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China's Divorce Problem

Elaine Y. Wan

The increasing population of males with white collar jobs and liberal marriage laws have both contributed to the rising divorce rate in China. More mature women in China are turning to dating agencies, looking for new mates, after their husband left them for females ten years younger. On the other hand, more men with high paying jobs find themselves surrounded by young paramours.

China's liberal divorce laws have given women a chance to break free from unhappy marriages or marriages that were arranged by their families. But today, it is often the man who is taking advantage of such laws to leave the marriage, once he finds himself in a comfortable financial situation, for a young lover tucked away somewhere.

Divorce in all societies is usually granted when two people have concurred to discontinue the partnership because mutual affection no longer exists. In Western societies, such cases are usually processed through lawyers and end with two signatures on a legal contract that clearly lists the terms agreed upon. Similarly, a Chinese couple pay 50 yuan, or $4, wait for two weeks, and see their marriage that began with a traditional rosy festive feast end with a simple farewell. The divorce rate in China, at 1.94 per 1,000 marriages in 1997, is low compared to those in Western nations, according to The Economist. But the rate is increasing steadily.

Most divorced mothers in their late thirties are stripped of the custody of their children. If the family home is a benefit of the father's job, then the child's mother will find herself homeless. Unlike Western society, Chinese fathers are usually given custody of the children because they have more favorable economic conditions in which to raise children and are aided by their new young wife. Custody is also given to the father in light of Chinese values - the importance of children carrying on the father's family name.

In hopes of giving women equal status in marriage and family life, China imposed a liberal marriage law in 1980 which gave women the right to leave a no longer loving marriage. However, this law has been cited as the cause of the increasing number of divorces. In an attempt to make divorce harder, the Chinese government has proposed a few amendments to the law. The All China Women's Federation has proposed that couples be separated for at least three years before divorce, the third party (a legal term for the man's lover) be held responsible for damages, and extramarital sex be illegal.

Third parties are no longer just criticized or jeered at for their immoral personal affairs. In a survey conducted with a sample size of 8,000, 62 percent disagreed with punishing the third party. However, two-thirds of the respondents were the kind of men likely to have a third party of their own. The newest trends in the Chinese cosmopolitan society seem to be either cohabitation or divorce, although 60 percent of those in rural and urban China still adhere to the traditional arranged marriages - a simple nod from the parents determines the happiness of their children's lives.

The primary purpose of the liberal marriage laws was to establish a foundation for the equality between husband and wife in accordance with the increasing economic independence of Chinese women. However, the imposition of restrictions on the extramarital activity of a husband and monetary fines on a third party, who is usually also female, suggests that although females are gaining financial importance in the household, they are still not gaining the respect of their spouses. Although many females in China today are given the opportunity to broaden their horizons through education and various job opportunities, the usual preference of giving child custody to the father suggests that China is not doing enough to promote social equality. Although some mothers may not be able to provide the same financial benefits available to the father, the care of the biological mother may be worth ten times that of the stability provided by the father and stepmother.

The Chinese government has made significant efforts to improve the democracy and harmony between husband, wife and other family members through community services. But if a woman must turn to the government or society in order to sustain their marital bliss and family values, then it seems that she is giving up her role in making the marriage work, in addition to downsizing her respect for fellow members of her sex. This can only lead to more discontent and disrespect in the family.

The unhappiness of women in divorce proceedings suggest that the government is granting divorces too gratuitously and not investigating as to which party should be compensated for the marital separation, which in these cases should be the man. If a man decides to leave a marriage just because he no longer finds his wife physically youthful or attractive, then he is being irresponsible to the legal contract he made in marriage. He should be the one to compensate for damages to his wife and the moral degradation of the third party.

The amendments proposed are stubbornly geared towards preserving a relationship in which the man is not voluntarily staying in the marriage. As to how that can result in a harmonious and happy family life still remains a mystery to me. Promoting fidelity would be seem like a better strategy than condemning infidelity. China is a populous country, and I am confident that there must be a good population of males who will set good precedence in sustaining a long relationship with one mate.