On the face of it, Wu Mei (not her real name) represents the modern Chinese woman who has achieved spectacular success. Just thirty - one years old, she makes around one million RMB (roughly $150,000) a year as an attorney in Beijing, a salary that likely places her in the top 1 percent income bracket in China. Slender and beautiful, she could be the perfect cover model for a magazine feature on "China's richest women." Yet, as she speaks, a darker picture emerges. Wu recently managed to obtain a divorce from her abusive husband after five years of marriage, but only by giving up her home, her life savings, and most of her belongings.
"I cried every day on my drive home from work. I just wanted to escape," says Wu, her eyes welling with tears as she recalls the violence of her married life. Her situation reflects a paradox for many educated young women in the new China.
For all its failings, the Mao era (1949-1976) was a time when overcoming traditional forms of male-female inequality was proclaimed as an important revolutionary goal. Now, there are signs that women's past gains are being eroded. A combination of factors in recent years - skyrocketing home prices, a resurgence of traditional gender norms, a state media campaign pressuring educated young women to marry, and legal setbacks - has contributed to a fall in the status and material well-being of Chinese women relative to men.
Wu Mei divorced around the same time that China's Supreme People's Court issued a stark new interpretation of the country's Marriage Law, reversing a cornerstone of the Communist Revolution. The Marriage Law of 1950 granted women rights to property (among other rights) and over the years, subsequent revisions of the law strengthened the notion of common marital property. Yet the Chinese government's latest amendment of the Marriage Law in 2011 specifies that, unless legally contested, marital property essentially belongs to the person who owns the home and whose name is on the property deed.
And in China today, that person is usually aman.
A 2012 Horizon Research and ifeng.com survey of thousands of home buyers in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen found that over 80 percent of marital homes are owned or co-owned by men, while only 30 percent of marital home deeds include the woman's name. These figures already demonstrate an alarming disparity between property ownership by men versus women, but my research suggests that the inequality is even more extreme when considering the number of homes owned solely by men.
Defenders argue that the new interpretation of the Marriage Law is "gender-neutral." Local feminist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), however, have criticized it as a severe setback for women's property rights. Li Ying, head of the Yuanzhong Gender Development Center in Beijing, writes that the interpretation issued by the Court "violates the Marriage Law's basic principle of common marital property."
It may be years before we begin to understand the magnitude of this stunning reversal of women's property rights in China. Even some of the most privileged and successful women, such as Wu Mei, are hurt by the change. Wu's top university scores secured her admission to a prestigious law school abroad. Shortly after she graduated and returned to Beijing at age twenty-five, she married an acquaintance deemed "suitable" by her family. "Most of my friends in Beijing had already married then because it was the thing to do," she says. Did she love him? Wu shrugs her shoulders and says, "I didn't find a better match at the time."
Although Wu and her parents had invested hundreds of thousands of RMB in her one-million-RMB marital home, the property deed was in the husband's name alone, as is customary. Wu is a litigator deeply familiar with the flaws in China's legal system and believed that a divorce lawsuit with an unyielding adversary would be lengthy and traumatic, with no guarantee of success. …