Debate in China no oxymoron when it comes to divorce

Marriage is a hot issue on the lips of citizens in China, and the intensity of the debate has taken Chinese officials by surprise.

So said Harvard University’s William Alford, the Henry L. Stimson Professor of Law, in his Jan. 30 talk at Williams Hall entitled “Have You Eaten? Have You Jumped Into the Sea? Have You Divorced?: Marriage, Divorce and Competing Conceptions of Freedom in the People’s Republic of China.”

The brouhaha is over a new marriage law in the making. The draft has been put up for consideration in the Chinese legislature, the National People’s Congress.

Public debate on legal issues, while not unheard of, has never before reached this degree of fervor, Alford said. To prove his point, he cited the bold language in a Chinese newspaper commenting on the draft law: “‘Every time the state gets involved, they muck up our lives.’”

Behind the intensity of the public debate are statistics that chronicle the deterioration of married life, especially for rural women. Perhaps as many as 30 percent of married women are abused, according to one women’s non-governmental organization, Alford said.

Many are abandoned by husbands who fled illegally to the bright lights, big city, where they remarry. That 140 million people have fled the countryside has enormous social and economic implications for the families left behind, Alford said.

And many of those women left behind find themselves being sold or prostituted.

The draft legislation is the first in Chinese national law to denounce domestic violence, Alford said to the 30 or so scholars attending his talk, part of the East Asia Social Sciences Series.

It differs from the previous Marriage Law of 1980, which made the vague term “emotional breakdown” of the marriage legitimate grounds for divorce. The draft defines legitimate reasons for that breakdown, including contracting a venereal disease after the marriage, having had two years of separation, or taking a lover. The draft law also allows victims of spousal abuse or bigamy who seek divorce also to seek compensation.

In a country where family is a strong metaphor for morality, the Chinese see these shifts as a threat to the social and political order, Alford said.

The public debate has centered around whether legal changes will indeed protect women or result in further problems for them — or even whether legal changes have relevance to the realities of most women’s lives. “It is in the countryside where you’re most likely to find officials engaging in concubinage and least likely to find lawyers,” Alford said, pointing out the futility for rural women of a law against concubinage.

As for the debate, which is raising issues of individual freedom and state control, Chinese officials didn’t see it coming. “They have not appreciated the hornet’s nest that they have opened up,” Alford said.


Originally published on February 15, 2001