Sunday, September 18, 2011

China’s New Marriage Law Interpretation: One Step Forward or Two Steps Back?


On August 13, China’s Supreme People’s Court changed its interpretation of China’s marriage law and shattered China’s traditional notion of marriage. Before the ruling, divorced couples split their property evenly, unless either had committed bigamy, domestic violence, abandoned the family, or lived with a lover for more than three months. Under the new interpretation, the person whose name is on the deed will receive the property. The ruling has the potential to have an enormous effect on gender-based wealth-distribution in the country, as Chinese tradition dictates that the groom-to-be should provide housing for the couple. Because the man has to bring property to the marriage, his name is already on the deed. Unless he agrees to add his new wife’s name to the deed, he will now receive the property if they divorce.

The Supreme People’s Court’s ruling came in response to Chinese women’s growing emphasis on material wealth in choosing a husband. Real estate prices have risen 500% since 2000 in some parts of China, which has made it more difficult for young men to afford housing and become truly eligible bachelors. Many observers speculate that the increased importance of finances in courtships led to a recent dramatic increase in divorces, as women have been more willing to marry the few men that actually own property regardless of whether those men will make good husbands. The new interpretation is supposed to encourage women to seek husbands based on love, not money, and thus preserve what the Court sees as an important cultural value.

Not surprisingly, the reaction to the Court’s ruling has been mixed. After the ruling, many couples have taken measures to add the woman’s name to property titles. Some observers say that the move is proof that the ruling encourages marital equality while also encouraging women’s financial independence. Many women’s rights groups, however, say that the ruling is a huge hit to gender equality. Marriage experts believe that the ruling will do little to change the tradition of keeping deeds in the man’s name, meaning the investment the wife makes in the marital home – whether monetary or otherwise – will be valueless if the couple divorces. Some critics have even gone so far as to suggest that the ruling strips women of their right to divorce their husbands, as they would risk losing everything. At the same time, the threat of the wife being left penniless after a divorce may be unsettling enough to cause marital problems even among otherwise happily married couples.

Only time will tell what effect the Supreme People’s Court’s ruling will have on gender equality in China. Real estate experts in the country have noted an increase in the number of women buying homes, a trend that suggests the ruling has increased women’s desire to be financially independent. Because women will often receive no assets after a divorce, the ruling may encourage more women to enter the workforce as a way of ensuring their own financial stability. If that were the case, these newly employed women could become a new class of consumers that could help China grow economically by increasing domestic consumption and demand for goods – a change the government thinks is necessary to help China move away from its dependence on exports. Needless to say, the ruling’s effects could go far beyond the divorce rate.

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