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Rising divorce rate spurs controversial changes to China's marriage law

Chinese bridal couple make pictures in front of the south Bavarian castle Neuschwanstein in Schwangau near Fuessen. Thirty-one Chinese couples who already got married in China travelled to Germany to repeat their promise of marriage at Neuschwanstein Castle, one of the most popular destinations in Europe.

Michaela Rehle/Reuters/Michaela Rehle/Reuters

A contestant on a popular matchmaking show on Chinese television once dismissed a male suitor by telling him she "would rather weep in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle with you."

Now, following controversial changes to China's Marriage Law, she'd better make sure she at least has some kind of transportation that she paid for herself.

The words of Ma Nuo, the notorious dating show contestant, not only ignited a blaze of controversy about the materialism of young Chinese, they might have motivated the Supreme People's Court to re-interpret the country's 31-year-old Marriage Law. The changes that the court introduced this week are nearly as controversial as Ms. Ma's remarks, seen by many as a male-dominated court stepping in to protect the rights of men as China's divorce rates rise.

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The key change specifies that whichever side makes the payment on a couple's house will now keep the property following a divorce. That's no small tweak in a country where it's traditional for the groom's parents to purchase the home, and the bride's family to furnish and decorate it.

A cartoon published on the front page of one daily newspaper in Yunnan province showed a man clutching his thinner- and younger-looking mistress while laughing at his wife's demand for a divorce. "I'm not scared. There's no way you'll get the house," he says, clutching a red booklet with the words "Marriage Law 2011" written on it.

Divorce, once extremely rare in Chinese society, is on the rise. There were nearly two million registered divorces in 2010, up 14.5 per cent from the previous year. The country's divorce rate has more than quadrupled – from 0.4 per 1,000 people in 1985 to 1.85 per 1,000 in 2009 – since the country began a jarring economic transition that has put far more money, and all the issues that come with it, into the hands of ordinary Chinese.

Divorces are still less common in China than in Canada, although the trends are heading in opposite directions. Canada's divorce rate was 2.2 per 1,000 in 2005, down from over 3.6 per 1,000 in 1987.

Owning your own house has long been seen as a prerequisite to getting married in China. A survey released on Valentine's Day this year found that only 38 per cent of women would be willing to enter a so-called "naked marriage," the popular term for a wedding held without first purchasing a house and car.

But skyrocketing real estate costs have forced more and more young Chinese to turn to their parents for help in achieving that goal, and the court hinted that its real aim was to protect the rights of parents who invested their life savings in a home for what is often their only child. "Parents who buy their children houses used to worry that their children's divorces could result in the loss of family property," Supreme People's Court spokesman Sun Jungong said, adding that the court heard nearly 10,000 public views before making its decision.

"(The changes) may push the two sides to consider more before getting married… many people are worried that once they get divorced, they might end up leaving the house with nothing," said Lu Mingsheng, a divorce lawyer in Beijing. He said the new rules are jarring for some because China's lacking social security net leaves many expecting their spouses – or ex-spouses – to take care of them financially.

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But others – including many women – see the Supreme People's Court's intervention is a less favourable light: In the words of one outraged female microblog user, the new guidelines "sweep aside the last obstacle against men being unfaithful." (The taking of mistresses has become so common in China in recent years that the government in the affluent southeastern province of Guangdong announced this year that all girls in elementary and middle schools would be required to take a course aimed teaching them "self-esteem, self-confidence and self-reliance.")

Another user of the popular Sina Weibo social networking site wrote: "The new Marriage Law tells us, we women should earn our money, buy our own house, get artificial fertilization in the hospital and have a baby by ourselves."

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