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Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2003

China's social mores shift as economic growth soars

HONG KONG -- The profound economic changes that China has undergone in the last quarter century have resulted not only in dramatic skyscrapers in all its major cities and a marked rise in the standard of living, but also in changing social mores, with attitudes today contrasting sharply with those of the strait-laced Chinese society of the past.

Still, it came as a shock to read of wife-swapping clubs in Chinese cities where well educated men and women, all consenting adults with responsible jobs, agreed to swap spouses in order to "spice up" boring marital lives. Even more surprising is that commentators do not uniformly condemn such practices.

However, Zhu Jianjun, a psychology professor in Beijing, said that "swinging" is natural in a society where people have been sexually repressed for a long time. Any relaxation in social mores, he said, would result in a small number of people going to the opposite extreme. As to whether the government should prosecute such people, he said that as long as nobody is hurt, "we should ignore it." Ultimately, he said, the pendulum will spring back to normal.

Not surprisingly, young people nowadays engage in sexual experimentation to a greater extent than people of their parents' generation. One hospital in Chongqing, in southwestern China, reported that more than a third of its abortion cases were for teenage girls.

Chinese parents nowadays may be more tolerant of the sexual activities of their children. However, they don't seem to be giving their children the knowledge of sex that they need.

With 20 million teenagers reaching physical sexual maturity each year, sex education has become a pressing issue. But a survey by the China Teenage Development and Research Center showed that a third of middle school students have never received any sex education, while those who did receive such education were dissatisfied with the quality of the courses.

In Shanghai and surrounding Jiangsu province, among the most economically developed regions in the country, only 15 percent of high school students surveyed said they had received any sex education from either their teachers or their parents. In this age of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, sex education is not a luxury.

But the more liberal attitude toward sex isn't just on the part of teenagers or their parents. Even people old enough to be grandparents are exhibiting a new, more progressive attitude toward marriage and sexuality, or rather, to sex without marriage.

Senior citizens who have lost a spouse find it easier to cohabit than to go through a second marriage, especially since in many cases their children are opposed to a formal marriage, though not to an informal relationship.

"Re-marriage between two elderly people will involve problems of how to handle their personal deposits, properties and assets and the inheritance issue," an industry analyst in Shanghai said. As a result, "cohabitation has become an ideal option for senior couples."

Often, elderly couples themselves decide not to go through a formal marriage, even if their children do not object. Statistics show that such marriages often do not turn out well. In Shanghai, the divorce rate of remarried couples is 50 percent, while in Tianjin it is as high as 70 percent.

Given those odds, it is not surprising that elderly singles think twice before plunging into marriage again, especially if such a relationship is opposed by their children who, in many cases, are also their sources of support, emotionally if not financially.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.

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