Houston Community News >> For Chinese Women, Divorce Becoming Easier

4/8/2007 SHANGHAI -- Wu Meifen, 33, was seven months pregnant when she saw the short text message. It was on her husband's mobile phone, she said, and it confirmed her suspicions: He was having an affair. Then, days before giving birth, she called home from the hospital and discovered that her rival had temporarily moved in. That was when Wu decided to leave her husband, divorcing him in 2004 and taking nothing, she said, even though Chinese law calls for a 50-50 split of a couple's assets.

"I thought it was humiliating to bargain with him," Wu recalled. "I gave up everything."

Although she had no income at first, Wu knew that in a pinch she could rely on relatives. She learned how to drive. She borrowed money from a sister in Shanghai and started her own business. Now, she makes a decent living selling bathroom tiles. She drives a shiny white Toyota.

Divorce, once nearly unheard of in China, has become more common than ever as women such as Wu gain financial independence and shrug off the diminishing stigma against leaving their husbands. Legal barriers to divorce have fallen away -- couples needed permission from their employers until just four years ago -- and the Internet has become a resource for discontented spouses seeking guidance.

More broadly, experts say, the increase in divorce points to an embrace of individualism in this country, which in many ways remains only nominally communist.

"We used to think about how others see us, and the reputation of our families," said Xu Anqi, a sociology professor and deputy director of the Family Research Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "With people's changing ideas and less control on society, people are eager to look for happiness. Now they pay attention to love and quality of life. I think that's healthy."

Although it remains lower than in many developed countries, the divorce rate in China has skyrocketed in the recent past. It more than doubled from 1985 to 1995, as the country opened to Western ideas, and by 2005, the rate had more than tripled, to 1.37 couples out of every 1,000 people, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. In cities such as fast-paced Shanghai, the divorce rate has increased seven or eight times over the rate in 1980, Xu said.

The US divorce rate, by comparison, was 3.7 couples per 1,000 people in 2004. Half of all marriages in the United States eventually end in divorce.

In China "there are more options, more choices" than before, said Victor Yuan, a sociologist and chairman of the Horizon Research Consultancy Group, which tracks social trends. "Everything -- we need it to be new. We hope our quality of life will be improved because we just got a new house, a new spouse, even new kids." Although women still confront the stigma of being divorced -- it can adversely affect promotions, Communist Party membership, and overseas training opportunities -- the stigma is less than it was, especially among young people. "In the old days, people would point at you as if you were a whore. It would be very hard to date," said Wu, who has gone out with three men since her divorce, each just once. "I used to think I could never tell anyone I was divorced."

It has not been easy adjusting, but Wu had another source of support: a Shanghai-based divorce counseling center that in two years has opened 30 offices across China. Its year-old website has an online community of more than 1 million registered members.

The Wei-Qing Counseling Center says it has had about 2,700 people walk through its doors. More than half of the clients complain of loveless marriages. About 20 percent suffer from sexless marriages. Another 20 percent are so hostile that founder Shu Xin immediately recommends divorce.

Most, however, ask him to help analyze and save their marriages, which he does for up to $105 an hour or up to $658 a day. Business is booming. Earlier this year, Shu said, he made $79,000 from one client.

Experts note that spikes in the divorce rate are not an entirely new phenomenon in China. Divorce temporarily increased in the early 1950s, for example, after China's civil war and the passage of laws banning concubines. Back then, as now, women began to step out of family-centric roles; with jobs came independence and the will to leave unhappy marriages.

For Wu, though being a newly single mother has meant more work, she has no regrets about splitting with her husband.

"If I talked about these issues last year, I wouldn't be able to control my tears. When I got divorced, friends asked me how I could bear it, especially with a 3-month-old. But I had faith, and I knew I could depend on myself," she said. "I knew I had to work hard to give my daughter a better life."

(Contributed by Boston Globe)