In 1979, 319,000 divorces were registered in China. Since 2003, divorce rates have increased, and in 2019 alone, more than four million couples dissolved their marriages. However, in the first quarter of 2021, the number of divorces in China dropped more than 70 percent. During this time period, only 296,000 divorces were registered, which differs greatly from the 1.06 million divorces that were registered in the last quarter of 2020. According to Chinese state media, the so-called “cooling-off” period, a new rule adopted on January 1 this year which postpones the divorce process by 30 days, has contributed to the drastic drop. This new law has even been promoted as a way of ensuring family stability and social order. However, online critics have claimed that the decreased rates could be the result of the divorce process becoming too difficult, and argued that by adopting the cooling-off period the government is interfering in citizens’ private relationships.
The Cooling-off Period Sparks Criticism
On January 1 this year, China’s first Civil Code came into force, which Chinese state media have described as “a declaration on the protection of civil rights”. Under this Civil Code, a mandatory “cooling-off” period has been adopted, which requires couples filing for divorce to wait 30 days before they can get their request approved. More specifically, either party can withdraw the application during this period, without the consent of the other person, and both parties have to apply again after the period has passed to complete the divorce process. Applications are canceled automatically if the couples do not attend two appointments between 30 and 60 days after their submission. Yet, because of the difficulties of getting a divorce appointment, some couples have been unable to keep these deadlines, leaving them involuntarily stuck in their marriages.
State media have argued that this new legislation has contributed to the drastic drop in divorce rates, highlighting that experts view the key goal of the cooling-off period as decreasing the number of “impulsive” divorces and alleviating the increasing divorce rates. However, data on decreased divorce rates recently published by the Ministry of Civil Affairs has sparked criticism online. Chinese netizens have asked whether the drop in divorce rates is driven by changed attitudes or whether the underlying cause is that the process of filing for divorce has become more difficult. Tellingly, many people hurried to get their divorces completed before the end of 2020, probably in an effort to pre-empt the new rules and regulations.
When the introduction of the cooling-off period was announced, it sparked anger in China. Criticisms, particularly raised by women, focused on the law making it more difficult to escape marriages, not least for victims of domestic violence. Chinese officials have argued that parties involved in domestic violence cases can turn to a court to file for divorce. Yet, suing for divorce in court is much more expensive and takes a lot more time than filing for divorce with the government. Divorce cases handled by courts can take at least six months to process, but some cases can last one or even two years. In addition, one report by China’s Supreme People’s Court indicated that no less than two-thirds of divorce cases were dismissed during the first hearing. The cooling-off period, which was initially a recommendation applied in some provinces, has also sparked debate on Chinese social media about government interference in private relationships. The hashtag “oppose divorce cooling off period” was viewed no less than 30 million times, while some netizens wrote that the authorities viewed the people as immature and that their respect for public opinion was just for show since they had passed the rule “despite everyone’s opposition online”.
A Push to Prevent the Looming Population Crisis?
In line with online criticism, some have argued that the new laws under the Civil Code are undermining people’s personal freedoms, while favoring the interests of the government, in a manner similar to China’s family planning policies. While divorce rates have dropped, birth rates have also decreased. Although the one-child policy was removed in 2015, China has experienced its slowest population growth since the beginning of the 1960s. The government encourages people to have more babies, pushing values like “family unity” and “traditional virtue”, possibly as a way of preventing the fast approaching population crisis, driven by decreasing birth rates, a shrinking workforce, and an aging population. The push for traditional family values has been evident in Chinese state media as well. For instance, the China Daily reported that some legal experts viewed the cooling-off period as necessary and that it would help to ensure family stability and social order. Similarly, Xinhua, the state news agency, has described the proposals included in the Civil Code as a legal guarantee for a “harmonious family”.
However, the number of Chinese millennials who postpone or rule out marriage is increasing. In fact, marriage rates in China have decreased drastically in recent years. Between 2013 and 2019, the number of people in China marrying for their first time dropped by 41 percent. This is, among other things, due to women becoming increasingly educated and economically independent, which appears to have affected their attitudes towards marriage. Similarly, the trend of rising divorce rates has partly been attributed to women’s greater autonomy, for instance in terms of becoming financially independent to a greater extent. In fact, according to the state-backed All-China Women’s Federation, more than 70 percent of divorces are initiated by women.
It seems that the authorities are taking measures to prevent the trend of decreased birth rates from continuing, as a population crisis would likely affect China’s economic and social stability. In addition to encouraging people to have more babies and promoting traditional family values, the cooling-off period seems to be yet another effort to avoid the looming population crisis. Furthermore, China appears to promote the cooling-off period as a way of protecting people’s civil rights. However, for Beijing to balance the leadership’s interests, such as maintaining social and economic stability, with citizens’ personal freedoms and satisfaction, may be a difficult task.