Love on the rocks: Inside China’s marriage counselling boom

In this photo taken on March 5, 2021, a couple visits the promenade on the Bund along Huangpu River in Shanghai. - After decades of the "one-child policy", China faces a stark gender imbalance with 30 million more men than women. Coupled with rock-bottom birth rates, a demographic crisis is looming on the horizon. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP) / TO GO WITH China-society-culture-marriage,FOCUS by Hector Retamal and Laurie Chen

From a small office in Shanghai, marriage counsellor Zhu Shenyong livestreams advice over several phones simultaneously to an attentive audience keen to save their relationships.

On his wall hangs the mantra: “Let there be no bad marriages under heaven.” But in the earthly realities of modern China, divorce rates are surging, and Zhu’s services are in high demand.

“Only a minority are considering divorce, but want advice on whether it’s the right thing to do,” said the indefatigable 44-year-old, who wears a flat cap during his streaming sessions.

Now he pulls up to 500 viewers whenever he goes online, in a mission he describes as to “avoid unnecessary divorces”.

The number of registered divorces in China reached a record 8.6 million in 2020 — almost double the 2019 total and eclipsing the number of marriage registrations for the first time, according to government data.

Family pressure to wed early, the competitive grind of urban life, skyrocketing house prices, inadequate childcare and career support for mothers: all these are fraying marriages, especially among a younger generation who prioritise personal freedom.

With the birth rate nosediving, The Lancet recently predicted China’s population could halve by 2100, falling behind India and Nigeria.

– ‘It’s extremely unfair’ –

The aim was to prevent impulsive divorces, but rights advocates fear it is trapping women in abusive marriages as it can be extended indefinitely if one side refuses to agree.

“It’s extremely unfair to sufferers of domestic violence…who are eager to escape from their unhappy marriages.”

Many Chinese provinces have rolled out state-organised counselling for tens of thousands of couples, including newlyweds and marriages on the verge of a breakdown.

Counsellors are also permanently stationed in all marriage registry offices in Beijing.

But for 36-year-old civil servant Wallace, mandatory mediation sessions came too late to alter the course of his divorce.

“For those who really want to divorce, (mediation) is just a formality,” he said.

Many of his friends are preoccupied with getting into marriages, and then escaping them.

He blames Shanghai’s high divorce rate partly on what is locally known as “involution” — a form of social stagnation in China’s hyper-competitive, status-driven urban centres that leaves people increasingly dissatisfied with their lives.

Pressures persist — especially on women — to marry young and have children. But more Chinese women are also refusing to cave in, with marriage registrations last year falling to their lowest level in nearly two decades.

“Our elders’ mindset is: divorce means nobody wants you…but my generation thinks it is just a personal choice,” she says.

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