Divorce in China & Chile

The raw statistics were reported in China Daily:

China saw 1.613 million couples divorced in 2004 while 8.341 million couples registered to marry that year, according to statistics of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.  Compared with the statistics of 2003, 282,000 more couples divorced with an increase rate of 21.2 percent while 227,000 more couples got married in 2004.  About 995,000 couples chose to divorce at civil administration organs rather than suing at courts in 2004, 304,000 couples more than those in 2003 with an increase rate of 44 percent, which covers 62 percent of the total divorces. 

China Daily quotes Prof. Wu Changzhen, an expert in marriage and family law with the People's University of China, on the factor behind the sharp rise in the number of divorces: 

With the taking effect of the new marriage law in October 2003, a couple who present their own residence booklet, identification cards, marriage certificates and their written divorce agreements will get their divorce certificates on the spot. While in the past they had to present the recommendations offered by their enterprises or institutions where they were working or by the local residents' committees or villagers' committees, basic community organizations in China.

How fast is fast?  Ching-Ching Ni wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

Now couples can change their lives in 10 minutes.

If both parties agree to the split, they simply fill out an application and provide their marriage certificate, identification and photos of themselves. They pay a processing fee of about a dollar, and suddenly they are no longer married.

"Before, we would have to try to help them resolve their differences. Now that is considered private. The only question we ask is: Is it voluntary? They don't have to tell us any details," Dong Hailong, 28, a divorce officer in Beijing, said at his desk below a large, red national emblem and next to a Chinese flag.

So far so good.  But here is Jonathan Watts report of the same facts in The Guardian, and there are some puzzling statements:

Chinese authorities are sending "think again" letters to couples applying for divorce after the number of people ending their marriages surged by 21% last year.

The growing number of legal break-ups, which have increased fivefold since 1979, has raised concerns that the first generation to grow up in one-child families were so spoiled that they are unable to make the sacrifices required of marriage.  According to figures released yesterday by the ministry of civil affairs, 1.6 million couples divorced in 2004, up by almost 300,000 on the previous year. Although the overall divorce rate is still lower than in Europe or the US, the long-term trend is upwards.

Adultery and divorce are becoming the most talked-about subjects in China's fast-changing society. Last year's most popular soap opera was called China Style Divorce. The tale of infidelity and break-up was voted the best drama of 2004 and was watched by hundreds of millions of viewers.

Last year's steep rise was attributed mainly to simpler marriage and divorce procedures. In the past, couples needed permission from their work units to tie and untie the knot, which meant that, in 1991, two out of five divorce requests were turned down.  But under the new rules, couples can obtain quick divorces from register offices by taking in their marriage certificates, ID cards, resident permits and a signed statement that they no longer want to be married. It takes 10 minutes and costs10 yuan (65p). 

Critics have warned that this has allowed people to rush in and out of marriage. In Shanghai, where divorces are more than double the national average, newspapers have reported on a couple who married in the morning and divorced that afternoon. Another couple reportedly married and divorced twice in a year.  Sociologists say the increase in break-ups reflects wider changes as China becomes wealthier and more liberal.

Here is my first question: If it takes only 10 minutes to apply and be approved for a quickie divorce, is there time enough to send a "think again" letter?  By the time the letter arrives, it is a done deal a long time ago.  This is a waste of postage!

My second question is about whether a soap opera can really affect social mores.  After all, billions more watched revolutionary dramas once upon a time, and what happened to them?

I have a more technical question.  Everyone seems to think that the rise in divorce numbers was due to (1) procedural simplifications and (2) changing social mores.  Both make sense.  But how can the 21% figure be parceled out individually to each factor?  Watts was ready to attribute 'mainly' to procedural simplifications.  Alas, the procedure will have to be in place for a couple of years before we know.  If the numbers go down next year, then this year's increase was a one-time boost due to the release of pent-up demand.  If the numbers soar again next year, then it was more likely a social change.

Before divorce, there is marriage.  Ching-Ching Ni wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

The rush to the altar last year was less dramatic than the dash to divorce. Although the rules for marriage also were simplified, the number of newlyweds rose only 3% over 2003, to 8.3 million.  

Many young Chinese took their families to the cleaners on costs.  A recent survey found that the weddings of many newlyweds, most from a generation of single-child households, could easily cost about $24,000 (note: 200,000 RMB) for ceremony, banquet, photo shoot and honeymoon.  The average Chinese urbanite makes a little more than $1,000 a year. Farmers make a third of that.

Personally, I have always advised couples to elope, but that would not be good for the economy.

For a comparison, let us look at what happened in Chile.  It was only in November 2004 that the Congress of this strongly conservative country passed the first divorce law ever.  Let me recall that I once had a depressing experience in Santiago when a bunch of Chileans at lunch went around the table to describe their marital statuses, of which there were three classes: (1) separated but not divorced; (2) still legally married in a hopeless marriage but only because divorce was not possible; (3) cohabitating with no intention of getting married.

At the time when Congress passed the law, BBC News predicted:

Attention in Chile will now focus on the courts in Chile and the expected rush of demands.

Jenny Book presides over the 7th civil court in Santiago and is one of the judges who will handle divorce cases. She believes it is a good, progressive law but also thinks the workload could be unmanageable in the first few months. She has been given new staff but she says it will take "three or four months to train them".  Eventually divorce cases in Chile will be handled by a family tribunal but that will not start operating until the end of 2005.

In January 2005, Larry Rohter wrote in New York Times that during the first eight weeks, fewer than 1,000 couple applied for divorce in this country of 15.5 million people.  What is going on here?  Once, again, this comes down to the two aspects: procedural issues and social history.

In theory, divorce is now allowed in Chile.  In practice, the process is onerous for the applicants.  This was not by no means a one-stop 10-minute no-questions-asked process.  Here are some examples from Rohter:

As soon as the law was passed, officials trotted out one middle-aged woman as a poster child for its benefits - María Victoria Torres, who complained that her husband had kicked and hit her, was unfaithful, and would not pay child support after they separated. "On many occasions, I went looking for help, and no one listened to me," she said before a battery of television cameras and radio microphones. "Today, I dare show my face and give my testimony, because I feel supported."

Too bad the authorities proved unable to locate her husband and formally notify him that divorce proceedings were under way. The law is very precise, and notifying an offending spouse is the mandatory first step. So the case is now stalled, waiting for him to show up or be tracked down.

Grounds for divorce include abandonment, abuse and adultery. But claims and proof are different things. Complainants must show "repeated infidelity," for example, not just one instance. Or they must submit evidence of physical violence, like photographs or police records. Hiring a lawyer is almost a necessity.

"People are frightened by the cost," said María Antonieta Saa, a member of Congress who was a sponsor of the legislation. "With all of the bureaucratic obstacles, a divorce can run to more than $1,500" - a lot of money, she pointed out, in a country where the minimum wage is just over $200 a month.

And where there people who could not get on with their lives until the law was passed?  Well, people got by through various technical loopholes.  Rohter recounted:

Before divorce was legalized, Chileans could escape from failed marriages, but usually only by subterfuge. The most creative schemes involved civil annulment, which required the separating couple to persuade a court that the original marriage had not met legal requirements. So marrying couples frequently left an escape hatch, in case things didn't work out.

Witnesses to a wedding, for example, would sometimes deliberately misspell their names or give an incorrect address. Or a couple might marry in a jurisdiction in which neither lived. More than 5,000 annulments were granted annually; the beneficiaries included President Ricardo Lagos.

So there was not necessarily a pent-up demand out there.  In Isabel Allende's My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile, written before the divorce law was passed by Congress:

Chile is possibly the one country in the galaxy where there is no divorce, and that's because no one dares defy the priests, even though 71 percent of the population has been demanding it for a long time.  No legislator, not even those who have been separated from their wives and partnered a series of other women in quick succession, is willing to stand up to the priests, and the result is that divorce law sleeps year after year in the "pending" file, and when finally it is approved it will be with so much red tape and so many conditions that it will be easier to murder your spouse than to divorce him or her.  

My best friend, tired of waiting for her marriage to be annulled, read the newspapers every day with the hope that she would see her husband's name.  She never dared pray that the man would be dealt the death he deserved, but if she had asked Padre Hurtado sweetly, I have no doubt that he would have complied.  

For more than a hundred years legal loopholes have allowed thousands of couples to annul their marriages.  And that is what my parents did.  All it took was my grandfather's determination and connections to have my father disappear by magic and my mother declared an unmarried woman with three illegitimate children, which our law calls "putative" offspring.  My father signed the papers without a word, once he'd been assured that he wouldn't have to support his children.  The process consists of having a series of witnesses present false testimony before a judge who pretends to believe what he's told.  To obtain an annulment you must at least have a lawyer: not exactly cheap since he charges by the hour; his time is golden and he's in no hurry to shorten the negotiations.  The necessary requirement, if the lawyer is to "iron out" the annulment, is that the couple must be in agreement because if one of the two refuses to participate in the farce, as my stepfather's first wife did, there's no deal.  The result is that men and women pair and separate without papers of any kind, which is what nearly all the people I know have done.  

As I am writing these reflections, in the third millennium, the divorce law is still pending, even though the president of the republic annulled his first marriage and married a second time.  At the rate we're going, my mother and Tío Ramón, who are already in their eighties and have lived together more than half a century, will die without being able to legalize their situation.  It no longer matters to either of them, and even if they could marry they wouldn't; they prefer to be remembered as legendary lovers.

Yes, there are some who don't care anymore.

In an earlier New York Times report, there is a note about the demographic responses due to the absence of divorce laws:

Proponents of the law say the absence of divorce has also produced severe social distortions. The number of marriages recorded has sharply dropped since the return of democracy in 1990, to just over 60,000 annually from more than 100,000, and nearly half of all children here are now born to unmarried couples.

"With no divorce, people don't want to get married," said Ximena Diaz, director of the Center for Women's Studies. "It's going to be interesting to see what happens now."

This is a social theory waiting to be tested, noting that the historical experience may have already conditioned people to the unimportance of formal marriage.

On a matter of journalistic practice, are journalists trained to always mention the oddity?  Instead of the typical, they prefer the exception!

Thus, Jonathan Watts wrote: 

Critics have warned that this has allowed people to rush in and out of marriage. In Shanghai, where divorces are more than double the national average, newspapers have reported on a couple who married in the morning and divorced that afternoon.

Larry Rohter wrote: 

In one notorious case in the far north, a couple was married for only 90 minutes before deciding to split up; still, when the husband sought an annulment years later so he could marry again, his former wife demanded compensation.