Divorce, harassment and organ donors: China to debate new civil code

by Poornima WEERASEKARA

Divorce, sexual harassment, organ donations, privacy: China’s sweeping first-ever civil code will be debated at its annual parliament meeting in Beijing this week.

The rubber-stamp legislature rarely rejects bills, and this law has been in the works since 2017.

If adopted, many laws currently regulating aspects of life in China from marriage to adoption will be completely or partially abolished and replaced by the new civil code.

Here is a look at key highlights of the proposed law:

– Divorce ‘cooling-off period’ –
A proposed — and controversial — rule to require a spouse suing their partner in court for a divorce to have a “30-day cooling-off period” could be scrapped, a top Chinese official said last week.

The current draft of China’s civil code says all couples seeking a divorce must “deliberate on their decision” for a month.

But this might be amended when China’s parliament meets next week, a spokesperson for the legislative affairs committee of the National People’s Congress told China Women’s Daily, after a massive public backlash against the rule.

Several lawmakers have said the cooling-off periods shouldn’t apply to cases involving domestic violence, bigamy, marital rape or other rights violations.

The waiting period would still apply to couples applying to dissolve their marriage through mutual consent.

“Reckless divorces are an increasingly common phenomenon that’s not conducive to family stability,” the spokesperson said.

– Privacy protections –
The code could see China defining for the first time what privacy means for its 1.4 billion citizens.

The current draft says private information counts as anything an individual is “not willing to be made known to other persons” and prohibits businesses, individuals — and even the government — from accessing such information without consent.

But the current draft civil code leaves loopholes, according to Lester Ross, legal advisor to the American Chamber of Commerce in China and partner at law firm WilmerHale.

It does not specifically list information such as an individual’s accounts and passwords, medical history, financial data, communications records, marital status or religion as personal information that needs to be protected.

A more comprehensive privacy protection law is expected to be drafted within the next five years, Ross said.

– Protection against land grabs –
In China, land can only be owned by the state or collective organisations. Private individuals or businesses can only buy the right to use land for up to 70 years.

Local governments are allowed to expropriate land or revoke land-use rights for projects that serve the “public interest”, and have abused this power in the past.

The new private property guidelines have narrowed the interpretation of “public interest” to prevent abusive land grabs.

It also makes it mandatory for local governments to make public announcements on “all acts taken by the state in relation to private property”, thus making land transactions more transparent.

– Sexual harassment, organ donations –
A few other key moves in the civil code include expanding the definition of “sexual harassment” to include being groped at the workplace or being assaulted by a teacher on campus — key demands from China’s scuttled #Metoo movement.

The code also proposes allowing people to donate the organs of dead relatives. The move comes in response to a massive shortage of organ donors after China stopped the controversial practice of harvesting organs from prisoners.

– What’s missing? –
The draft code omits any reference to “family planning” — the current policy which limits couples to having only two children — although experts have cautioned that this does not mean decades of controversial family-planning rules will be scrapped.

Legalising same-sex marriage was among the top suggestions made by the Chinese public when lawmakers solicited opinions on how to amend the civil code last year. But the current draft still defines marriage as “a union between a man and a woman”.

Separately, lawmakers are also working on a biosecurity law and a draft revision to the animal epidemic prevention law — key legislation in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

China has already banned the sale of wildlife — except for medicinal purposes — after the virus was linked to consuming wild animals.

These last two laws are still open for public comments until June 13, meaning they will not be ready for approval during the upcoming parliamentary session. (AFP)

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