tional flag and the red-and-gold na­tional seal of China at an of­fice in Shang­hai. They stood to the side as a govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive — a 30-some­thing woman with a floppy pony­tail — asked them to re­main faith­ful and re­spect­ful to one an­other, to care for their par­ents, to sup­port each other, and to main­tain har­mony in the fam­ily. Then they signed two small red books on the podium, and held those books up be­side their smil­ing faces, as pho­tog­ra­phers snapped away and the young govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive beamed. By the pow­ers granted her by the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China, the cou­ple be­came legally mar­ried.

That was the day my hus­band Jun and I reg­is­tered our mar­riage, a mo­ment we had en­vi­sioned ever since Jan­uary of that same year, when he had pro­posed to me over the phone. But none of this — the pro­posal, and the sub­se­quent mar­riage reg­is­tra­tion — would have hap­pened in 2004 with­out a very sig­nif­i­cant change that took place in China on Oct 1, 2003.

On that date, a re­form of China’s Mar­riage Law took ef­fect, abol­ish­ing a pre­vi­ous re­quire­ment: ap­proval by your em­ployer or work unit to regis­ter your mar­riage. In Shang­hai, this change ap­plied to stu­dents too, like Jun, who was in a grad­u­ate pro­gram at the time. The prior reg­u­la­tion had barred us from even con­sid­er­ing mar­riage for a sim­ple rea­son — uni­ver­si­ties would not per­mit it.

Thanks to this re­form of the Mar­riage Law, we could move for­ward to regis­ter our mar­riage with­out con­cern over any im­pact on Jun’s grad­u­ate stud­ies.

The only ap­proval that mat­tered in the process was our own.

We weren’t the only ones that year who took ad­van­tage of the change. Ac­cord­ing to data from the Na­tional Bureau of Sta­tis­tics, 2004 stood out as a boom year for mar­riage reg­is­tra­tions across the coun­try, with 8.67 mil­lion cou­ples ty­ing the knot, a rise of nearly 7 per­cent over 2003. At the time, it rep­re­sented the largest yearon-year in­crease in mar­riage reg­is­tra­tions in China since 1986.

Re­sid­ing in Shang­hai proved for­tu­itous for us, as not ev­ery area em­braced stu­dent mar­riages with the 2003 re­form.

But can­cel­ing the need for ap­proval in mar­riage reg­is­tra­tions had gen­er­ated such a strong rip­ple ef­fect, which ap­par­ently trick­led down even to stu­dents, de­spite their uni­ver­sity’s stance on the mat­ter.

“Af­ter China sim­pli­fied pro­ce­dures for mar­riage ap­pli­ca­tions in Oc­to­ber 2003, schools had less abil­ity to keep track of their stu­dents’ mar­i­tal sta­tus,” China Daily re­ported in its story “Huzhou stu­dent mar­ries af­ter rule change”, a head­line ref­er­enc­ing the coun­try’s ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion in 2005 to lift the 50-year ban on stu­dent mar­riages for all uni­ver­si­ties.

The 2003 mar­riage re­form, and sub­se­quent 2005 re­form to per­mit stu­dent mar­riages, have had an in­cred­i­ble in­flu­ence in China, em­pow­er­ing in­di­vid­u­als to fol­low their hearts in one of the most im­por­tant life de­ci­sions a per­son can make. This kind of free­dom, a crit­i­cal as­pect of China’s re­form and open­ing-up, has helped trans­form the coun­try into a more hu­mane place to live.

It means China can bet­ter ful­fill its prom­ise to “serve the peo­ple”, in­clud­ing a young grad­u­ate stu­dent in Shang­hai who longed to marry his US sweet­heart in 2004.

A ver­sion of this piece was first de­liv­ered as a speech on Dec 12 at the Chang­ing China, Trans­form­ing World event or­ga­nized by the China Daily web­site.

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