Marriage crisis in China? Divorce rate rises across the country

Updated: 2014-01-24 05:50

By Tim Collard (HK Edition)

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The story of China over the last 30 years has been one of catching up with the West, politically and economically, and in some respects overtaking it. On the whole this has been a beneficial process for China, enabling a renaissance of one of the world's great cultures and restoration to her rightful position in the world. But there have, of course, been one or two downsides.

Economic revival has not come without social and cultural changes, not all of which have been for the better. One of the less desirable ways in which China has followed the West is in the explosive growth of the divorce rate, which in the major cities is now approaching 40 percent of those married. All over the country one encounters couples who have struggled together through the hard times and are still together, contentedly if not always happily, after 50 years, while their children's marriages have barely lasted 10 years.

An interesting fact is that this phenomenon is not unique to the mainland, where one might expect some disruption of social bonds in the light of the very considerable socio-economic changes the country has undergone. In an index of urban divorce rates recently produced by a Chinese think tank, both Hong Kong and Taipei sit right in the middle of the pack, with divorce rates around one-third of marriages, similar to other first-tier cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Both Hong Kong and the mainland display the ways in which a traditional society is transformed into a modern one. Although Hong Kong has never had the "iron rice bowl" enjoyed by earlier generations on the mainland, traditional social structures and gender roles have tended to preserve marriages. Now everything is in flux; and one decisive new factor in all this is the gender equality in education which is currently a feature of all Chinese-influenced cultures throughout the world. Even at an early stage in the mainland's reform and opening-up process, China was one of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of equality of opportunity in the workplace, and men and women now work on equal terms throughout the country. This gives women both financial independence and a disinclination to be put upon by men whose expectations are still influenced by the role models of their fathers and grandfathers. And that inevitably reduces women's readiness to stay in unsatisfactory marriages.

The modern workplace also plays a role in the divorce rate, especially in fiercely competitive societies like Hong Kong and the mainland. The expectations of managers from their workforce are growing all the time. Working only one's contractual hours marks one out as a loser and puts one on the path to perdition; one is constantly encouraged to work extra hours to establish themselves as truly motivated, and this inevitably has a detrimental effect on family life. Working people are almost explicitly expected to make it clear that work has a higher priority than the family, which weakens the link both to the spouse and the children. It is hardly surprising when a boss leaves his wife for his secretary - after all, he's probably been spending far more time with her for years.

The question here is: Are rising divorce rates a problem, or are they simply representative of a move towards new social and family structures? Despite rising divorce rates, Chinese society remains conservative in that people still prefer to be married when they have children (and expect others to be). In the West this is hardly the case any longer; in some, particularly northern, European countries, the number of children born to unmarried parents has risen above 50 percent. People are beginning to ask whether marriage is necessary at all. And even if one decides, as most Chinese would, that marriage remains by far the best framework for raising children and a central pillar of civil society, what is to be done to strengthen it and stem the rush to the divorce courts?

One cannot simply turn the clock back, either socially or economically. China's success in achieving rapid economic progress without adopting Western notions of welfare has been built on a foundation of strong family bonds. What will happen if these die out, and society becomes more atomized, as it seems likely that it will?

The author was educated at Oxford University, and served 1986-2006 in the British Diplomatic Service, including nine years in Beijing. He is now a freelance writer, journalist and commentator on political, economic and diplomatic affairs, especially China.

(HK Edition 01/24/2014 page9)