A Chinese couple holding their marriage certificates pose for photos in a sunflower field in Beijing on July 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Jade Gao

China’s slumping marriage numbers and declining birth rates have prompted Beijing to boost its recent pro-birth policies with new measures aimed at promoting marriage and deterring divorce.

Statistics show marriage and parenthood are losing their appeal with China’s Y and Z generations and millennials. Only eight million marriages were registered in the world’s most populous nation in 2020.

This is about one-third lower than 2013’s peak of 13.47 million and is down 12.2% year-on-year, according to the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs, the state body that maintains a national register of marital changes.  

The rising tendency towards postponing marriage or forgoing it altogether in both genders is in line with key findings from China’s latest population census last year. The census revealed a fast-aging demographic with fewer newborns and a shrinking labor force. 

After loosening its childbearing policy in June to allow each couple to have as many as three children, up from a previous revision up to two, Beijing is now finalizing plans to promote wedlock to increase babymaking, starting by making marriage easier and cheaper. 

A pilot scheme to rectify the “outdated, unwholesome betrothal culture and traditions” and to redress the balance for women is now being implemented in 15 provinces. This comes soon after Chinese President Xi Jinping convened a Communist Party Politburo meeting at the end of May to discuss family-friendly and procreation policy recommendations. 

Xi reportedly frowned upon the exorbitant engagement payments that must be made by a bridegroom’s family to his fiancée as well as the tradition of extravagant wedding dinners and celebrations in rural China that often land newlyweds deep in debt.   

A young couple registers for marriage at the civil affairs office in Nanshan District on the Qixi Festival, also known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day, in Shenzhen City, south China’s Guangdong province, August 25, 2020. Photo: AFP / Imaginechina

In an agrarian city in central Shaanxi province selected to trial the new scheme, local cadres have imposed a cap on the size of engagement and dowry payments and banned ostentatious wedding functions and dinners, limiting the number of tables and guests. 

Xinhua reported that in Shaanxi’s Baoji city payments had been capped at 60,000 yuan (US$9,274), compared with previous levels as high as 200,000 yuan. Baoji’s per capita income was 34,400 yuan in 2020. The backwater city has also formed a task force to check on payments and weddings to ensure compliance and will issue fines to violators. 

Xinhua also noted poor families previously faced strong peer pressure to host lavish wedding dinners. Those who could not afford the expense have opted to remain single, the report said. With the new policy in place, Baoji recorded an increase in new marriage registrations in June, the report said. 

To further slash costs and encourage newlyweds to forgo the unnecessary pageantry and save for the future, Minister for Civil Affairs Li Jiheng told Xinhua that his ministry would organize and sponsor free group weddings and hand out free gifts and souvenirs.

Li added that the government would offer engaged and newlyweds free pre-marital services including physical check-ups and honeymoon travel advice and discounts. More resources would be prioritized for spousal obligation education and helping young couples cope with the strains of wedlock.

Beijing is also mulling guidelines and ordinances to stop the bizarre and sometimes loutish wedding hazing traditions that are widespread among villagers in the country’s central and western regions. 

China’s notorious wedding hazing tradition has been targeted as Beijing encourages more to get married. Photo: WeChat

The Chinese custom of guests playing pranks on newlyweds is often the fun part of a wedding. Some extreme cases reported by Chinese papers included sexual harassment and risque, orgy-like gatherings that led to injuries and arrests. 

Beijing is also applying new red tape and matrimonial oversight to make divorce more difficult, especially for couples below 40 in their prime reproductive ages. 

Newspapers in Harbin, the capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, reported a new “marriage salvage” and divorce prevention and mediation mechanism that started in 2020.

The province, usually referred to as China’s “rust belt,” reported a steep population decline of more than six million over the last decade in the latest nationwide headcount. The province also saw more couples divorce than marry last year and in the first quarter of 2021.  

In response, Harbin’s Civil Affairs Bureau has set up a team to vet divorce applications and to try to persuade young couples to reconsider their severance decisions, with a focus on those who had recently tied the knot but swiftly sever it over trivial disagreements.

A couple take an escalator at a mall in Beijing on May 17, 2021. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

 Couples filing for divorce will have to undergo counseling designed to help heal the relationship, followed by a “cooling-off period” of up to a month to reconsider their decision.

Marriages will only be annulled after two rounds of consultation. There have also been Weibo posts claiming a “divorce quota” regime as Harbin cadres seek to hold back the rise in divorces. 

Harbin was chosen by the Civil Affairs Ministry to showcase its work and experience in preserving marriages and enhancing social stability for other cities grappling with similar demographic and social challenges, like those in northeastern China. The aim is to make marriages last longer.  

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