DIVORCE IN CHINA

DIVORCE IN CHINA

20080225-Divorce wait china daily.jpg
City hall divorce desk
The number of divorces in the country is rising. The number of couples who filed for divorce in 2013 climbed 12.8 percent to 3.5 million according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. That compares to around 458,000 in 1985, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Prior to the current surge in divorces, China experienced two other waves of rapidly rising divorce rates, the first occurred in the 1950s when returning victorious Communist soldiers abandoned their farms and rural wives to move to the city; the second came during and just after the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1980.

The civil affairs ministry has said 2.47 million couples split in 2009, up almost 9 percent from the year before. The rate began increasing especially after divorce procedures were streamlined and a requirement that couples first produce a letter from employers or neighborhood committees was dropped in 2003. In the first quarter of 2011, China recorded 465,000 divorces - a 17.1 per cent increase from the same period a year earlier and a pace that implies the dissolution of 5166 marriages every day.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs and the China Daily newspaper, the divorce rate highest in large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. About one fifth of all marriages end in divorce, compared to 13 percent in 1997, 3 percent in the early 1980s and near zero in the 1950s and 1960s when community units were often called to take action if a couple was thinking about getting divorced. Even though the divorce rate has increased dramatically--approaching 25 percent in some urban areas--the rate for China as a whole is still around one forth that of the United States, where the divorce rate is over 50 percent.

Divorce Rules in China

After a divorce the ex-husband usually gets custody of the children and the ex-wife is ostracized and has trouble getting a job. Women in bad marriages usually put up with them rather than endure the hardships caused by a divorce. In the old days, there were even fewer divorces: men simply took a concubine and ignored the wife.

A question-and-answer book called "How to Divorce," which tells unhappy couple everything they need to know about getting a divorce, is available in China today. Question No. 160 reads, "if one side is sold into marriage, and wants a divorce, how does the court handle this?" Answer: "Selling spouses is illegal. Plaintiff has clear grounds for divorce. Purchase price will be confiscated by the state. Parents or matchmaker may be severely punished, especially if the sold party was physically harmed."

On what might occur if a divorce is not amicable, Eamonn Fingleton wrote in Forbes: “It is considered fair game in East Asia for people to pry into their spouses’ lives – and this goes even in happy marriages. In extreme cases prying might involve audio and even video recording. Of course, spying on one’s spouse is not limited to East Asia but the difference is that in East Asia there is no obloquy.” While Westerners imagine a duel played according to Queensberry rules, the reality is kick-boxing clash. [Source: Eamonn Fingleton, Forbes, June 16, 2013]

Some older Chinese thinks it too easy to get a divorce now. One 56-year-old man told the China Daily, "We treated marriage as something sacred. Divorce was considered a shame, so the divorce rate was low. This meant there was no need for any such agreement."

Reasons for Divorces in China

In the old days, there was a considerable amount for shame attatched to being divorced. Couples stayed together even if they were miserable and extramarital affairs went on for years without breaking up marriages because married couples didn’t want to hurt their children or lose face with their parents. There is still a stigma attached to divorce but considerably less than in the past. In some urban areas it has become almost cool to be divorced.

Adultery is the main cause of divorce. One third of divorces are the result of extramarital affairs. About 25 percent are related to sexual problems and another 25 percent "emotional incompatibility." Detectives say that many of the cases they handle involve wives seeking information on their husbands and their mistresses. Some of them claim that 80 percent of divorces are triggered by “third parties.”

Other reasons for seeking divorce include lack of money, crowded households, arguments with in-laws, one-girl families, and the hardship caused by husbands and wives working in different cities or provinces. Many marriages break up because of verbal and physical abuse by wives. A recent government study showed that many divorces occur after one spouse gets rich, or finds a richer partner.

Many divorces occurred in the 1980s after the Cultural Revolution, when unhappy couples forced together under trying circumstances were given the opportunity to get divorced.

Late marriages often do not work out. One survey found that 60 percent of marriage that occur in old age end in divorce. Financial concerns are often an issue and some find it better to live together than to marry.

Feminist hotlines encourage women seeking divorce to look for other alternatives. One hotline organizer told the Los Angeles Times she tells women they have to be realistic and pragmatic. “Women can’t expect too much from their husbands,” she said, “the more they expect the more disappointed they will become.”

Divorce in the 1980s and 90s

In 1978, some 170,449 couples divorced; 1979, 192,894 couples; 1980, 180,378 couples; 186,891 couples in 1981; 210,930 couples in 1982,420,000 couples in 1983, and 450,000 couples in 1984. In 1985 and 1986, the annual average was 500,000 couples. The divorce figure rose to 587,000 couples in 1987, and 630,000 couples in 1988.In 1989, nationwide official statistics show that 9,851,000 couple applied for marriage; 9,348,000 couples, about 95 percent, were approved and given a marriage certificate. In the same year, 1,307,000 couples applied for divorce; 752,000, about 58 percent, were approved and given divorce certificates. The marriage rate was 16.8 per 1,000 persons and the divorce rate 1.35 per 1,000 persons. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality hu-berlin.de/sexology =]

With rapid economic growth creating new hopes and expectations, and Government interference in personal lives receding steadily, the divorce rate in Beijing more than doubled from 12 percent in 1990 to 24.4 percent in 1994, according to the Beijing Youth Daily. This statistic compares the number of marriages and divorces in a given year. While the national divorce rate in mid-1995 was 10.4, far behind that in the United States and European nations, officials admit that the divorce rate is rising all over China, and faster in the cities than in rural areas. Among the factors contributing to the new trend are the new social and economic freedom, the rising expectations that women bring to marriage, and a remarkable increase in extramarital affairs. More than 70 percent of divorces are currently initiated by women with the most common reason being an extramarital affair on the part of the husband. =

Increasingly, among urban Chinese and even among government officials who once actively opposed divorce, divorce is being viewed as a an acceptable alternative to an unhappy marriage. Many officials even recognize a positive side to divorce. When both parties agree, a divorce can be granted in three days; not long ago, the wait was years. Important as the government’s attitudinal shift is, a larger factor is the growing expectations women bring to marriage today, and their growing demands in an era of expanding opportunity. In the past, women were happy to settle for a stable income, a home, and children. To these expectations, women are now adding romance, sex, and affection. While women increasingly enjoy more independence and choices in career, place to live, husband, lover, they are also more subject to unemployment. Meanwhile, the shift has also brought a resurgence of traditional male values, including the right to have an affair.

Divorce Laws in China

Women were given the right to file for divorcewhen the Communists took power in 1949 but few people even thought about divorce as people struggled just to put food on their tables. In the 1950s and 1960s, divorce was considered both immoral and bourgeois by the Communists. A divorce required approval of the state and that was often almost impossible to get. The few people that were granted divorces were often demoted or banished to a rural area.

Marriage laws passed in the 1980s made getting a divorce relatively easy. Couples that wanted a divorce simply had to go to a government office, pay $6, sign some papers and they were divorced. According to Article 27 of the marriage code, "The husband is not allowed to apply for a divorce when his wife is pregnant or within one year after the birth of a child." A woman on the other hand could be granted a divorce even if she is pregnant.

Still in most cases couples needed permission from their employers to get a divorce. Couples often were forced to stay together because their employers would not grant them permission or the couple felt uncomfortable asking for permission or having their private problems exposed.

Even when permission was obtained the couple had to go through a one month waiting period in which the they were supposed to think things over. During that time the couple had to show up for meetings with divorce officials---who tried to talk them out of breaking up---or risk having the whole process voided.

Changes in the Divorce Laws in China

New divorce laws enacted in the fall of 2003 got rid of the requirement for permission from an employer to get a divorce. Under the new rules if both parties agree to a divorce they simply filled out an application at a government office---answering “no” to the questions on kids and property disputes---provide their marriage certificate, identification cards and photos of themselves. The whole process usually takes about 10 to 20 minutes. The processing fee is less than a dollar. The only question they are asked is, “Is it voluntary?

Not surprisingly divorce rates soared after the laws were changed, In 2004, teh first year after the laws were changed, 1.6 million people were granted divorces, 300,000 more than in 2003. One woman who divorced her husband of 20 years told the Los Angeles Times they would have divorced much earlier had the laws been changed earlier. “We just don’t get along. We’ve thought about it for a long time. The new rules are best. Finally we don’t have to deal with the hassles.”

New divorce laws passed in 2001 gave wives the right to divorce their husbands for abusing them or having extramarital affairs. There are also new laws that require unfaithful partners, especially men with mistresses, to pay their spouses in compensation. One law allows a spouse to claim all family assets if her partner is considered “at fault.”

Housing reform has increase in the divorce rate by creating a rental market which gives unhappy spouses a place to go.

An astounding 98 percent of all married couples in Renhe, a village with about 4,000 people near Chongqing in Sichuan Province, got divorced in the mid 2000s. The youngest had just gotten marred and the oldest were in their 90s. The reason they got divorced was to take advantage of a legal loophole that promised a new apartment in a compensation deal to any household---meaning a divorced couple would end up with two apartments while a married cold would only get one. In the end the authorities changed the deal and the compensation package after the mass divorces, making it less advantageous to be single. In the meantime some individuals took advantage of the divorces to find new boyfriends or girlfriends, leaving behind many broken up families.

Pre-Nuptial Agreements, Break-Up Websites and Living Together After Divorce in China

"Wo- hun" literally translating to ‘snail marriage.” This word refers to young couples that divorce but remain living together for financial reasons. Statistics estimate that the divorce rate among the 80s generation (80) is around 30 percent. While this number has increased, so too has the price of houses, deterring divorced partners from physically going their separate ways after they’ve figuratively done so. The phenomenon is a product of pressure on couples to get married and buy a house so that they can leave the confines of their parents. Most of these young guys and gals tied the knot right after college and received the support of both families to finance a home of their own. When newlywed turns into newlyshed, some prefer to stick it out side by side, like two snails in one shell, rather than confront the hassle of sorting out new accommodation.

The first prenuptial agreements have appeared in China in recent years. Some of them have some pretty strict terms. According to the China Daily one read: “If the husband has an extramarital affair, he has to pay 200,000 yuan [$29,300] to the wife.” It also said, “If the husband’s mobile phone is not in service, he should report to the wife immediately and apologize; if the husband does not come home one night, he should pay 1,000 yuan to the wife; in case of a quarrel, the husband should always be the one to apologize.” Needless to say the groom-to-be didn’t sign it and called off the wedding. [Source: Gan Tian, China Daily, June 2010]

The first prenuptial agreements appeared in 1990 according to the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs. Most of the prenuptial agreements in China are drown up women. One that was accepted called for the husband to turn everything her earned, about $3000 a month, to his wife, who in turn would give a $775 a month allowance to her husband. It also said the husband was responsible for washing dishes and ironing clothes while the wife was in charge of cooking and keeping the house clean. The woman who drew up the agreement told the China Daily, “It can avoid trouble after marriage. Besides, the couple will love each more, as they know what their duties are.” [Ibid]

Leo Lewis wrote in The Times of London, ‘sites such as Kaixin Fenshou Wang the Happy Break-up Website have been set up to offer people a place to share their misery. It exists to "help people walk out of the shadow of their break-ups" and can have 1000 people in its forum at any one time. "In the past, we could only afford instant noodles every day, and sometimes not even that. But we loved each other so much, so it didn't matter. Why have you changed after getting along with me for so long? You have smashed almost all the things we have at home," read one posting yesterday. [Source: Leo Lewis, Times of London, September 8, 2011]

Real Estate Divorces in China

Reporting from Shanghai, David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “When the Chinese government announced new curbs on property prices this month, homeowners bombarded social networking sites with complaints. They formed long lines at property bureaus to register to sell their homes before the restrictions went into effect. And some couples went even further: they filed for divorce. Divorce filings shot up here and in other big cities across China this past week after rumors spread that one way to avoid the new 20 percent tax on profits from housing sales was to separate from a spouse, at least on paper. The surge in divorce filings is the latest indication of how volatile an issue real estate has become in China in the past decade and how resistant people are to additional taxes. [Source: David Barboza. New York Times, March 8, 2013]

“They always do this,” said Du Jinsong, a property analyst in Hong Kong for Credit Suisse. “When they implement new measures, people are always trying to circumvent the rules.” On March 1, 2013, a series of new property measures that analysts say unsettled the housing market. In its statement, the State Council, or cabinet, said that local governments should strictly enforce an earlier rule that ordered people selling a secondary home to pay a 20 percent tax on the profit. Almost immediately, housing administration bureaus and real estate trading centers in big cities were flooded with people hoping to sell their apartments before the restrictions took effect. And in a bizarre twist, marriage registration centers in Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan and other big cities were also inundated with couples who admitted they were filing for fake divorces in hopes of avoiding the property tax.

By filing for divorce, many reasoned, a couple with two homes could then claim that each had only one home. That way they could technically avoid having one of the homes classified as a second home, which under the new rules would be subject to the 20 percent capital gains tax if sold. After the divorce and the sale of one of the homes, the couple could file to be remarried. Here in Shanghai, a registration center in the Zhabei district said it had a record 53 divorce filings in one day, well above normal.

A few days later, at a marriage registration center in the Pudong district, a 33-year-old woman named Frances Tao arrived with her husband. She acknowledged that they were filing for divorce, not to avoid the 20 percent capital gains tax on second homes, but to get around another restriction, which requires home buyers to put down a much higher deposit on a second home than on a primary residence. Ms. Tao said that by divorcing, one of them would be able to purchase a first home and put down less money and get a better interest rate. “We don’t have other choices,” Ms. Tao said. “But the government and developers continue to make a lot of money.”

Image Sources: China Daily

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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