August 30, 2011 / 4:33 AM / in 6 years

China reinterprets untying the knot

BEIJING (Reuters) - After Jia Lin divorced twenty years ago, his wife got both house and son, leaving the Beijing cook with little more than a fresh start.

Stepping into the divorce registration office two decades later to retrieve his records, the stooped 51-year-old said the fate of his house could be very different now.

China's top court issued a reinterpretation of the country's divorce law this month, saying that the spouse who buys a house before marriage has the right to keep it after a split-up. Before, the property was usually divided equally between the two sides.

"Each side should get back what was his or hers beforehand," Jia said. "I think that's fair."

But many Chinese, especially women, disagree.

They say the new interpretation favors men, who traditionally buy the house in China, often before they marry. Critics also say the penalty for infidelity is now close to nil.

"Now the man doesn't have to be responsible for what happens to the woman," said Beijing resident Xu Weiqin, 40, who said her friend is being kicked out of her husband's house in the midst of a divorce.

The new interpretation by the male-dominated Supreme People's Court has stirred debate in a country where home ownership is particularly valued.

Chinese men are widely expected to own a house if they want to marry, so much so that a wedding sans house is called a "naked wedding." Some parents now start a home-purchase fund for their child as soon as they know it is a boy.

"Parents who buy their children houses used to worry that their children's divorces could result in the loss of family property," said court spokesman Sun Jungong in a statement.

Unlike the top courts of common law countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom, which guide lower courts through decisions via precedent-setting cases, China's top court sets law by issuing new interpretations.

In the days following the reinterpretation, women have scrambled to add their names to their husbands' housing contracts, with the process for inking it becoming a most-discussed item on the Chinese Twitter-like website Weibo.

"I want to make sure I don't end up in the street," wrote one female Weibo user.

Some men were worried, too, but for a different reason.

"My wife wants me to add her name to the housing certificate. What do I do?" asked one Chinese man on Weibo.

"I should add that my wife feels money is very important, and has threatened to divorce me twice in the past over money."

INCREASING DIVORCES

Once rare in China, divorce is now common, with about 5,000 couples deciding to call it quits each day. Although China's divorce rate remains well below that of the U.S. and UK, the number of Chinese divorces has increased at an annual rate of 7.6 percent over the past eight years, according to data from the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Despite the prevalence of divorce in China today, there's still some squeamishness about the topic.

For example, there's technically no "divorce registration office" at the Beijing civil affairs bureau. Happy couples queue hand-in-hand outside the "wedding registration office," while unhappy ones slink into the similarly named "marriage registration office" down the hall.

On a recent weekday morning, Mr. Jin, a 45-year-old businessman on his way to work in a dress shirt and carrying a briefcase, was at the marriage registration office to inquire about divorce proceedings.

"With the number of gold diggers these days, I can see why they have this reinterpretation," said Jin, who declined to give his first name. "You hear all the time about people who just get married for money."

He paused. "But it does seem a bit unfair to women, doesn't it?"

Reporting by the Beijing newsroom, Editing by Chris Buckley and Elaine Lies

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