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Want a divorce? Come back tomorrow (or not), say Chinese officials

By Steven Jiang, CNN
updated 3:23 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
A Chinese couple poses for their wedding photos on Shanghai's Bund. Divorce rates in China have soared in recent years.
A Chinese couple poses for their wedding photos on Shanghai's Bund. Divorce rates in China have soared in recent years.
  • A city district in northwestern China has been limiting divorce filings to 15 a day
  • Officials say the unconventional limit is aimed at stopping "impulsive divorces"
  • Their actions have become a hot topic nationwide after a couple complained
  • Government figures show divorce rates have soared in China in recent years

Beijing (CNN) -- Getting divorced is never an easy thing, but a city district in northwestern China wants to make it just a bit harder.

Since March 2012, the civil affairs bureau in Chang'an District of Xi'an City -- an urban area with more than 1 million residents -- has limited the number of divorce filings to no more than 15 a day. Couples eager to part ways but arriving too late are told to return together the next day.

This little-known local rule became a hot topic nationwide last week after a divorcing couple failed to obtain a slot and complained to state media.

Amid a barrage of criticisms of a wrongheaded government agency interfering with civil liberties, officials defended their "well-intentioned" system.

"It's aimed at saving families from impulsive divorces," Lin Wenhui, head of marriage registration at the Chang'an civil affairs bureau, told state media. "Some couples, even after getting a slot, eventually decided not to file for divorce after having some time to calm down and think it through."

It's aimed at saving families from impulsive divorces
Lin Wenhui, Chang'an civil affairs bureau

Chang'an isn't the only local government facing accusations of being overzealous in its effort to save marriages. In February, civil affairs officials in Xuzhou -- a city of 9 million people in eastern China -- stirred heated debate for deciding not to accept any divorce filings on Valentine's Day.

Still, government statistics show divorce rates in China have soared in recent years. Last year, Xi'an -- where Chang'an District is located -- saw 17,670 couples go their separate ways amicably, while the number of divorces nationwide shot up to 3.5 million. Both figures represented an increase of more than 10% over 2012.

Experts seem divided on the root causes. Some have pointed to a government report that says a quarter of married Chinese women have suffered various forms of domestic violence. Others have even referred to numerous news articles on couples "fake-divorcing" to skirt restrictions on the number of houses a family can legally buy in major cities.

Since its 15-slots-per-day rule went into effect, Chang'an has bucked the trend and witnessed a decline in the number of divorce filings two years in a row.

While admitting the measure's limited impact in wider society, officials remain unapologetic for trying to preserve the sanctity of marriage.

"Every family we save counts for something," Lin, the marriage registration chief in Chang'an, was quoted by state media as saying. "As the saying goes, one would rather tear down ten temples than destroying one marriage."

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