Faculty & Research
Faculty & Research
What killed marriage? China’s divorce rate is up 75% in a decade
By Michael Kwan
“Thank you for spending the past decade with me. I hope you can live your life as you want in the future.”
See You Again, China’s first divorce reality show, has caused quite a stir in a country now facing a surging divorce rate. The show features three couples who have already divorced or intend to do so. Some viewers have lamented the show is like a ritual to bid farewell to marriage.
Although it is increasingly difficult to get married, divorce is getting easier. Official statistics show that the number of registered divorces in China increased from 2.7 million in 2010 to 4.7 million in 2019 – up by a whopping 75.5% in a decade. A further look into the divorce/marriage ratio (the number of divorces compared to the number of marriages in a certain region within a given period) reveals an even gloomier picture. In 2019, China’s divorce/marriage ratio was 50.7%, indicating that the number of divorces surpassed half of the number of marriages. In the same year, Tianjin reported the highest rate (72.5%), followed by the three north-eastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang (averaging over 60%). Divorce rates in Beijing, Chongqing, and Shanghai were also close to 60%.
Do higher incomes equal higher divorce rates?
China’s first divorce reality show See You Again aired its finale on October 20. The 18-day trip taken by the three couples who participated in the show came to an end, leaving many viewers in tears. “Getting divorced is not a failure, but getting trapped in a painful and hopeless relationship is real misfortune,” one netizen observed. In addition to becoming an open topic in everyday life, China’s divorce statistics have mirrored profound changes in social relationships.
That said, China’s divorce rate still pales in comparison to the peak levels of developed countries such as the UK, US, and France. Nevertheless, these western countries have witnessed declining divorce rates over the years, while China’s divorce rate is still growing.
China’s rising divorce rate is, in part, the result of multiple factors and reflects the country’s socioeconomic development and social values. The relationship between economic development and divorce rates is a widely discussed topic. It seems to be a popular belief that the more economically developed a region is, the higher its divorce rate will be. This observation has its theoretical grounds: the functions of marriage are indeed shaped by economic development and social progress.
Back in the days of low productivity, building a family through marriage was like forging an economic alliance, and one of its major purposes was to mitigate risks. Divorce could compromise the quality of life for both partners or even threaten their very existence. In a more developed world, divorce is less likely to threaten anyone’s survival, leaving partners with rising costs and shrinking returns on their marriage.
It is worth mentioning, however, that the perception that divorce rates increase as economies develop is largely based on one’s intuitive feelings. Research shows that the relation between economic development and divorce rates is too complicated to be generalised as a positive or negative correlation. Studies that use different databases for analysis often show inconsistent results. For example, scholars concluded from one study that levels of personal income and expenditure are positively correlated with divorce rates, especially so for females. Yet another study revealed a negative correlation between per-capita disposable income and divorce rates, meaning the higher the income, the lower the divorce rate.
Annual data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Civil Affairs point to significant regional differences in the country’s divorce rates. Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang (in Northeastern China), for example, reported fairly high divorce rates and divorce/marriage ratios, surpassing more developed cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Take my hometown of Hong Kong as another example. According to data from the local census and statistics department, the number of registered divorces in Hong Kong more than tripled between 1991 and 2020. These statistics also indicate that the region’s divorce rate is somewhat negatively correlated with the median income and education level of its population (i.e., the lower the income and education, the higher the divorce rate). Areas with higher divorce rates, such as Sham Shui Po, generally have lower median incomes and education levels. Therefore, given the different factors at play, economic growth could drive up divorce rates, while economic recession could also give rise to more divorces.
Women are choosing divorces over compromises
Divorce rates also have close relations with urban and rural differences, gender differences, and even different levels of technological development. Research shows, for example, that urban residents experience higher divorce rates than those living in rural areas, and that China’s urbanisation drive is partly behind its rising divorce rates.
As for gender differences, men and women today stand on a more equal footing when it comes to divorce. This has much to do with increasing educational levels for women thanks to an improved gender balance in China’s higher education system. According to some research, the more educated a woman is, the more likely that she will find a satisfactory partner even after getting a divorce. Therefore, when confronting marital conflict, well-educated women choose to divorce and seek re-marriage rather than make compromises in their current relationship.
Technological development has also played a role in pushing up the divorce rate. It has been found, for instance, that household broadband subscriptions and mobile internet penetration in some regions are positively correlated with local divorce rates.
While interpreting divorce rates from the above perspectives, we should also look into changes in the perception of marriage and identify the impact of the market economy on social ideology. Research has found that whether a society worships humanitarian concerns or economic concerns can affect the way people see marriage and family (where humanitarian concerns focus on the quality of people’s everyday life, such as leisure activities, interpersonal relationships, and family life and economic concerns focus on productivity, material wealth, and exchange of value).
If a country puts more emphasis on business productivity and economic success than on personal and family well-being, the general public is likely to adapt their perceptions and behaviours accordingly. In a society dominated by the commodity economy and its related ways of thinking, people tend to be influenced by the ideas of productivity and exchange in handling personal affairs. Individuals may see marriage as an exchange, put more focus on its utility, and make decisions about marriage or divorce in a pragmatic manner.
What is the real impact of divorce on society?
It seems that a rising divorce rate is an inevitable stage as society moves forward. This is a phenomenon arising along with the postponement of marriage and childbearing, as experienced by developed countries now. These trends will not only push up the divorce/marriage ratio, but also indirectly affect birth rates and exacerbate the decline of related sectors such as the maternal and infant care industry. Japan, for instance, has experienced a nosedive in the number of maternal and infant caregivers.
As these trends prevail, they will have far-reaching consequences, including diminished demographic dividends and weakened labour productivity. High divorce rates may also lead to issues around elderly care. Some everyday problems that can be handled with the help of a partner may appear intractable for divorced elderly living alone. The government can introduce supportive policies to address this challenge. For example, the Hong Kong SAR government encourages banks to sign contracts with elderly people who live alone in their own home. Such contracts allow seniors to use their houses as collateral to obtain care services, and banks can recover the service cost by acquiring the house after they pass away.
It is interesting to note that more and more people have begun to question authorities’ attempts to favour the institution of marriage and discourage divorce, arguing that divorce is after all a matter of personal freedom. At the national level, China’s government believes keeping the divorce rate stable is essential for social stability, since families are the bedrock of a stable society.
At the personal level, research shows that men with a stable family make more money and enjoy more promotion opportunities than bachelors. That is partly because these men, driven by a strong need to earn bread for their families, often deliver stable and reliable performance at work. Another reason is that leaders and colleagues tend to think a family man is more mature and reliable in handling work and relationships, so they are willing to trust him with important tasks.
Studies also indicate that emotional support from family members is crucial for women’s well-being. Compared with men, women are more likely to bring the benefits of family life to work. For example, mothers have to learn how to answer babies’ needs through expressions and body language before they can talk, and thus develop a sharp eye which can help them understand the needs of colleagues and clients during their daily work more easily.
On the policy side, China has rolled out a number of initiatives to contain its rising divorce rate. The most notable was the introduction of a divorce cooling-off period, which requires couples seeking a divorce to wait for 30 days before formalising their separation. These measures have brought down China’s divorce rate. In the first half of 2021, 966,000 divorces and 4,166,000 marriages were registered nationwide, with the divorce rate down by 50% from the same period in 2020. We can tell from these figures that quite a number of divorce decisions are made on impulse and that policies are having a real effect.
However, such measures have also run into considerable opposition. Some people think these rules fail to address the root causes of divorce and will only give rise to more problems. One of their arguments is that these legal hurdles will raise the threshold and cost of divorce. When individuals of marriageable age weigh up the rising cost of divorce and diminishing potential returns from marriage, they may think twice about tying the knot, which will take a toll on the marriage rate. Since these national initiatives are still in their infancy and how they play out in the long run remains to be seen.
Cashing in on commoditised divorce
It is also worth noting that the practice of commoditising divorce may subtly shape public perceptions of marriage and divorce, and even have a bearing on the divorce rate. The reality show See You Again is such a case in point. The show sent three troubled couples on an 18-day journey to show audiences what it is like to be caught in a marriage crisis.
What strikes me most are not personality differences or the entangled relationships of these couples, but the implications of this reality show. After all, this is not a public service programme, but a commercial project that needs to generate profit and serve sponsors. Interestingly enough, one of See You Again’s sponsors is a wedding photography company. The practice of turning divorce into a commodity may affect people’s perceptions of divorce. For example, when divorce is packaged as a solemn ritual, the public may buy into the idea that since a marriage begins with ritual and ceremony, it should also end that way.
Behind all of this is demand for growing divorce-related sectors. When it comes to moral values, See You Again adopts a cautious approach, discussing only internal problems of marriage (such as mismatched chemistry or personality conflicts) without touching on the impact of external factors (such as infidelity). As the public grows more open-minded about these types of shows, divorce-oriented products and programmes may go further and adopt bolder styles in the future. Compared with the new cooling-off period for divorcing couples, I think this rising practice of commoditising divorce merits more attention from policy makers.
Michael Kwan is an Associate Professor of Management at CEIBS. For more on his teaching and research interests, please visit his faculty profile here.