For richer or low-interest loans: the sham marriages – and divorces – built on China’s property market
Some Chinese are splitting up and tying the knot to get around compensation and home-buying rules
When Feng Ping (not her real name) was told in 2008 that her home in central Shanghai would be demolished by a property developer, the divorcee’s first thought was to find a new husband.
The 20 square metre (215 sq ft) flat was already home to Feng, her son, her daughter-in-law and her grandson, but if one more person lived under the roof, the family would qualify for more compensation from the developer.
Feng, now 65, said she initially thought about buying a counterfeit marriage certificate to present as evidence of a husband.
“But I was advised by a relative that this was risky. The authorities would very likely find out,” she said.
If she had gone ahead – and the authorities had found out – Feng could now be facing a range of penalties detailed in a statement released last week by the National Development and Reform Commission, one of the country’s top economic planning agencies.
Forging such documents has always been illegal under criminal law, with offenders facing up to three years in jail. But forged marriage documents were usually detected and rejected during the application process and seldom led to legal action, according to Chinese media reports.
Now in a push to tighten up on the practice, 31 state-level bodies have agreed to blacklist people found using counterfeit marriage registrations. Anybody on the blacklist will be banned from working in the civil service and applying for government subsidies, among other penalties, which took effect immediately.
In the end, though, Feng decided to marry a stranger on paper, securing the family three suburban flats with a combined floor area of 170 square metres. She gave the “husband” an agreed 100,000 yuan (US$15,870), before the couple divorced amicably.
Feng’s sham marriage falls outside the scope of the blacklist because all parties went through the proper procedures. Nevertheless, the case is just one example of the administrative hoops that families are prepared to go through to make the most of property rules.
Lu Xiaoquan, a lawyer from the Beijing-based Qianqian Law Firm, said sham marriages like Feng’s were legal because they were valid on paper.
“Authorities only issue a marriage or divorce document on the basis of whether both are willing to, not what purpose they are achieving,” Lu said. “So such cases are more a moral issue than a legal one.”
But it’s not just fake marriages that offer convenient loopholes in the system, sham divorces also offer benefits to couples willing to break up for the family.
Fuzhou housewife Sue Ma divorced her husband three years ago so she could take out a cheaper mortgage on a second home.
At the time, city authorities were trying to keep a lid on soaring housing prices by ramping up interest rates on couples buying more than one home. As a divorcee, Ma could take out the mortgage on the second home on her own, escaping the higher rates.
Ma and her husband put in their papers and after the divorce went through, their home in Shanghai became the husband’s property, as agreed beforehand.
Ma then bought another one in Fuzhou as her first property at a lower interest rate, saving the couple tens of thousands of yuan. They remarried after the deal was done.
She said she never worried about her husband going back on their agreement.
“I never did. It was for the benefit of the family.”
Ma said she was comfortable about going through with the divorce because so many other people were doing the same thing.
“At the civil affairs bureau, the people applying for a divorce all looked cheerful, except for one couple who were arguing. And the clerks, part of whose job is to mediate disputes and persuade couples to rethink their decision, didn’t bother trying to patch things up at all. Everybody knew what was going on,” she said.
The practice was so widespread that in August 2016, the civil affairs bureau of Shanghai’s Xuhui district had to set a daily limit for divorce applications because they were inundated with submissions.
Lu, the lawyer, said policies had to be tightened to close such loopholes in the system, with possible measures including tighter scrutiny of newly divorced loan applicants.
Xu Weihua, a Beijing-based specialist in family disputes and women’s rights, said that although such sham marriages and divorces were still beyond the reach of the government blacklist it did send a signal to the public about the importance of personal credit.
“It’s sad that marriage has deteriorated into something for material gain. What is supposed to be sacred has now become a game. Trust and loyalty is missing in marriage,” she said. “The [blacklist] sends an alert about taking marriage seriously.”
Xu said many people, most of the women, had come to her for legal advice after sham divorces went wrong.
“I have received a lot of consulting requests in this regard in my work. The common problem is that after the divorce, when all the shared marriage assets belonged to the husband, the men refused to remarry.”