Down on divorce

Chinese authorities are concerned that the first generation to grow up in one-child families was so spoiled that it cannot make the sacrifices required by marriage.

By Jonathan Watts
Published March 4, 2005 3:00PM (EST)

Chinese authorities are sending "think again" letters to couples applying for divorce after the number of people ending their marriages surged by 21 percent last year. The growing number of legal breakups, which have increased fivefold since 1979, has raised concerns that members of the first generation to grow up in one-child families were so spoiled that they are unable to make the sacrifices required of marriage.

According to official figures released Tuesday by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, 1.6 million couples divorced in 2004, up by almost 300,000 from the previous year. Although the overall divorce rate is still lower than in Europe or the United States, the long-term trend is upward -- at an increasingly fast pace.

Adultery and divorce are becoming the most talked-about subjects in China's fast-changing society. Last year's most popular soap opera was called "China Style Divorce," a tale of infidelity and breakup that was voted the best drama of 2004 and watched by hundreds of millions of viewers.

The steep rise in breakups last year was attributed mainly to simpler marriage and divorce procedures. In the past, couples needed permission from their work units to tie and untie the knot. This meant that, in 1991, two out of five divorce requests were turned down while their face-conscious superiors spent up to 10 years carrying out their legal obligation to mediate between the sparring spouses.

But under the new rules, couples can obtain quick divorces from register offices by taking in their marriage certificates, I.D. cards, resident permits and a signed statement that they no longer want to be married. It often takes as little as 10 minutes and costs only 10 yuan (about $1.20). Critics of the relaxed system have warned that this has allowed people to rush in and out of marriage.

In Shanghai, where divorce rates are more than double the national average, newspapers have reported on a couple who married in the morning and divorced that afternoon. Another couple reportedly married and divorced twice in a year.

Sociologists say the increase in breakups reflects wider changes as China becomes wealthier, more urbanized and more liberal. Women are better informed of their rights and more likely to leave violent or unfaithful husbands, they say.

Old-style Confucian and Cultural Revolution-era ethics are being replaced by a greater emphasis on love and sexual satisfaction. "When people lived in rural villages, everyone knew everyone so there were more restrictions on behavior," said Li Yinhe of the China Academy of Social Science." But in the city, everyone can be a stranger, so people are more likely to put weight on their own feelings," she said.

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