China Bucks a Western Import: Divorce Once Rare, Divorce Has Risen Sharply with Freedoms. A New Lawaims to Slow the Trend

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Beijing's market-oriented economic revolution, aimed at transforming China into a world power, is also triggering rapid- fire changes in the spheres of social and family life here. Growing freedom among China's 1.2 billion citizens to map out their own professional and personal lives is generating not only rising incomes, but also rising expectations for the "perfect" marriage. As a result, divorce is skyrocketing. "In the past, many marriages were political," says Ma Fengzhi, a sociology professor at Beijing University. "Everyone from Army officers to bureaucrats to workers had to have their potential spouses approved by party bosses," says Ms. Ma. "Today, people have the freedom to choose their own partners, so it's natural that some want to discard their political matches...." she adds. Western influence may also play a role. "Chinese youths raised on Hollywood films and American television say, 'If young Americans can fall in and out of love so easily, why can't we,' " Ma says. "That could be leading more and more young people into hasty marriages and hasty divorces," she adds. A generation of Chinese have grown up since Beijing ended its global isolation 20 years ago. The number of couples seeking divorce has nearly quadrupled in the two decades since China began jettisoning its state-planned economy and society. In 1997, while 9.1 million couples got married, 1.2 million got divorced, according to the Chinese civil affairs ministry. A dozen years before, 8.3 million couples married while only 450,000 formally split. The trend has apparently alarmed the Chinese leadership, which is proposing a new marriage law that could make it much more difficult to obtain a divorce. The suggested changes, which include strict penalties for adulterers, are sparking a charged debate among the people, in the press, and in parliament over how closely to regulate the marriage contract. Yang Dawen, who heads a committee that is revising and expanding the family and marriage law, says that current regulations "provide too few guideposts to judges considering whether to grant a divorce and on what terms." Mr. Yang, a law professor at People's University in Beijing, says many scholars being consulted "think that no-fault divorce rules should be amended to punish those who break their marriage vows with extramarital affairs. …