China divorces drop 70% after controversial ‘cooling off’ law

By Helen Davidson

The number of divorces in China dropped more than 70% in the first quarter of this year, after a controversial law forcing a “cooling-off period” for couples came into effect.

According to data published by the ministry of civil affairs, 296,000 divorces were registered during the first three months of 2021, down from 1.05m in the previous quarter, and 1.06m in the same time period the year before, according to state media.

China’s divorce rate had been rising steadily, and the simultaneously declining marriage rate has been linked to the low birthrates driving China’s demographic crisis. In response, the government has promoted traditional family values and marriage, and discouraged divorce. The cooling-off period is part of a sweeping civil code that came into effect on 1 January, covering laws including marriage, adoption and property ownership.

The law requires couples who are mutually seeking a divorce to wait for 30 days before formalising it. If the couples don’t show up for two appointments between 30 and 60 days after applying, their application is automatically cancelled. The cooling-off period isn’t supposed to apply to those divorces involving domestic violence, but several cases of violence or murder have raised questions about the reality of this in practice.

The announcement of the cooling-off period sparked anger at the time, especially among women, and drew suggestions from young people that they were now more likely to avoid marriage altogether.

The new data also drew criticism, with online commenters querying whether the rates were down because people changed their minds or because the process had been made so difficult, noting reported struggles to get divorce appointments before the time ran out. In February Chinese media reported fully booked appointment slots in Shenzhen, Shanghai and other cities, with some being sold by scalpers.

“If you try all means to obstruct it, of course it dropped. Anyway, there’s no statistic on how much the pain has increased,” said one person on Weibo.

“Marriage is not necessary for happiness, but divorce must be for happiness. This data can only show that 70% of people have lost the opportunity to pursue happiness,” said another.

Observers said more data was needed to draw further conclusions, noting variable rates in different locations, and China’s economic rebound improving livelihoods and relationships.

“Now that the cool-off period is a reality, we should start to focus on the problems that can realistically be solved – for example, researching its effects on women, and how to eliminate the negative ones,” Chen Yaya, a gender researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told Sixth Tone.