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China booms, so does divorce rate


By Quentin Sommerville
BBC News, Shanghai

The rules of love, and separation, are changing in China.

Until recently divorce was rare in the communist state. Separating couples needed their work unit's permission before a divorce could be granted, but that was rarely given.

Personal relationships took second place to serving party and state.

But at the end of 2003 the rules changed. Now unhappy couples can visit their local community centre and - if both parties agree - the divorce will be issued in only ten minutes, for as little as 65 pence ($1).

Small wonder then that the divorce rate jumped by a fifth last year. Over a million and a half couples split up - a trend that shows no sign of slowing.

In a crowded country, Zhang Jumei is one of the many who have decided to go it alone.

After 20 years of marriage, the 45-year-old office worker has met someone else. In the past she would have thought twice about separating. But in the new China divorce is less stigmatized, she says.

"Today's society is a lot more tolerant. It allows individuals to make their personal choices," she says. "People have different expectations of the quality of their lives. We decide what life-style we choose and how to live a better life."

'More emotional' society

This is also a more emotional China, where newspapers and magazine devote column after to column to tales of love and heartbreak.

The drama China Style Divorce, all tears and tantrums, was the country's top rated-show last year. This fascination has got the authorities worried - they've launched a campaign , asking separating couples to think again. But it has had little impact.

"Some worry that divorce will have a very negative impact on our society," says sociology professor, Xu Anqi of the Shanghai Academy of Social Science.

"I don't think there needs to be such a serious concern," she says.

"Take US for example. The divorce rate in US is very high. It doesn't mean that their society is unstable. In China, the divorce rate was the lowest during Cultural Revolution. That was the most uncertain time for China. It was a time of complete chaos."

Heading for trouble?

Shu Xin is Shanghai's very own Sex in the City columnist. For £20 an hour he listens and dispenses advice on everything from coping with the in-laws to improving relations in the bedroom. He believes China could be heading for trouble.

"Some marriage experts believe that going through a divorce equals to 8 years in prison. It damages people's health. It definitely affects the quality of people's lives," he says.

But the dramatic rise in separations goes beyond the introduction of quickie divorces, it reflects a deeper change in Chinese society.

China's younger generation have known nothing but growth and prosperity. They want to enjoy the country's new riches on their own terms.

Unlike their parents, they are not prepared to make sacrifices for party or state. Protecting their private lives is a greater priority.

The social landscape is changing in China; there are fewer certainties now. The old order, with its fixed rules, is fast disappearing, but the new values that will replace it have still to be established.