China’s New Civil Code-an effort to build domestic labour force

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VINOD SHARMA

Amid public outrage and anger, China is all set to roll out its first Civil Code from January 1, necessitating a mandatory month-long ‘cooling-off’ period for couples seeking divorce as an effort to lower down the ever-increasing divorce rate.
The country’s first-ever Civil Code-passed by the China’s legislature with overwhelming majority in May this year despite serious concerns and criticisms from various regions of the country-is being viewed as a ‘sweeping’ piece of legislation that is destined to replace existing laws on marriage, adoption and property rights, among others.
The cooling-off period only applies in cases where both parties are seeking the divorce with mutual consent and will not apply if one spouse is seeking divorce following domestic violence.
Prior to this, the couples were given instant divorces the same day, leading to rapid rise in China’s divorce rate since 2003, when marriage laws were liberalised and more women become financially independent. According to a report, last year some 4.15 million Chinese couples dissolved their marriage-registering a whopping increase of 1.3 million in 2003, when couples were first allowed to divorce by mutual consent without going to court. Broken and unstable marriages further contributed to China witnessing lowest ever birth rate in seven decades in 2019. While Chinese authorities have attempted several measures in last decade to ease its one-child policy, established in 1979, including officially announcing an end to the policy in 2015, the country’s birth rate did not see any signs of recovery. Experts opine that the increasingly high cost of raising children, lack of legislation in protecting women’s rights in workplace, and lack of Government-funded family support have all contributed to China’s low birth rate and the country’s increasingly imminent issues in taking care of its aging population.
Interestingly, with a need to push for higher birth rate to combat aging population problems, the Chinese authorities started to abandon its once-progressive ideas of promoting gender equality to increase the labour force participation rate. Instead, the authorities have begun to adopt more conservative-leaning values of family unity and ‘traditional virtue’, encouraging women to get married and raise children.
With over 140 crore population, China see citizens more as potential labourers rather than citizens with freedom and basic rights. Despite stiff opposition, the Communist country went ahead in adopting changes in interest of the Government’s fight against low birth rates, even at the expense of personal freedom and liberty.
According to another report, China is facing significant economic challenges as global economy continues to suffer amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and its relationship with countries around the world deteriorate over ideological and political differences. Demographic factors such as low birth rate and ageing population will make it harder for China to maintain its economic development through competitive labour costs in manufacturing sector. Presumably, the economic challenges are pushing China to re-examine its family policies and explore the possibilities of engineering its population into productive labour resources to fit the regime’s needs.
From ‘women hold up half of the sky’ to ‘strong family values for a harmonious society’, the Chinese Communist Party has shifted its family and social positions from one of the most progressive Governments, at least rhetorically, to a rapidly regressive conservative Government-which is manipulating its citizens in every way to achieve its political agenda and strategic goals, with little regard for individual rights and equality.
Whatever may be the objective of new Civil Code, the authorities as well as academicians are leaving no stone unturned in justifying these new laws.
“The law still afforded couples the freedom to divorce. They may have quarrelled about family affairs and are divorcing in a fit of anger. After that, they may regret it. We need to prevent this kind of impulsive divorce”, said Cheng Xiao, vice president and professor of Law School of Tsinghua.
Tan Fang, director of Shanghai FO Law Firm, said “Some young people do divorce impulsively, without considering arrangements for their children or dividing property. Some women divorced and then sought legal aid because they had disputes with their ex-husbands over their children or their joint property”.
Defending the law, he further sais, “In recent years, some civil affairs authorities have opened psychological or mediation centres near divorce application offices in an effort to persuade people to change their plans”, adding, “in Putuo district since 2004, about 30 per cent of couples who originally went for divorce gave up their divorce plan-at least temporarily”.
Chinese Community Party’s media mouthpiece, People’s Daily, claimed that the new law is supposed to help couples think carefully about marriage besides establishing family virtues and good social order.
Similarly, the state news agency, Xinhua, has also called the new law a legal guarantee of securing ‘a harmonious family and
society’.
However, there is a strong opposition among the netizens as far as the cooling off period is concerned.
“This regulation actually adds obstacles to divorce. It enables the party who does not want to divorce-usually men-to have more time to harass the other party. It is not helpful in protecting women’s rights”, said a female citizen.
“If you regret divorcing, you can remarry and nobody stops you from marrying again. It is not necessary to cool off and it just wastes people’s time”, opined another.
“It will lead to more people hesitating to get married due to more trouble in divorcing”, yet another woman said, adding, “We can’t even divorce freely. There must still be a lot of people who marry impulsively, they should set a cooling-off period for getting married as well”.
It is worthwhile to mention here that a divorce cooling-off period is already in force in some other countries. For example, it is normally six months in India, 3 months in South Korea, six weeks in England and Wales and 15 days in France. However, people of China have rejected this law, terming it as state interference in ‘personal relationships’.
Undeniably, the matrimonial scenario is grim in China with divorce rate soaring from around 0.96 divorces per 1,000 people in 2000 to 3.36 divorces in 2019. This is quite a high value compared to the divorce rate of countries in Asia Pacific region. However, China shares the fate of a growing divorce rate with many with many other developing countries, while in most developed countries, the number of divorces per 1,000 inhabitants is either stable or falling. For example, the divorce rate in Singapore has been mainly stable at 1.9 divorces per 1,000 in last ten years and the divorce rate in South Korea has fallen from 2.5 in 2009 to 2.1 in 2018. In U.S., the divorce rate has been falling since 1992 from 4.8 divorces per 1,000 people to 2.9 divorces in 2018.
Strangely, dating and marriage happens at a much later life for younger generations in China. Highest working hours in the region and work pressure have considerably contributed towards youngsters preferring to remain single than to initiate a love affair or get married at an early stage of their life.
To sum up, with the new matrimonial law in force, the Chinese Government has given a clear cut message to its citizens, especially women, to stay in their conjugal life and bear children to add to the shrinking labour force of the country under the garb of establishing ‘family virtues and good social order’.

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