UNDER CHINA’S new civil code, adopted in May, couples will have to wait 30 days between registering their intent to split for good and actually doing so. Nothing wrong with that, some might argue—many other countries have similar “cooling-off” requirements. On matters related to marriage, Chinese law is still remarkably liberal. Yet weeks after the restriction was introduced (it will take effect in January), many netizens remain furious. It will, they say, imperil the lives of women.
The Communist Party sometimes allows, or even encourages, debate about laws before they are passed. But the passions this new requirement has aroused, and their persistence well beyond the law’s adoption by the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, have been unusual. The hashtag “oppose cooling-off” has been viewed over 40.6m times on Weibo, a Twitter-like service. “I am 22 years old this year. I am afraid of getting married after reading the new marriage law,” was one comment.
The government’s motive is clear. It sees happy families as the bedrock of social stability. The country’s soaring divorce rate must therefore be a threat, in its view. Around 5% of divorces are done “rashly”, Sun Xianzhong, a legislator, told state media. A cooling-off period would give spouses a chance to “calm down”, he said.
It was not until after the Communist Party seized control of China in 1949 that women across the country gained the right to divorce their husbands. But divorce did not become common until after 2003, when a month-long delay to allow “examination” of a divorcing couple’s motives by local officials was no longer required. Thereafter, straightforward uncouplings could be processed in a single day. Between 2003 and 2018, divorces per 1,000 people rose from just over one to 3.2, a similar rate to America’s.
Couples who genuinely want to divorce will not be dissuaded by a month of delay. Rather, the cooling-off period will endanger victims of violence, says Lu Pin, a feminist activist who moved to New York after the arrest of fellow campaigners in China in 2015. It is mainly women who will be affected by the new law—they initiate three-quarters of divorces in China.
The legislation says no cooling off will be needed if a spouse suffers abuse. But will officials accept allegations of it? A study in 2017 by academics at Queen Mary University of London and Sichuan University found that, while men in China were overall less likely than those in Britain to get into fights or beat up other people, they were twice as likely to assault their partners. However, in divorce cases that go to court, judges often ignore accusations of abuse, especially when raised by female plaintiffs.
Debate about the new law has been fuelled by news in July of a woman in Henan province who jumped from a building to escape her violent husband. She is now paraplegic. She had filed for divorce, but was required to attend mediation. State media said her plight was no reason to worry about the cooling-off period—she had simply failed to report the abuse quickly enough. If she had not “put up with it”, perhaps the “pain and hurt she endured” could have been reduced, said Southern Metropolis Daily. The cooling-off period may not be a radical change. But, says Ms Lu, “if we had other measures protecting women’s rights, people might not be so angry.” ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Thirty more days of hell”