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Unfaithful men. . . Infidelity threatens Chinese family values

The Straits Times, 1 August 2000

BEIJING -- Marriage in China is under attack, with increasing reports of bigamy, illegal cohabitation and extramarital affairs which have led to the breakdown of family values and even murder, jeopardising social stability.

In particular, the practice of taking a mistress is soaring, posing a serious threat to China's statutory rule of monogamy, said Mr Hu Kangsheng, Deputy Director of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee.

This has led to the breakdown of family values and even murder, posing a threat to social stability, he said.

It has also disrupted the implementation of the State's one-child family planning policy.

Women's groups trying to battle the trend have to face an ingrained culture that suggests that a man is not a success unless he has at least one concubine.

The practice is particularly entrenched in the southern province of Guangdong, where the booming economy has created a whole generation of newly-rich.

Some have become so successful that they have acquired not only a regular mistress, but a second and even a third, often disguised as a maid or a secretary.

In Chinese, this phenomenon is called bao ernai -- literally taking a second wife.

And like the concubines of traditional China, the woman gets money, gifts and usually a house from her married lover. She often also bears him children.

People from various social strata have become involved in extramarital affairs, including senior business executives, both Chinese and foreign, and even some party and government officials, according to Guangdong official sources quoted by Xinhua news agency.

Calls by angry wives for legislators to come up with a solution became so vocal that last month, four provincial law-enforcement and judicial agencies jointly issued a legal opinion that makes it easier for women to divorce husbands involved in taking a second wife.

The Guangdong opinion has come just as the National People's Congress is stuck in the process of debating revisions to the marriage law.

Chinese society has seen huge changes since the law was last updated in 1980.

Divorce rates have more than tripled, domestic violence has increased, and marriages now are based more on individual feelings than the old standard of political or family ties, Xinhua lamented.

The current law, for example, gives few guidelines on issues such as support payments, splitting assets and child custody.

As with Guangdong's action on mistresses, some regional governments are taking the initiative in advance of the national law amendments, which are unlikely to be acted on before next year.

But while there is general agreement that this aspect of marriage needs to be tackled, there is considerable debate as to whether fidelity is something that should be legislated or should merely be subject to general moral censure.

When most of the people were poor, divorce, particularly for women, was not economically feasible.

The economic reforms and growth of the past two decades have brought immense social changes, none more so than the increased willingness to end bad marriages. --Bernama