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China’s New Civil Code Looks to Clarify Sexual Assault, Family Planning and Data Privacy Laws

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China finally passed its long-awaited civil code during the Two Sessions meetings in Beijing last week. The first such code for the country, the legislation will have a potentially significant impact on sexual assault cases, family planning policy and personal data privacy. Here’s what you need to know.

What is it?

The new civil code is intended to create synergy for a previously wide range of loose civil laws and regulations. The main body of the civil code — published in full on Monday June 1 — consists of six parts on property, contracts, personality rights, marriage and family, inheritance, and tort liability. It will come to effect on January 1, 2021.

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On Sexual Assault

One of the most noticeable changes occurs in laws regarding sexual assault, filling what was previously something of a gap blank in this legal area. Compared to previous drafts, the finalized code uses a broader definition of sexual assault — including text and imagery, for example. Under the civil code, schools and workplaces would be legally responsible for sexual assault prevention, complaint handling, and claims investigations.

Sexual assault has long been an institutionalized problem in China, displaying a complex interplay of gender, power, and discrimination. As such, there have been frequent calls for strengthening laws on such issues, especially in light of a string of high-profile cases in recent years. The enactment of the new civil code raises hopes for justice in such cases.

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On Marriage and Family Planning

The civil code revises a few major items compared to the existing Marriage Law. First, the historically controversial family planning policy has been left out, signaling a further relaxation of China’s one-child and two-child birth limits.

Second, a 30-day cooling-off period has been introduced for divorces, despite a wave of negative feedback surrounding this proposal when it was first floated online.

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Third, special medical conditions will no longer make a person “unqualified” for getting married, for instance, HIV and schizophrenia, to name two. However, the code also states that a marriage could be annulled if a serious disease is concealed by either party before being married.

There is no explicit mention of same-sex marriage in the code. However, the strengthening property protection laws gives property owners the power to grant another individual the right to reside, which many LGBTQ+ rights supporters are seeing as being applicable to China’s same-sex couples.

On Data Privacy

The code breaks new ground by clearly defining privacy and private information for China’s legal system. Email addresses and location data are included as part of broad protection measures. Meanwhile, the code spells out clear provisions and incorporates new regulations on digital data collected by apps to supposedly prevent data misuse by government and tech companies.

While privacy protection has been a hot topic in China for some time, the Covid-19 pandemic has created a sense of urgency around laws in this field. The inclusion of such measures in the code comes in the wake of a slew of apps being used in China to aid in the fight against the novel coronavirus and functioning as tools for personal data collection, health tracking and contact tracing. The announcement also comes days after one Chinese city proposed permanently implementing a health tracking system — and met with significant blow back.

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What are People Saying?

The hashtag #民法典# (Civil Code) has attracted more than 180 million views on popular Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.

Proponents of certain issues — for example, those in favor of same-sex marriage — have expressed disappointment at some of the measures drafted in the code.

But perhaps the most contentious area of discussion has been around the proposed “cooling-off period” for divorces. One of the most upvoted Weibo comments on this issue warns, “You still have 7 months left to divorce freely.”

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In one online poll on the platform, 81.5% of 390,000 respondents answered “no” when asked whether they thought the new regulation would help reduce the rate of divorce in China. A highly-upvoted comment under the post says, “[The cool-off period] will reduce the marriage rate instead.”

Siyuan Meng
    Born and raised in Shaoxing, Siyuan lived in New York and Los Angeles prior to Shanghai. If she is not at work, she is probably at an art museum, a gym, a Mom-and-Pop restaurant or a park. She likes reading books or playing the piano on rainy days. She thinks she takes great photos.