On the face of it, Wu Mei represents the modern Chinese woman who has achieved spectacular success. Just 31 years old, she makes around RMB 1 million (almost US$160,000 in 2012) a year as an attorney in Beijing, a salary that places her in the top 1 percent income bracket in China. Slender and beautiful, she could be the perfect cover model for, say, a magazine feature on "China's richest women."
Yet as she speaks, a darker picture emerges. Wu recently managed to gain a divorce from an abusive husband after five years of marriage, but only by giving up her home, her life savings and most of her other 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. Wu's top university scores had secured her admission to a prestigious law school in Australia. Shortly after she graduated and returned to Beijing at age 25, 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 renminbi in her RMB 1 million marital home, the property deed was in her husband's name alone, as is customary in China today. Wu, a litigator deeply familiar with the flaws in China's legal system, believed that a divorce lawsuit with an unyielding adversary would be lengthy and traumatic, with no guarantee of success. Rather than go through the court system, she decided to cut short her misery, let her husband keep all the assets and pay him an additional RMB 100,000 in cash in exchange for his agreement to a divorce.
At the time of their divorce in 2011, their marital home - which now belongs entirely to her ex-husband - had more than tripled in value to over RMB 3 million (around US$470,000 that year).
Wu refuses to marry again until she has bought a home in her own name, so that she can have more economic power and security within the relationship, which she believes would protect her from long-term abuse. "If I had had a home of my own when we were married, he never would have threatened me like that," she says.
China's real estate boom
Like Wu, many Chinese women have been shut out of arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history, worth more than 30 trillion in 2013. Even with tight regulations on buying property, China has the largest residential real-estate market in the world, with an urban home ownership rate of around 85 percent, according to China's central bank (though Gavekal Dragonomics says around three-fifths of urban residents own homes). Property is, by far, the biggest source of wealth in cities like Shanghai and Beijing.
The only way that ordinary residents can afford to buy exorbitantly priced homes is by pooling assets. That is, homes are financed by a combination of assets from husbands and wives, unmarried lovers, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and other relatives or friends. But in a deeply patriarchal society, skyrocketing home prices mean that assets pooled from different family members tend to flow toward men. A large body of evidence indicates that most residential property in China is owned by men. A 2012 Horizon Research and iFeng.com survey of thousands of home buyers in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen found that men's names are on the property deeds of 80 percent of marital homes, but women's names are included on the deeds of only 30 percent of marital homes.
My own research suggests that the gender asset gap is even larger when one considers how many homes are owned solely by men. At the time of writing, I had not found comprehensive data in China breaking down joint ownership versus sole ownership of homes; however, the nationwide Third Survey on the Social Status of Women in 2010 found that 51.7 percent of married men have sole ownership of the home, while only 13.2 percent of married women in China have homes in their own names. The 2010 quantitative survey, focusing specifically on gender differences in China, covered over 105,000 people aged 18 and over, and was carried out by the NBS and the All-China Women's Federation (comprehensive surveys on women were also carried out in 2000 and 1990).
Consider the enormous value of these primarily male-owned homes. A 2010 China research report by HSBC analysts Zhang Zhiming, Dilip Shahani and Keith Chan estimated the total value of China's residential real-estate market to be more than RMB 109 trillion, or U.S. $17 trillion. After 2010, NBS stopped publishing figures for the average home price in China. But HSBC analyst Zhang said in 2013 that the value of China's residential real-estate market is still around 3.3 times that of the country's gross domestic product. At the end of 2013, therefore, the value of homes in China exceeded RMB 187 trillion, or more than U.S. $30 trillion.