Divorces rise as rules more flexible
Divorce may be becoming China's latest fad.
Divorces may still be lower than in developed countries, but civil affairs officials say many more people choose to end their marriages.
A total of 30 couples went to a civil affairs office in Wuhan of Hubei Province to get divorced on the first working day after the week-long May Day holiday.
Before the holiday, the average number of couples seeking a divorce was only eight a day.
Experts said that the long holiday provided enough time for couples to seriously think over whether they really wanted a divorce.
Despite the quick spike, divorce cases were already on the rise as a result of a new regulation passed last October which allows for easier marriages and divorces.
More than 200 couples filed for divorce at the Shanghai civil affairs office in October last year, more than double the total of 97 in September and up from 68 in the same month a year earlier.
One couple even got married in the morning and divorced in the afternoon on the same day in October 2003, marking a record for the shortest marriage.
The new regulations allow couples to marry without a health examination or a letter from their employers testifying to their unmarried status now.
At the same time, couples can get divorce certificates at once if they both agree to it and settle amicably their property, any debts and care of any children, the new rules say.
More than 1.33 million couples said good-bye last year in China, an increase of 154,000 from the previous year, according to statistics with the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
The increase, probably encouraged by the more relaxed regulations, may not be a bad thing, said Zhang Mingliang, director of the Department of Construction of Basic-level Government and Community under the ministry.
"People have the freedom to make their own decisions on marriage or divorce," Zhang said.
In the past, divorce was often frowned upon. Applicants needed the permission of their workplace and were often strongly pressed to stay together.
The 1981 Marriage Law allowed divorce only "when mediation ... has failed to bring about a reconciliation."
Community leaders saw it as their job to "persuade" couples to stay together.
Officials with the civil affairs office in Shanghai's Huangpu District recalled that about 97 per cent of divorce cases were successfully mediated in the past two decades.
The longest divorce mediation lasted 10 years.
At the same time, the number of Chinese couples registering for marriage dropped from some 8.92 million in 1998 to 8.11 million in 2003, statistics show.
But the number of divorces has remained stable in the past five years, at about 1.2 million each year.
A recent survey in Chongqing of Southwest China showed that extra-marital affairs were the top marriage killer in the city.
Conducted by the Chongqing Marriage Crisis Service Centre, the survey traced 280 divorce cases and found that extra-marital love led to more than 70 per cent of the divorces.
"Most of the people who had an affair admitted that they were dissatisfied with their sex life, which is regarded as a crucial part of marriage," said Chen Hongtu, director of the centre.
"The quality of one's sex life, previously considered private, is now often a topic to be discussed openly, and as one standard to measure the quality of a marriage," Chen said.
With these changes of attitude, it is not surprising that many people getting divorced want to make the process as simple and painless as possible, so they do the paperwork at a community office, rather than face off in a court of law.
The number of legislated divorces was always higher than divorces by agreement in the past two decades.
However, in 2003, divorces by agreement reached 690,000, for the first time exceeding the 640,000 court-settled divorces.
Divorce is fast becoming something of an emerging trend in modern China, where successive marriage laws and amendments have given people more freedom to break up, said Ke Zhi, a lawyer and expert on marriage and family.
"But the simplified marriage registration regulation might trigger more cursory marriages and divorces in the future and be a buried mine to family stability," Ke said.
The divorce rate in China was 2.1 per thousand in 2003, 0.03 per cent higher than the previous year.