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On February 1, 2021, a post by China Newsweek was trending on China’s twitter-like platform Weibo: “Divorce appointments in Guangzhou are booked out until March 1, but online middlemen sell appointments for 600 yuan (94$).” This post raised questions about whether the number of granted divorces had been restricted, but officials at the Guangzhou civil affairs bureau were quick to deny that.

Indeed, though, starting on January 1, 2021, new “Cooling-off period” legislation did become law in China. According to this legislation, if a couple wants to divorce, they must do the following:

  1. Make an appointment online — although the number of appointments available each day is limited. Especially in large cities many couples often fail to snap up available “tickets,” and have their divorce postponed over and over.
  2. Once they apply for a divorce, a couple has a 30-day “cooling-off period.”
  3. After that, they can formally register for a divorce. Both sides must be present when the formal divorce registration is granted at the bureau, or the divorce will be postponed another 30 days.
  4. During the cooling-off period, either side can cancel the divorce. If one side still insists on divorce, they should go to court. In that case, it’s no longer the civil affairs bureau’s responsibility.

A heated debate followed. As legislators have explained, the delay is intended to stave off impulsive decisions by young couples, and it does not apply to split-ups involving domestic violence. But some maintained that the rule can still delay divorces for victims, as domestic violence is hard to prove in court.[1] Some also argue that the regulations are against freedom of divorce and may in the end be counterproductive, as people could become more cautious before getting married.

The numbers are telling: In 2019, 10.108M couples married in China, and 4.461M couples divorced[2]. In 2020, 9.411M got married, and 4.034M divorced[3]. In the first three-quarters of 2021, 5.886M couples married, and only 1.584M couples got divorced[4]. The marriage rate dropped moderately, which is in tune with long-term trends, yet the decline of the divorce rate is significant — a plunge of 40 percent following 17 years of growth.

The aims of new Chinese government regulations are clear: to design and shape future demographics. But perhaps the demographics of the past generations are irrecoverable. Perhaps it is time to prepare for an age of singlehood.

This post was co-authored by Xinran Wu.


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