For love and profit: Marriage in China
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - The dream of millions of young Chinese couples - to fall in love,
get married, buy a home and raise a family - just got a rude wake-up call.
Following a controversial interpretation of the country's Marriage Law by the
Supreme People's Court this month, love and marriage may never be the same
again in China.
After studying the issue for three years, the court ruled that, in the event of
divorce, any property purchased by one spouse before the conjugal knot belongs
solely to that spouse and, moreover, that property parents buy for their
children before or after marriage belongs solely to those children.
Explaining the judgment, court spokesman Sun Jungong said: "Based on feedback
from the public consultation, [the court found
that] the parents of those who pay for the properties fear their wealth will be
lost if their children divorce. In reality, many parents pour their savings
into properties for their married children."
If you are wondering where love now fits into to the complicated connubial
equation in China, ask the country's poets, not its top judges or their
But whatever the bards might say, the ruling has produced the equivalent of a
matrimonial earthquake, especially for China's gold-digging class, whose rapid
rise has paralleled the nation's overall economic success over the years.
Indeed, the quest for the perfect life of love, family and property has often
been more of a scheme than a dream.
Divorce rates have been on the increase for eight straight years, with more
than 1.1 million couples calling it quits in China's courts last year; in the
first three months of this year, 465,000 divorce cases were filed, a 17% jump,
and many of these cases involve property disputes.
It's called a "flash divorce", and its gold-digging perpetrator could be the
husband or the wife, but typically in China these days, where opportunities for
women still lag far behind those for men, it is a female stratagem with four
basic moves: Woo the man, move into the house, divorce the man, take the house.
Frequently, it is not just the jilted newlywed husband who is the loser; his
parents - who with vicarious verve share in what is likely their only son's
dream of marital bliss - may very well have put up a substantial part of their
life savings to purchase the home in which that dream is supposed to become a
Instead, at best, they wind up splitting the profit from the sale of that dream
home with the cunning former daughter-in-law who has taken them and number one
son for a short but expensive ride.
Apparently, the Supreme People's Court saw this scenario play out too many
times and decided to act. Now, as the nuptial shockwaves reverberate, Chinese
society is left to ponder how the sacred institution of marriage came to be
seen as just another short-term investment for maximal profit, like jumping in
and out of the stock market at opportune times.
But it is wrong to place all of the blame on the gold diggers, as they are only
a product of their times. Chinese women have watched their country's economy
rack up nearly double-digit annual growth over the past three decades, but
their piece of the pie has remained relatively small and soaring property
prices have made their prospects of owning a home even smaller.
Add to the mix China's one-child policy and the traditional Chinese preference
for sons to carry on the family name, which often translates into lavish
parental attention and support for these special, spoiled male avatars of a
family's future hopes and aspirations. Add, too, the legions of husbands who
cheat on their angry, frustrated wives.
Up against such an accumulation of disadvantaged circumstances, it is no
surprise that some Chinese women turn to marriage schemes. Ironically, the
one-child policy has worked to their advantage. Since its introduction in 1978,
the policy has - largely as a result of self-selective abortions - created a
118-100 male-female ratio countrywide; in some provinces, the ratio is as high
as 130-100, which can make lonely, perhaps even desperate bachelors easy
pickings for young women looking for a short-term marriage that can be parlayed
into long-term financial gain.
At the same time, the lopsided sex ratio has also served to reinforce male
dominance in the workplace, where sexual discrimination remains rampant and
wages for women fall well below those of their male counterparts. Clearly, lots
of Chinese women take a long look at the country's growing market economy and
decide that their best market is the burgeoning lonely-hearts club of males
generated by the one-child policy.
And, like all good capitalists worldwide, these determined women want to own
their own home, whether or not there is a loveable husband and family living in
it. For them, property is an integral part of identity. If you have it, your
social status soars, even if you have gained it through a "flash divorce". If
you don't have it, keep searching among that vulnerable oversupply of male
lonely hearts waiting for you in every county and village of the country - you
may get lucky.
Who can blame them? As the surfeit of male prospects for marriage has
increased, so too have property prices - to levels completely out of proportion
to per capita income in China. Cooling measures introduced by the government
have helped a little, but not nearly enough.
Take Beijing, for example, where property prices in the secondary market stood
at 25,000 yuan (US$3,900) per square meter as of July. That's just not doable
in a city where the average annual disposable income is 29,000 yuan (US$4,540).
In Shanghai, Guangzhou and other major cities in China, the story is similar;
in smaller cities and towns and in rural areas, property prices are
considerably lower, but so are incomes.
When the price of property outstrips personal income by such leaps and bounds,
something's got to give. In this context, "flash marriages" and "flash
divorces" are no surprise.
The court ruling, however, should prove a game-changer. It takes away the
incentive for the marriageable, gold-digging class, whose "flash" mentality
will now produce far less financial gain, if any at all.
Most social commentators agree - that's a good thing. But, while it undercuts
scheming young women seeking marriage for profit, many worry that the ruling
also gives too much power to men, especially those who become abusive and/or
In traditional Chinese culture, divorce was frowned upon, and a divorced woman
was considered a social outcast and even ridiculed as an "old shoe".
A 1981 law granted divorce to either party of a marriage for reasons such as
domestic abuse and extramarital affairs. It also allowed one party to file for
divorce on grounds of alienation of affection, even if the other party
disagreed. Still, the social stigma of divorce remained, and many unhappy
husbands and wives stayed together to avoid losing face in their communities.
By 2003, however, China's economic prosperity had loosened social attitudes,
especially among the young, prompting a revision to the Marriage Law that made
divorce much simpler and easier. Indeed, it became so easy that it developed
into a sort of cottage industry.
This month the Supreme People's Court shut that industry down.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at[email protected]Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1
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