So far, 2021 has been cruel to unhappy Chinese couples. The first blow came on Jan. 1, when a new law went into effect mandating a 30-day cooling-off period for those seeking a divorce. Then, in February, couples that were still seeking to split up found themselves struggling to find online appointments. In parts of Shanghai and Shenzhen, the calendar was backed up for weeks. In Guangzhou, appointments were so scarce that scalpers sold them.
China's government isn't apologizing. For years, it took a hands-off approach to marriage and divorce. But steep recent declines in the country's birth rate are changing minds at the top. A government that once sought to discourage childbearing is now resurrecting traditional and often sexist notions of family and gender to promote it.
Chinese views on the topic have evolved significantly over the past few decades. Prior to the ascent of the Communist Party, the government had almost no role in regulating marriage and other forms of cohabitation, and a divorce was extremely difficult to obtain. In 1950, a landmark law was enacted banning practices such as child marriage and concubinage while affirming that marriage should be based on the free choice of men and women. The new measure didn't make divorce easy, but it did establish a legal pathway to obtain one.
The impact was quick. Nationally, divorce cases grew from 460,000 in 1950 to 1.2 million in 1953. The leading reasons cited during this period were a desire to end arranged and forced marriages. Yet not everyone was on board with the reforms. Rural women were often subjected to intimidation, beatings and even murder if they exercised their new rights. Even when there wasn't violence involved, women were at a disadvantage when it came to the division of marital property and thus often remained in unhappy or abusive unions.
In the 1970s, the government began worrying that the country's burgeoning population threatened its long-term social and economic stability. So, in 1980, it reformed marriage law once again, this time with provisions that explicitly encouraged "late marriage and late childbirth" and promoted family planning. Later reforms cemented the government's authoritarian "one-child" population-control policies.
Those measures, often tainted by corruption and brutality, enjoyed a mixed reception at best. But later policies that expanded personal freedom were far more popular, as evidenced by growing numbers of couples rejecting early marriage and embracing divorce. Divorces rose from 1.3 million in 2003, when laws were loosened, to 4.5 million in 2018 (the next year saw a slight decline, and numbers for 2020 aren't yet available).
Official tolerance for these trends began to erode after the 2010 census revealed a rapidly aging population and sharply declining birth rates. Among other problems, those trends meant that the number of Chinese workers available to support the world's largest population of retirees was plummeting, posing risks to long-term growth, productivity and stability. But simply reversing the policies that led to this demographic crisis hasn't been successful so far. For example, the end of the one-child policy in 2016 had no meaningful impact on the country's birth rate. In 2019, the number of births fell 4%, to 10.6 million, China's lowest level since 1961.
That has left the government eager to find scapegoats as it abandons decades of anti-natalism for an increasingly coercive pro-natalism. Last week, the National Health Commission outlined the factors that, in its view, are impacting fertility in China's economically depressed northeast region: "economic burdens, infant and child care, and female career development." The commission is no outlier. About a decade ago, Chinese media began referring to working, unmarried women over the age of 27 by the derogatory term "leftover women," expressing an anti-feminist (and pro-natalist) attitude that has persisted ever since.
Public frustration at these attitudes is real, but has been largely unfocused. That changed last spring, when China added the cooling-off period for divorce to the country's civil-law code. The provision quickly became a top trending topic online, with 600 million comments posted to the Sina Weibo service using the hashtag "oppose divorce cooling-off period." Some critics objected to the state's sudden interest in nagging the country's married couples. Others focused on the danger that a cooling-off period posed for women trapped in abusive relationships. Yet the government didn't back down then and it won't do so now.
That's a policy failure in the making. After years of relative freedom, young Chinese couples won't easily yield to the Communist Party's new marriage guidance. The cooling-off period is likely to become just one more reason (or excuse) to avoid marriage and children altogether. A better route is for China to invest in policies such as universal childcare and generous family leave. Both are expensive, but they'll reduce a crucial stress point for working couples, and might just keep a few of them from splitting up in the first place.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of "Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade" and "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement