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China discovers adultery and divorce

A new liberalism means a new morality, writes Teresa Poole
At the beginning of this year, in the north-west Chinese city of Liaoyang, Chen Jie filed for divorce from her philandering husband, fed up with his behaviour and his regular beatings. Three hours later, the husband turned up at her work unit with a barrel of petrol. In front of their son, he poured it over his wife and set her alight. By the time Chen's colleagues had put out the flames, she was horribly burned, her face completely disfigured, and her fingers burn-ed off. The husband is now on the run after being released on bail by the police.

Details of this assault - and even a photograph of the now crippled victim - appeared recently in China Women's News, one of a number of official newspapers which this year has highlighted the growing problems of adultery and spousal abuse in China. In a part of the world which likes to boast of a commitment to "family values", the government is now publicly admitting that the state of marriage in China is not all it should be.

In 1996 there was one divorce for every nine marriages, a ratio which has quadrupled over the past decade. But even this statistic only scratches the surface of the reality of China's failed marriages. These days, private businessmen and senior cadres alike view a young, pretty mistress as much the same sort of accessory as a mobile phone, regardless of the wife at home. Women dissatisfied with stale marriages are now also feeling freer to look for extra-marital diversions. Prostitution is a boom industry and the subject of battered wives is finally coming out into the open as a significant social problem.

While the newspapers focus on the most gruesome cases, where adultery has led to violent tragedy, most stories of adultery are predictably mundane. Jin Jia, now 27, started her affair with an older married man five years ago. Previously a People's Liberation Army soldier, he had set up a private trading company where Ms Jin took a job. "He and his wife did not have much in common," said Ms Jin. "They were both bored, and his wife encouraged him to take a girlfriend. A year ago, the wife also met a man and left home for six months, leaving their son to be looked after by her husband and me. Now they plan to divorce." At first Ms Jin planned to marry her lover, but now is no longer sure she wants to.

Professor Li Yinhe, an expert on family and marriage at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, said society was becoming more tolerant. "People nowadays can be adulterous without any serious problem. Adultery is even on television soap operas nowadays. Some couples have an agreement to each have lovers. Many rich men have their beautiful lady secretary, known as a xiao mi [Little Miss], and some wives of rich bus-inessmen in Peking are even employing an escort or gigolo. That is very new."

This new tolerance can be said to be part of China becoming a more "normal" place, with the Communist government gradually removing itself from people's private lives. Until 1980, adultery was a crime punishable by jail under a law against "harming the family". But more compelling than any legislation was the power of someone's danwei (work unit) to punish, demote or fine an individual for unseemly behaviour. Or there was the neighbourhood committee which saw itself as having a right to interfere in family matters.

"Before the Nineties, the pressure from people's work unit was very strict," said Ms Li. "I had one case more than 10 years ago of a married woman and a married man who had an adulterous affair. As a result the man was thrown out of the Communist Party, and all the details were entered in his personal file. The woman was dismissed from the Youth League. Nowadays people don't get this kind of punishment any more. And if people are kicked out of the party they won't think it's a big thing."

Although men are more likely to wander, Chinese women are becoming more open-minded. At the Peking Women's Hotline, one of the telephone counsellors, Huang Yangyu, said she takes many calls from middle-aged women who are having extra-marital affairs. "They are confused by their feelings and they don't know how to face their relatives, husbands and especially children. Some of them feel guilty and get very depressed... But for some wo-men, extra-marital affairs are exciting and can reawaken the energy and enthu- siasm in themselves," said Ms Huang.

Amid this social upheaval, the Chinese government has decided to bring the 1981 Marriage Law up to date, and work has begun on drafting a replacement. Wu Changzhen, a 67-year-old professor of law, is one of the expert advisers. While she describes the more liberal sexual activities of young Chinese as an "ideological problem", she admits divorce can often provide "the end of a tragedy and the beginning of a happier story" for women in loveless marriages.

But spousal violence and adultery are her main concerns. "Family violence is growing, and of course most of the victims are women," she said. Women have few places to run for help, and police do not tend to take domestic violence very seriously until it is too late. Recent stories in the newspapers include women having acid thrown in their faces, and wives "falling" from high windows.

Ms Wu believes measures must be taken to attack adultery through laws, public education, and enforcing social moral norms. Under the existing Marriage Law, the only specified grounds for divorce is the very vaguely worded "breach in a couple's relationship and feelings". Discussion is now under way about how to make the revised law more specific, and whether to include a clause which awards a larger proportion of a divorcing couple's assets to the innocent party.

The question of how to turn the moral clock back in a society which has evolved so much in less than a generation is more of a challenge. Said Ms Wu: "With middle-aged people, we should educate them to improve their level of morality; they know what is right and wrong but cannot resist temptation."