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Chinese Embrace Quickie Divorce as State Butts Out of Private Lives

March 12, 2005|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — They had been married more than 20 years. If it hadn't been for a law making it difficult for them to get a divorce, they might have called it quits long ago.

"We just don't get along," said a retired factory worker as she ducked out of a divorce registration office in Beijing last week while her now-former husband hurried away in the winter wind. "We've thought about it for a long time. The new rules are best. Finally we don't have to deal with the hassles."

She was referring to the previous law, which required couples to get permission from their employers before starting or ending a marriage.

The law could be intimidating: Plans to tie the knot might be fun news to break to the boss; untying it tended to invite uncomfortable probes into personal lives and lectures to reconsider the decision.

In doing away with that policy in the fall of 2003, the government appears to have unleashed a stampede to freedom.

In 2004, the divorce rate soared more than 21% over the previous year, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said last month. That represented more than 1.6 million couples breaking up, 300,000 more than in 2003.

Observers attribute most of the increase to the simplified procedure and the overall rise in personal liberties in China.

"People's living standards have improved. They can change jobs, change home addresses. Why shouldn't they be able to change marriage partners without unnecessary restrictions?" asked Shen Yongfeng, a divorce lawyer based in Shanghai.

In the past, even those who obtained permission from their supervisors faced government divorce officers whose job it was to talk them out of breaking up. There was a one-month waiting period to think things over, and both partners had to show up for all the appointments or risk having the application voided. Those who couldn't deal with the stress and stigma gave up.

Now couples can change their lives in 10 minutes.

If both parties agree to the split, they simply fill out an application and provide their marriage certificate, identification and photos of themselves. They pay a processing fee of about a dollar, and suddenly they are no longer married.

"Before, we would have to try to help them resolve their differences. Now that is considered private. The only question we ask is: Is it voluntary? They don't have to tell us any details," Dong Hailong, 28, a divorce officer in Beijing, said at his desk below a large, red national emblem and next to a Chinese flag.

Whereas marriage might have seemed an inescapable burden to some in the past, now there are concerns about the newfound ease of divorce. Chinese media have reported on couples who were wed in the morning and divorced in the afternoon and others who divorced one day and remarried the next.

Some people raise concerns that the new law might encourage infidelity, with people rushing to leave spouses for sweethearts and simply divorcing again if regret sets in.

"I think it was [socialism theorist Friedrich] Engels who said a marriage without love is amoral," said Shen, the divorce lawyer. "People should have the freedom to choose. I think it's a sign of progress."

The rush to the altar last year was less dramatic than the dash to divorce. Although the rules for marriage also were simplified, the number of newlyweds rose only 3% over 2003, to 8.3 million.

Many young Chinese took their families to the cleaners on costs. A recent survey found that the weddings of many newlyweds, most from a generation of single-child households, could easily cost about $24,000 for ceremony, banquet, photo shoot and honeymoon.

The average Chinese urbanite makes a little more than $1,000 a year. Farmers make a third of that.

Some observers say the big weddings also contribute to the statistics on divorce.

"Some people want to make the wedding the most spectacular event of their lives," Shen said. "They tend to be equally idealistic about their marriage. So it's easy to feel let down."

A more serious worry about the streamlining of the marriage rules is a reported recent rise in hereditary diseases and birth defects. Before, all prospective newlyweds had to pass physical exams and undergo blood tests before they could marry.

Now those steps are voluntary, and most people are skipping them.

"Simplifying the procedures was meant to give people more freedom of choice," said Lu Jiehua, a population expert at Peking University. "We didn't realize it could also cause such a negative impact."

The issue has sparked so much concern that some delegates to the National People's Congress are proposing to make the premarital tests a free service so more people will be motivated to get them before marrying.

"Premarital health checks can play a very important role in ensuring healthy families and healthy babies," said Siri Tellier, the United Nations Population Fund's representative in Beijing. "They should make sure it's free and voluntary and something that goes beyond genetic testing to include more comprehensive health advice."

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