Chinese couples queuing up for divorce: Blame it on the coronavirus?

Appointments for divorce are fully booked on Shenzhen Civil Affairs Bureau’s marriage registry system. The next slot will only be available after mid-June. Divorce rates are on the rise in China, presumably due to increased frictions between couples brought about by extensive lockdowns. But a complicated web of social policies tied to one’s marital status, be it buying a house or getting a loan, may be the hidden lever tipping decisions towards divorce.
A couple poses for a wedding photographer as they postponed their marriage due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in Wuhan, China, on 14 April 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
A couple poses for a wedding photographer as they postponed their marriage due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in Wuhan, China, on 14 April 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

With the coronavirus outbreak forcing everyone to spend most of their time at home, have married couples finally seen the true colours of their partners and gathered up the courage to stop compromising for the rest of their lives? 

Some Shenzhen residents took their grievances online, lamenting that they could not get a queue number to register for a divorce after waiting for a few consecutive months.

The coronavirus’s impact on marriage became a hot topic in China after Shenzhen reported how difficult it was to apply for a divorce. Chinese media reported that appointments for divorce were fully booked on Shenzhen Civil Affairs Bureau’s marriage registry system. The next slot will only be available after mid-June.       

According to statistics from Southern Metropolis Daily, between January and April this year, divorce registrations were eight times higher than marriage registrations in the same period, a proportion that has always been kept within one-third or less in the past. Some Shenzhen residents took their grievances online, lamenting that they could not get a queue number to register for a divorce after waiting for a few consecutive months.    

A woman wearing a face mask amid the Covid-19 pandemic walks past wedding dresses displayed in a Vera Wang bridal store in Beijing on 22 April 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP)
A woman wearing a face mask amid the Covid-19 pandemic walks past wedding dresses displayed in a Vera Wang bridal store in Beijing on 22 April 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP)

This is not the first time that the coronavirus outbreak is being blamed for a divorce spike. In March and April this year, Chinese media had already reported that there was a post-pandemic spike in divorce applications in Xi’an, Shijiazhuang, Shanghai and elsewhere. Public opinion has even termed this phenomenon the post-pandemic “divorce with a vengeance”.    

The difficulty in booking a divorce appointment could be due to a variety of reasons including a backlog of work and restrictions on movements. The Covid-19 pandemic has indeed changed lives, posing a challenge to marriage to the extent of triggering a marital crisis.    

A female netizen complained that in the pre-pandemic days, she could still console herself with the fact that her husband was too busy with work to care for the family.  

Because of the pandemic, some married couples were forced to be with their partners 24 hours a day. Not only did they fail to forge a deeper bond with each other, they no longer had the option of making the heart grow fonder with their absence. This proved especially true for couples who already had many underlying issues in their marriage — once they were together for an extended period of time, conflicts and misunderstandings worsened and problems that they could have turned a blind eye to in the past became unavoidable.

A group of women and children wear face masks as a precaution against the Covid-19 coronavirus as they cross a road in Beijing on 15 May 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP)
A group of women and children wear face masks as a precaution against the Covid-19 coronavirus as they cross a road in Beijing on 15 May 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP)

A female netizen complained that in the pre-pandemic days, she could still console herself with the fact that her husband was too busy with work to care for the family. However, the situation did not change even during the pandemic when her husband was in quarantine and did not have to work. He still failed to take care of their children and expected to have his meals prepared and served. Exasperated, she finally “saw the true colours” of her husband.  

The coronavirus has also become a litmus test for some marriages. Married couples are supposed to stay together for better or for worse, but some realised that when they fell ill during the pandemic, their husbands’ first reaction was a callous “don’t infect me”. Alas, a careless sentence has completely destroyed a fragile marriage.    

The post-80s and post-90s generations no longer see divorce as a blight on their lives.   

In more extreme cases, the long period of time that family members had to spend with one another under lockdown increased the chances of domestic violence in already abusive families. The stress brought about by the pandemic easily led to the loss of control over one’s emotions, triggering “intimate terrorism”. Such secondary disasters are not unique to China — it is a social problem that the world faces amid the current public health crisis.  

Perhaps only sociologists would be able to tell us the extent to which post-pandemic divorces are indeed caused by the pandemic. However, China’s divorce spike remains an indisputable fact. 

Divorce no longer big taboo

Since China’s reform and opening up, people’s mindsets have changed drastically. The post-80s and post-90s generations no longer see divorce as a blight on their lives. With changed value systems, greater self-awareness, more unrestrained lifestyles, and changes in the gender division of labour and functions of a traditional family, Chinese society has become more accepting of divorce. Statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs also reflect that China’s divorce rate has been increasing for 15 consecutive years.      

A couple wear masks at a main shopping area in downtown Shanghai, China on 21 February 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)
A couple wear masks at a main shopping area in downtown Shanghai, China on 21 February 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Following discussions of “divorce with a vengeance”, a “divorce cooling-off period” has also been the subject of Chinese public opinion over the past two days.   

China’s draft civil code — known as the encyclopedia of social life — will be reviewed by the National People's Congress at this year’s two sessions (annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) slated to be held this week. The civil code provides general provisions on a multitude of life encounters, which naturally involves content relevant to marriage.    

Besides, couples have the option to remarry if they later regret their impulsive decisions. So then, why the need for a “divorce cooling-off period”?

According to a CCTV news report, a “30-day cooling-off period” will be included in the draft civil code under the section on marriage and family. Within 30 days, either party in the marriage can withdraw their divorce application. It is hoped that this cooling-off period will reduce hasty or impulsive divorce decisions.     

Interestingly, most Chinese netizens are not supportive of the cooling-off period. Some worry that this period would prolong family tragedies and inflict more harm on some women. Others think that the period would interfere with one’s freedom to have a divorce. Besides, couples have the option to remarry if they later regret their impulsive decisions. So then, why the need for a “divorce cooling-off period”?  

Abuse. (iStock)
Some netizens worry that a cooling-off period would prolong family tragedies and inflict more harm on some women. (iStock)

When a Chinese friend discussed this with me, she saw another effect of the cooling-off period: prolonging the agony of waiting to buy a house after divorce. She exclaimed, “In future, one must plan early before buying a house after a divorce.” She even confidently expressed that the recent surge in divorce applications at Shenzhen was “mainly to buy a house at a much cheaper price after ‘faking a divorce’.” (NB: When a couple files for divorce, the one that does not retain ownership of their property assets is free to enjoy policies available to first-time buyers. Couples may decide to remarry at a later date after taking advantage of this policy.)

...anything related to monetary interests, such as applying for a minimum livelihood policy (低保), getting relocation compensation, evading debt, and paying tax, can become a reason for divorce in China.

Jokes aside, such actions also illustrate peculiar reasons as to why the Chinese are filing for divorce — to game the system. Earlier on when various Chinese regions launched home purchase and loan restriction policies, people flocked to get divorced in order to purchase a house. These made news headlines then, but have become the norm now. Staging a divorce by finding policy loopholes does not end when people try to buy a house — anything related to monetary interests, such as applying for a minimum livelihood policy (低保), getting relocation compensation, evading debt, and paying tax, can become a reason for divorce in China.    

Therefore, the reasons for divorce in China are more complicated than one can imagine. The underlying social problems are not as simple as emotional disputes and family conflicts. It is also unfair to attribute rising divorce rates to the coronavirus alone. Pinning our hopes on the “divorce cooling-off period” to save the complicated marriage lives of the Chinese is perhaps a tad too optimistic as well.    

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