During the 2020 National People’s Congress, Chinese lawmakers voted in favor of adopting the country’s first civil code, which will make some significant changes to the country’s law on marriage and families. One of the notable changes is the addition of a month-long cooling-off period for couples filing a divorce. The latest legislation will require a mandatory wait of 30 days before proceeding with applications for separation.
Despite seeing concerns about and criticisms of such changes from various regions across the country, the Civil Code was passed with 2,879 legislators voting in favor, two voting against, and five abstaining on the last day of the NPC meetings. These voting numbers are similar to the more scrutinized decision on Hong Kong national security legislation, on which 2,878 voted in favor, one voted against, and six abstained. The new civil code will be in place starting from 2021, making it harder for couples to file a divorce or make choices in their marriages.
Meanwhile, long-hoped-for reforms on same-sex marriage were not discussed in the annual legislative meetings, despite having a significant amount of support. The new civil code will continue to use the definition from 1950, which sees marriage as a legal covenant between one man and one woman.
The CCP’s media mouthpiece, People’s Daily, claims that the clause requiring a 30-day cooling-off period is a way to deter careless divorces and strengthen family stability. The new law is supposed to help couples think carefully about marriage and establish family virtues and good social orders. These views are also echoed by the state news agency, Xinhua, which called the new proposals in the civil code the legal guarantee of securing “a harmonious family and society.”
Similar to China’s birth planning policies, the new laws are another way of undermining the personal freedom of Chinese citizens. From limiting citizens’ freedom to decide the number of children that their families intend to have to making it harder for citizens to file for divorce, the Chinese government has been adapting these changes not in the interests of its citizens, but in the interests of the regime.
China’s divorce rate has been increasing since 2003; in 2019, more than 4 million couples decided to end their marriages. These numbers are interpreted as a sign of gradually improving gender equality: Women are becoming more financially independent, and the social views on marriage have changed as China became more and more economically developed in the last two decades.
At the same time, China’s birth rate fell to the lowest point in seven decades in 2019. While Chinese authorities have attempted several measures in the 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. The increasingly high cost of raising children, lack of legislation in protecting women’s rights in the workplace, and lack of government-funded family support all contributed to China’s low birth rate and the country’s increasingly imminent issues in taking care of its aging population.
China is also facing significant economic challenges as the global economy continues to suffer amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and its relationships with countries around the world deteriorate over ideological and political confrontations. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang publicly announced in his work report to the NPC that China will not set any GDP growth targets for 2020. And one week later, Li also revealed some shocking data, suggesting that 600 million Chinese citizens have a monthly income of just 1,000 Chinese renminbi ($140). While China is one of the largest economies in the world with a GDP per capita of $10,000, the country’s income inequality is becoming a larger issue. Limited job opportunities, economic downturns, and China’s economic structural changes are becoming challenges in ensuring the continued economic growth the country has witnessed in the past 40 years since its economic reforms.
Demographic factors such as the low birth rate and the aging population will make it harder for China to maintain its economic development through competitive labor costs in manufacturing. China sees a more hostile international community because of its past and current practices in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The country’s increasingly repressive governing policies are also making it more difficult to seek help to solve its challenges in achieving high economic growth. These challenges are pushing China to re-examine its family policies and explore the possibilities of engineering its population into productive labor resources to fit the regime’s needs.
With a need to push for higher birth rates to combat the aging population problems, the Chinese regime started to abandon its once-progressive ideas of promoting gender equality to increase the labor force participation rate. Instead, the authorities have started to adopt more conservative-leaning values such as “family unity” and “traditional virtue,” encouraging women to “get married and raise children.” The Chinese authorities see citizens more as potential laborers rather than citizens with freedom and basic rights. Despite facing criticisms and opposition, China showed no hesitation in adopting changes in the interest of the regime’s fight against low birth rates, even at the expense of personal freedom and equalities.
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 policy positions from one of the most progressive governments in the world (at least rhetorically) to a rapidly regressing conservative government. Despite moving from one end of the political spectrum to the other end over its 70-plus year rule, one thing about the Chinese Communist Party remains unchanged: This regime is willing to manipulate its citizens in every way to achieve its political agenda and strategic goals, with little regard for individual rights and equality.