My argument here is not to defend the West, but to point out that modernization and economic development tends to make individualists of us all. When I was young, I heard the Asian values argument with regard to rising Japan. But what we've seen with Japan is that the divorce rate - a great measure of family stress - rose with economic development. Today roughly one-in-three Japanese marriages end in divorce, which represents a quadrupling since the 1950s and a doubling since the 1970s. Today's divorce rate in Japan sits at a very European level - not as bad as America's but quite a bit different from its idealized past.
After Japan rose and then tapered off, we in the West heard the same arguments for China as it rose: the Chinese value their children more than Westerners, venerate their elders more than Westerners, and divorce less than Westerners. Such Asian values would serve China well and mark its ascent as being different - and better - than the Western powers that rose before it.
Except we're seeing the same-old, same-old transformation of society in China that we've previously witnessed in Japan and, before that, in the West.
From a recent Economist article:
Divorce rates are rising quickly across China. This is a remarkable transformation in a society where for centuries marriage was universal and mostly permanent (though convention permitted men to take concubines). Under Communist rule, traditional values have retained a strong influence over family relationships: during much of the Mao era, divorce was very unusual. It became more common in the 1980s, but a marriage law adopted in 1994 still required a reference from an employer or community leader. Not until 2003 were restrictions removed.
Then came marketization and globalization:
In the past 35 years, the biggest internal migration experienced by any country in human history has been tearing families apart. Traditional values have been giving way to more liberal ones. Women are becoming better educated, and more aware of their marital rights (they now initiate over half of all divorce cases). Greater affluence has made it easier for many people to contemplate living alone—no longer is there such an incentive to stay married in order to pool resources.
As long as both sides agree on terms, China is now among the easiest and cheapest places in the world to get a divorce. In many Western countries, including Britain, couples must separate for a period before dissolving a marriage; China has no such constraints. In 2014, the latest year for which such data exist, about 3.6m couples split up—more than double the number a decade earlier (they received a red certificate, pictured, to prove it). The divorce rate—the number of cases per thousand people—also doubled in that period. It now stands at 2.7, well above the rate in most of Europe and approaching that of America, the most divorce-prone Western country (see chart). Chongqing’s rate, 4.4, is higher than America’s.
But the big change dynamic is simply heightened individual freedom of action, as in, go more places, meet more people, do more things, live different ways ...
Married people previously had limited opportunities to meet members of the opposite sex in social situations, according to research by Li Xiaomin of Henan University. Peng Xiaobo, a divorce lawyer in Chongqing, reckons 60-70% of his clients have had affairs.
Naturally, this development worries the government:
Many commentators in the official media talk of separation as a sign of moral failure; they fret that it signifies the decline of marriage, and of family as a social unit—a threat, as they see it, to social stability and even a cause of crime. The spread of “Western values” is often blamed.
Bingo! "They did it to us!"
But marriage is not losing its lustre. In most countries, rising divorce rates coincide with more births out of wedlock and a fall in marriage rates. China bucks both these trends. Remarriage is common too. The Chinese have not fallen out of love with marriage—only with each other.
Give them time ...
And then factor in the stress of a rapidly aging population. China is "aging" three-times faster than US right now, its median age rising 3 years for every year America's rises through mid-century.
Yan Yunxiang of the University of California, Los Angeles, says “parent-driven divorce” is becoming more common. As a result of China’s one-child-per-couple policy (recently changed to a two-child one), many people have no siblings to share the burden of looking after parents and grandparents. Thus couples often find themselves living with, or being watched over by, several—often contending—elders. Mr Yan says the older ones’ interference fuels conjugal conflict. Sometimes parents urge their children to divorce their partners as a way to deal with rifts.
Naturally, that will be a very stressful development for Chinese society going forward.
Last, depressing similarity is that women suffer worse from divorce than men:
Women are more likely to be the ones who suffer financially when this happens. Rising divorce rates reflect the spread of more tolerant, permissive values towards women, but legislation tends to favour men in divorce settlements.
None of this is to pick on China, just to note that economic change drives social and political change, and when the former is fast enough and profound enough, the latter become quite brittle.
One positive upshot of all this socio-economic tumult: after "exporting" their "surplus" female babies for so many years (full disclosure - my fourth child is adopted from China), the international adoption flow out of China has slowed dramatically, meaning that Chinese society's age-old bias against adoption due to "strong" family values/biases against non-relatives is finally dissipating. Some of this is due to women putting off marriage and pregnancy to pursue more education and career opportunities and then finding it harder to conceive, and, most certainly, the lifting the of the one-child policy should radically decrease babies being put up for adoption. Plus, as the reality of single kids having to care for aging parents kicks in, those future parents have come to realize that, contrary to the age-old rural bias for males as farm workers, a modern, urbanized, and aging society and its members tend to value females more because those daughters are far more likely to care for them in their old age.
The irony here is that these changes are all so Marxian: economic and technological change begetting profound social and - eventually in China - political transformations. Marx was right on that transformational power; he just dramatically underestimated the capacity of empowered individuals - and their responsive governments - to adapt themselves to these changes in a constant, co-evolutionary fashion.
Marx simply dismissed that sort of social and political resilience.