Hong Kong (CNN)The number of divorces recorded in China has fallen by more than 70% since the introduction of a mandatory "cooling-off" period earlier this year.
According to statistics released by the country's Ministry of Civil Affairs, 296,000 divorces were registered in the first quarter of 2021, compared to 1.06 million in the final quarter of last year -- a drop of 72%. There was a nearly 52% drop year-on-year, from 612,000 in the first quarter of 2020.
Under a new Civil Code which came into force on January 1, couples filing for divorce must wait 30 days after submitting their application, during which time either party can withdraw the petition. They must then apply again after the month is up in order for the marriage to be ended.
The law, based on local legislation already in force in several parts of the country, was widely criticized as hampering personal freedoms and potentially trapping people in unhappy or even violent marriages. But supporters in state media defended it as "ensuring family stability and social order."
Divorces have been steadily increasing in China over recent years, due in part to reduced social stigma and greater autonomy for women, with wives instigating more than 70% of divorces, according to the All-China Women's Federation.
This had sparked alarm among some policymakers, the trend coming as authorities encourage people to have more children in order to head off a potential demographic time bomb.
"Marriage and reproduction are closely related. The decline in the marriage rate will affect the birth rate, which in turn affects economic and social developments," Yang Zongtao, an official with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said at a news conference last year.
"This (issue) should be brought to the forefront," he said, adding the ministry will "improve relevant social policies and enhance propaganda efforts to guide the public to establish positive values on love, marriage and family."
The cooling-off period is a key part of this push, as well as incentives for people to marry and for women to have children rather than work. Last year, there were reports of couples rushing to divorce before the cooling-off period came into force.
China is not the only country to have such a cooling-off period -- both France and the United Kingdom make couples seeking a divorce by mutual consent wait between two and six weeks respectively for their marriage to be ended. Chinese officials have defended the rules as preventing "impulsive" divorces, pointing out that in the case of domestic violence parties can still sue for divorce in court.
However, this option is far more time consuming and expensive than filing for dissolution of the marriage with the government. A 2018 report by China's Supreme People's Court found about 66% of divorce cases were dismissed on the first hearing.
"Very few divorce cases can be approved in the first trial," Chen Jiaji, a Shanghai-based divorce lawyer, told local outlet Sixth Tone last year. "Divorce cases usually last for at least six months, while more complicated cases could last one or two years."
Multiple reports have attested to the unpopularity of the cooling-off period, seen by many as a needless curtailing of personal freedoms only gained relatively recently in much of China. After a woman in Hubei province was reportedly murdered by her husband in January this year, some accounts online linked her death to the cooling-off period.
There was a concerted backlash this week to plans by two local authorities to suspend divorce registrations entirely on May 20, one of several dates known informally as "Chinese Valentine's Day."
Officials in Hunan and Guizhou provinces had said they would not permit new divorces on the date -- which sounds similar to "I love you" in Mandarin and has become a popular occasion for couples to celebrate -- but reversed course after widespread complaints online, state media reported.