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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 spokesman.
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 reality.
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 philandering husbands.
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@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1