Saturday, October 29, 2011

No house, no bride

BEIJING: Kind. Upright. Career-minded. Loves literature. Such were the top attributes Chinese women wanted in a husband, according to 1980s marriage ads.
By Ho Ai Li, China Correspondent

These days, most women will consider only men who own houses.

In the three decades since communist China embraced the free market and the pursuit of material wealth, property ownership has largely come to be seen as an intrinsic part of marriage - marital unions with no title deeds are deemed incomplete, or in local speak, 'naked'.



What does it take to tie the knot? Here is a look at how changes in Asian societies are having an impact on the institution of marraige.

'I don't have a boyfriend now, but a house must come with marriage. Only then do I feel secure,' said Ms Mi Chunxiao, 22, a receptionist in an estate office.

Her views put her in the mainstream: 60 per cent of 1,000 women polled earlier this year by the Jiayuan match-making website say 'naked marriages' are not for them.

Indeed, 'has house, has car' has become one of the most frequently seen phrases in marriage ads, along with good personality and looks, according to a survey by the Netease online portal.

In the past, houses did not matter that much. At least not in Maoist China when most couples did not have to fret over where to live after marriage as their work units would allocate apartments.

These days, steep residential property prices, especially in the big cities, have meant that housing has entered into marital calculations, especially for women who still tend to earn less.

So much so that a Chinese real estate official was reported to have infamously remarked in 2009 that China's bullish property market was being driven by mothers-in-law who would not marry off their daughters unless the man owned a house.

Mr Xin Yan, 30, an operations manager, explains his plan to make a property purchase first before getting hitched: 'It is customary.'

Even China's laws had to be revised recently to keep up with the changing role of property in marriage.

As much as two-thirds of the 19 new clauses under the Interpretation On Marriage Law released this August concern matrimonial property, noted retired academic Wu Changzhen, who was involved in their drafting.

As China becomes more developed economically, property disputes have become a common feature of divorce cases, but the Marriage Law had little to say on these, she told People's Daily Online.

In particular, one of the new clauses seems to give the men an edge in claiming the house upon divorce. That has sparked an outcry and underscored how property is a big deal in a marriage.

Under the new rule, whoever buys the house owns it after divorce. The party who pays the downpayment for an apartment before marriage is considered the owner even if both spouses pay the housing loan together after marriage.

As men are still more likely to be the ones purchasing the home - due to traditional expectations and their stronger economic position generally - many women feel that they stand to lose out.

'I don't understand why they have to change the law. Women don't have security in a marriage even though they contribute a lot,' said Ms Mi. 'Men tend to become richer as they grow older, women don't and end up losing their youth.'

Like her, nearly 80 per cent of the women polled by a Henan newspaper feel that the new laws are detrimental to the interests of women.

In particular, some women fear it would make it easier for husbands to stray as they no longer have to worry about losing their house after divorce.

'I feel the law should have as its starting point the protection of women and children, and not the eradication of social ills like gold-diggers,' Ms Liu Chen, a 37-year-old homemaker.

Lawyers say the changes are meant to make it clearer who owns what when a marriage breaks up. Divorces have risen from 3.2 million in 2007 to 4.5 million last year. There were 5,000 divorces a day on average in the first quarter of this year.

'Traditionally, the Chinese tend to put more stress on personal relations,' said Beijing-based divorce lawyer Ye Wenbo. 'We feel we are one family after all and don't need things like nuptial agreements.'

This has led to problems over how to divide the assets in a divorce, he added.

The new laws also stipulate that a house bought by one party's parents and given to their child is deemed the sole property of their child and not his or her spouse. This additional amendment reflects the fact that many parents are the ones making the property purchases to set their children up for marriage.

IT executive Deng Zhuo, 30, is all for the change as it would protect the interests of parents who pour their savings into property for their children.

Nor are all women against the new laws. 'It does put a stop to people who are marrying for money,' said a 23-year- old bank teller.

But many insist they will not marry unless their future husbands put their names on the title deeds.

'Because if you love me, you have to give in to me,' said Ms Mi. 'If not, what's the point of marrying you?'

Additional reporting by Carol Feng