Society & Culture

‘China’s New Marriage Law May Exacerbate Gender Wealth Gap’: By Leta Hong Fincher

China’s Supreme People’s Court has just issued a new interpretation of the country’s Marriage Law to state that after divorce, marital property belongs solely to the person who took out a mortgage and registered as home owner.

Most residential property is registered to the husband. In that case, even if the wife and her family made substantial contributions toward the purchase of the residence and maintenance of the mortgage, the wife loses it all to the husband when they divorce.

Didn’t China fight a revolution to, among other things, make sure things like this don’t happen?31-year-old Anna Li[1] has a successful career as a real estate agent in Beijing but no home of her own.  Her parents bought a house for her brother so that he could marry, but did not buy one for her because she is female. Li plans to marry soon, but her fiancé could not afford a home, so she used her savings to help him buy a Beijing apartment in his name alone.  She feels that it is important to support his sense of manhood.  But China’s Supreme People’s Court has just issued a new interpretation of the country’s Marriage Law to state that after divorce, marital property belongs solely to the person who took out a mortgage and registered as home owner. That means despite Li’s financial contribution, the property she helped buy belongs solely to her boyfriend.

29-year-old April Fei, who lives in the coastal city of Dalian, is upset about changes to the Marriage Law. She is an only child, but her parents did not want to buy a house for her because she is female and they expect the man to provide her with a house. So she contributed RMB60, 000 (the equivalent of US$9,400) of her own savings for a down payment on a house registered under her boyfriend’s name. They married in 2009 and she spent tens of thousands of yuan renovating the marital home and buying furniture.  Asked if she has talked to her husband about adding her name to the property deed, she says no, because she does not want to disrupt their relationship.

27-year-old Clara Sun is an only child from Hangzhou who says she is not disturbed by changes to the Marriage Law. Yet her own parents paid half of the down payment on a house registered under her boyfriend’s name last year, and are making monthly mortgage payments together with her boyfriend’s parents. She expects to marry her boyfriend soon, and her parents believe that it is “more convenient” if the future marital home is registered under the man’s name.

These three women are among hundreds of people across China who responded to an online survey I launched on August 27th to gauge reaction to the new Marriage Law on Sina Weibo, the popular micro blogging service. Within days, over 950 male and female micro bloggers in China signed up to “follow” my Weblog. Dozens more women sent me private messages, anonymously expressing anguish over what changes in the Marriage Law would mean for their financial security.

Home prices in cities such as Beijing are more than 22 times what an average worker earns in a year, according to media reports.  Yet despite skyrocketing house prices, China has one of the highest home ownership rates in the world, at over 80 percent in 2010.[2] Demand for residential real estate is driven in part by China’s sex-ratio imbalance, which has intensified pressure on parents to buy a home for their son to attract a bride.

According to the latest government statistics from the All China Women’s Federation, over 86 percent of households in China in 2005 were headed by men. In the countryside, 92 percent of households were headed by men; while in the cities, almost 80 percent of household heads were men.[3] The vast majority of residential property in China is registered to the “household head,” which is usually the man. The Women’s Federation says that household heads almost always control the property, deciding whether or when to sell it and how to use it.

The All China Women’s Federation says the most urgent problem facing rural women in China is the absence of property rights.[4] In theory, women in China have had legally recognized rights to land and property. But in practice, they have lost land rights mainly through marriage, divorce, inheritance, widowhood and urban migration.

From the responses to my Weibo survey and the interviews I have conducted so far, I believe that many of the same mechanisms that dispossess women of their property in the countryside have also worked against women in China’s urban real estate boom. Now, with the changes to China’s Marriage Law, women lack even basic protections from the letter of the law.

Take Barbara Qiu, mother of a nine-month-old baby in Chongqing who says her husband beat her when she was still pregnant. She quit her job in Chongqing to raise their child, and she contributed her savings to a down payment on their marital house in Beijing, but registered the house under her husband’s name alone. She had no other relatives in Beijing, so she fled to live with her mother and give birth in Chongqing.  After the government announced changes to the Marriage Law, her husband filed for a divorce. He has threatened to take her to court, where he says the new law will grant him unconditional ownership of their marital home, despite all the money and labor she has put into their marriage. He will only settle out of court if Qiu grants him full custody of her baby son (she says he would not want the baby if it were a girl).

Many sociological studies have shown that if one partner in a marriage is economically dependent on the other, the one who is dependent has less power within the marriage. Amanda Richardson of the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights cites evidence that women with secure land rights are less vulnerable to domestic violence.[5] Sociologist Mariko Lin Chang has also documented that wealth is a much more important gauge of economic status than income.[6] And because of a lack of other viable investments, most wealth in China lies in real estate. An analysis of property ownership patterns in China therefore shows who is economically weak and who is strong.

Although my study is incomplete and not a representative sample, the information I have received so far sheds light on what I believe to be a dramatic widening of China’s gender inequality in wealth as a result of skyrocketing real estate prices in recent years.

Urban women are better educated and wealthier than rural women. But I believe the massive financial value of China’s urban real estate market, combined with deeply entrenched patriarchal traditions and beliefs that men must be the household head and official home owner, point to a deepening of the gender gap in wealth as more and more Chinese buy urban homes.

Not all Chinese women are passively accepting the status quo, however. My survey has found many examples of young, unmarried women who are angered by changes to the Marriage Law and more determined than ever to delay marriage and buy a house in their own name. In many industrialized, democratic countries, the passage of a law that clearly disadvantages most women would likely be a catalyst for a social protest movement. But even among self-proclaimed feminists in China, I am struck by the lack of any signs of organized, public resistance.

If I were to hazard a guess, I am inclined to believe that women in China will not form a protest movement against the Marriage Law. Rather, they may quietly begin to turn away from marriage just like their counterparts in some other parts of Asia, such as Japan and Singapore.[7] And young women with means will also buy their own homes, rather than turning to a man to provide them with one.

[Note: Leta is extensively quoted on this issue in an excellent companion piece, 'Chinese Law Could Make Divorced Women Homeless' by Didi Kirsten Tatlow in the New York Times on September 7, 2011.]

Leta Hong Fincher is pursuing a Chinese-language Ph.D. in Sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. She has a Master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Stanford University and a Bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University.  Her dissertation has the working title “Brides, Billionaires and Buildings: the Gendering of Real Estate in Postsocialist China.”

Before embarking on her doctoral program, she was an award-winning broadcast journalist with extensive experience in China and the United States.

[1] All names are made up to protect the individual’s identity

[2] The Economist, “Bricks and Slaughter”, a special report on property, 3/5/11

[3] All China Women’s Federation News, 2009, based on information gathered in 2005.

[4] Xinhua Wang News, 5/30/2011

[5] Landesa blog 7/28/11

[6] Mariko Lin Chang, Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It, Oxford University Press, 2010

[7] The Economist, Asian Demography: The Flight from Marriage, 8/20/11

Comments (4)

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  1. To be fair about this, there are some provinces and municipalities that will allow the spouse of the “owner” to be put on the house deed after paying a relatively small tax. This concept is spreading rapidly as you might suggest. In my opinion, this is way overblown as anything can be done here in China.

  2. Why is it that the woman is always the victim? What about the man? It is not a secret that women often buy for property, not for love. Don’t forget that the man and his family are traditionally obliged to buy a house before he can take a woman’s hand in matrimony. If the woman in the story paid for the house yet put the mortgage in her husband’s name to preserve his manhood, well then she shouldn’t mind him leaving with the house to ensure his manhood is left intact after the divorce.

  3. I’m going to call you out on this. I have seen these articles everywhere and none of the tell the complete story. Married couples in China have been able for years to have both their names on the house deed IF both, the husband and wife and/or family agree. Furthermore new laws is some municipalities and a few provinces allow both spouses to be registered on the deed by paying a tax. The Supreme People’s Court interruption does not trump these new laws. As a matter of fact a couple I know in Chongqing only two days ago had both their names recorded on the deed to their house. I think this is an excuse by western “journalists” to advance the cause of women’s rights in China are are using this “interpretation” as their platform. In any event, let’s have some fair reporting.

  4. Joseph Dwyer writes on

    Leta’s article is at most 10% accurate. The 90% are based on “hearsay” and interviews. Read the Chinese language law issued in 2011. I am a USA citizen, born in Philadelphia. PRC is moving forward, not back to pre-1979….I am 67 years old and have owned a family home in Anshan, Liaoning, since 2006. It is a shame people can “post” misleading news articles. But the New York Times often does the same in the USA.

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