China is experiencing a rapid increase in divorce rates.
China Daily — a government-friendly newspaper — calls the increase “alarming,” and showed the number of divorces since 1978. Using U.N. population numbers, I converted those divorces to a crude divorce rate, or divorces per 1,000 total population.
Because population growth has slowed, the steady increase in divorces has produced an accelerating crude divorce rate. For comparison, this brings China up to where the U.S. was in 1940.
A quick search in the English-language social sciences reveals no systematic analysis of this trend that would help explain its causes, but the China Daily article summarizes the view of Peking University law professor Ma Yinan:
Ma suggests that China’s transformation to a market economy and modernization also began to reshape lifestyles and values, including those on marriage. With material comforts vastly improved, people are no longer satisfied with marriages that merely fulfilled the need to carry on the family line. Especially for women, economic independence has meant power to be emotionally more independent, making them brave enough to walk out of an unsatisfactory union.
This explanation is plausible (though the “material comforts” thing is not universal). But I have two reasons to be unsure. First, the women’s independence story and the post-materialist values story don’ t necessarily go together. In the U.S., for example, divorce has become less common among women with college degrees than it is for those with less education, at least for Whites, who have the highest level of potential financial independence. And second, fitting the Western modern-family narrative over Chinese culture is generally dicey, as argued by historian Philip Huang.