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As Rupert And Wendi Murdoch Split, China Flirts With Prenuptial Agreements

Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng in 2011
Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng in 2011
Ge Lunbu

BEIJING - Rupert Murdoch has filed for divorce from his wife, Wendi Deng, and the Chinese media is watching with great attentioin whether their ambitious female compatriot is going to get her share of the cake from her fabulously rich ex-husband.

It's likely though that many will be disappointed since it was disclosed long ago that Murdoch and Deng had signed a prenuptial agreement, which was subsequently revised twice after they were married. Murdoch has submitted his divorce application in New York State because that is the U.S. state that accords the most weight to prenuptial accords.

We do not know the specific content of the agreement, however many Chinese people can't help lamenting the idea of signing such a protocol before marriage. It's much more common in the West for a couple to envisage romantic rupture one day, and find a way beforehand to divide clearly any properties and assets.

Nevertheless, what unites both the West and China is that it's almost always rich people who sign such prenuptial protocols. Last year China amended its national Marriage Law with clauses explicitly providing the basis for how pre-marital property is to be divided. This gives Chinese courts more of a legal standard and makes such arrangements operational on an administrative level. More protection is granted to one of the two parties' pre-marital assets since during a relationship there's always one earning more than the other. It's obvious that the introduction of these judicial interpretations was driven by the wealthy.

Wang Mengying, a marriage and family law attorney in the booming southern city of Guangzhou, noted that among all the divorce cases that ended up in court, regardless of the cause of separation, the final focus of dispute was almost always property related. Whether ordinary folk or the rich and successful, none of her clients had signed a prenuptial agreement or had a pre-marital property notarization made.

From the viewpoint of a judicial practitioner, Wang is convinced that having a prenuptial agreement is better than not having one -- and can save all sides court fees in the future.

However, from a personal point of view, even Wang admitted that she'd feel vexed if her partner asked to conduct a property notarization first. "In particular if he is richer than I am, my self-esteem would be hurt."

Saving face

Romance or reason, which is more important? This is no trivial business in China, where people traditionally believe that men should take on more duties in the marriage. It's notable that the recent amendment of the Marriage Law stipulates that "Upon divorce, any pre-marital asset is no longer included as an object of property division, i.e. it belongs to the original owner before the marriage. Meanwhile, real estate which was funded and bought by one of the parties' parents belongs to that party and is not to be divided."

Changes in the law perhaps will push even Chinese people to revise their concept of marriage, which has largely remained unchanged for thousands of years. In the past, marriage has been seen more as a sharing of resources between two families. Today, it has become more of a legal contract between the two wedded partners.

In terms of property, the new law reduces conflict in case of a separation. Marriage becomes like a business shared by two partners. No one is to take advantage. The common property that is accumulated after getting married can be regarded as profits. Naturally, if the business turns out to be bad, both parties share the loss too. If the couple ends up divorced, each side will take back their respective principal amount while the divorce lawyer will calculate their respective share of the commonly owned property. For instance, when Wendi Deng Murdoch beat off a man who tried to attack her husband at a court hearing about the eavesdropping scandal two years ago, the stock price of News Corp. rebounded 5% that day. So one can be sure their respective teams of lawyers are meticulously calculating how the division of this part of their properties is to be done.

Of course, it sure won't be easy to persuade all Chinese people to draw up prenuptial agreements. This is partly because the idea that a man is to provide his spouse with a home is deeply entrenched, and partly because "face" plays an extremely important role in Chinese culture. All pre-marital protocols are based on the possibility "what if we ever split...". For those who prepare to enter a happy marriage and commit to tie the knot for a lifetime in front of everybody, this is simply hard to accept emotionally or acknowledge publicly.

Eventually, what is even more disturbing for Chinese women is the fact that although Chinese law does have certain clauses that protect women's rights, the provisions lack specificity. For example, in the Chinese Marriage Law, "the party who contributes significantly to the family is to have a greater share of the compensation." However, the judgment of compensation lacks any quantitative criteria, and compensation is left to the subjective opinion of the judge. If the purchase of a house by the man is considered as a contribution doesn't the wife’s decades of maintenance of the house also count as part of the contribution?

Clearly, China's Marriage Law has not yet reached gender equality. Were our law to better protect the party who gives more of themselves -- most often the wife in a Chinese-style marriage -- I believe people would have much less antipathy about pre-marital property notarization or signing up for a prenuptial agreement.

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