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In China, Housing Bubble Gives the Bride a Leg Up: Adam Minter

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By Adam Minter

Despite the profound social changes that have transformed Chinese society over the last three decades, one traditional belief remains mostly unshaken: a man must own a house before he marries. This was a considerable burden even before China began to modernize, but now that it is home to one of the world’s hottest (some say, over-heated) real estate markets, it has become, in many cases, an insurmountable barrier.

Take, for example, the extreme but highly representative example described by Fan Yiying, a native of real estate-obsessed Shanghai, in a column published in the state-owned Global Times on Wednesday.

A mother of one of my best friends once dragged my friend to my home and complained tearfully in front of my mom. My friend was in a serious relationship with a guy who didn't have an apartment in Shanghai … Although my mom told her it's best to respect daughter's wishes, she still made them break up. She's now very happy as my friend is dating a guy whose parents own four apartments.

In fact, traditional Chinese culture takes a dim view of romantically-inspired marriages that pay no heed to the economic dimensions of a relationship. But that traditional pragmatism has been eroded, somewhat, in recent years, by many factors, including media-hyped characters who manage to most offend the many millions of Chinese bachelors and their families who can’t afford financially-based matrimonial demands. In 2010, Ma Nuo, a Beijing model, became China’s most notorious symbol of this materialist approach to marriage during an appearance on a reality TV dating show during which she told an unemployed suitor who invited her on a bicycle ride that she’d “rather cry in the back of a BMW than ride a bicycle while laughing.”  The national outcry at her comment was so intense (in part, because it flamed China’s already considerable class resentments) that, according to the Global Times, she was banned from further television appearances by the “authorities.”

So what’s a poor bachelor and his family to do? One solution is for parents and even extended family to front the money or even purchase outright a home for a bachelor so that he can enter into marriage and, presumably, continue the family line. It’s a fine, workable approach -- so long as the marriage goes well. But what happens to that family-bought home in the event of divorce?

For most of modern Chinese history, China’s national marriage law required that property be split evenly between the divorcing parties. It was a progressive statute, designed to promote equality between the sexes and recognize the value of traditional female contributions to the household. At the same time, it was widely viewed as establishing a penalty –- a 50% trim in the assets -- for men who choose to stray in marriage.

But, increasingly, the families of China’s put-upon bachelors, and those bachelors themselves, have developed an outsized fear of gold-digging, real-estate loving women like Ma Nuo, and their motives -– imagined or otherwise –- for entering into marriage. It is a concern, reportedly, shared by China’s Communist Party leaders and lawgivers who, on Aug. 12, issued a ruling on the marriage law declaring that, in the event of divorce, real estate not explicitly registered to both partners reverts to the initial buyer. And, since most of those buyers are and were men (and their families), the law effectively stripped a majority of China’s women of their rights to the marital estate in the event of a divorce.

The Supreme People’s Court didn’t offer an explanation. But those who support it, including several notable state-owned newspapers, and many millions of tradition-minded netizens on blogs and microblogs, aren’t shy about pointing fingers at the gold-diggers who, in their opinion, have bastardized the traditions of Chinese marriage:

“So if the new judicial explanation forces people to choose their life partners out of love and not for wealth, it would be a welcome relief,” wrote the state-owned Chongqing Times. “This should be good news for men and women both. A marriage should not be based on greed or on the thought of leading a relaxed and luxurious life. It should be a coming together of two persons, complete with their bodies, senses, minds and their souls.”

No doubt, there are female property owners in China, but it goes without saying that the implied greedy party in the Chongqing editorial, and others like it, are female. And, by the reasoning expressed in the editorial, and in the new marriage law, such women’s greed should rightfully be repaid with a propertyless divorce. This depiction of Chinese women as rapacious gold-diggers is common, and utterly acceptable in China’s mainstream media environment, and undeniably misogynistic. Indeed, the online edition of People’s Daily, the self-described party mouthpiece, might have exceeded all others when, in a news story on the law change, it mentioned that despite problems with the law, there is one benefit: “More females will begin to work hard and try to buy their own houses.”

A view of women as economic liabilities is not new to China, as proven -- in part -- by the ever-widening gender imbalance among new-born Chinese children. According to preliminary data from the 2010 Chinese census, that imbalance has reached an incredible 118.08 male births to 100 female births. The immediate cause of the gap is easy access to sex-determination technology, sex-selective abortion and the restrictions imposed by China’s so-called "One Child" law; the broader cause, according to netizens and newspaper commentators who have been engaging in an intense coincidental discussion of the gender imbalance simultaneous with their discussion of the marriage law, is economics. “Today, even though the desire to bear a boy to carry on the family name is not as strong as in the old days, the belief that one raises sons to support parents in their old age is still deep-rooted in some places,” wrote Diao Bo, last Thursday, on the Jingchu Network, an independent news portal in rural Hubei Province. Luo Sha, also writing for the Jingchu Network last Thursday, added detail to the dilemma:

The marriage of a peasant family’s daughter means a reduced work force, and thus reduces … family income. If a son marries and has children, the family labor force is sufficient to contract more land and increase the family’s income. This has invisibly increased people's desire to have a son.

It has also increased people’s desire to preserve the property of that son, as evidenced by the new marriage law.

But there are a few dissenters, especially on behalf of rural women. On Monday, the Shanghai-based Finance Weekly published “Who is protected by the new interpretation?”, an angry angry op-ed by Xing Li, whi enumerated the negative consequences due to accrue to divorced, rural women. “Married daughters often lose inheritance rights within their own families; most of their dowries are consumer goods which will quickly be depreciated in marriage ... many married women in rural areas will lose the right to share their husband's real estate and thus divorced women will be pushed into a more isolated economic situation.”

Ironically, perhaps the best hope for an improved status for Chinese women are the negative consequences of a skewed gender ratio -- especially as they apply to men. Recently, in the midst of the national discussion of the gender imbalance, "1+1," a popular national television talk show, devoted a segment to the issue that opened with a monologue including this:

If your child is a girl, I offer you my congratulations, for you are already an emperor. Why do I say this? Because the emperor’s daughter does not need to worry about getting married. But if your child is a boy, then I will worry on your behalf, for how will your son find a future wife?

One option, suggested by many commentators and bloggers, is to add that future wife’s name to the husband’s property deed, thus ensuring an even split in the event of divorce. “I think people who are working in Housing Bureau must be very busy recently,” wrote atownman-Freeman, the online name of a user of the popular Sina Weibo microblog. “Because the number of people who want to add their names on Property Ownership Certificate leaps!”

According to several Chinese news media outlets, some couples are already doing that. As China’s population of single women continues to decline, especially in relation to single men, more women will have the leverage to do the same -- a point not lost on China’s put-upon single men. “If you are a girl, then congratulations, you will not have to worry about marriage no matter how you look,” writes, charmingly, Lin Zichun, a presumably frustrated, single male user of Sina Weibo. "The resources are so limited that it will kill me...”

For China’s single women, however, those limited resources might provide the best possible excuse to pass over charmers like Lin Zichun and, in the process, secure an equal share of the marital estate, if not equal standing in the eyes of China’s press and bloggers.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for World View. He also blogs at Shanghai Scrap.)

-0- Aug/25/2011 14:46 GMT