Unintended Consequences in China

The Los Angeles Times has a story on a the unintended consequences of government meddling in China.

To sum up, Renhe is a small, formerly rural town on the edge of Chongqing, a rapidly growing commercial center. To accomodate growth, the government is in the habit of seizing small farms for development, compensating the small farmers by giving them small apartments in the new city. Most people there are not stupid; they recognize that they are being taken for a ride, and thus do not hesitate to cheat the government in return.

And, it seemed, an opportunity presented itself: married couples got one two-bedroom apartment, while singles got one one-bedroom apartment. So, if a married couple fakes a divorce, they can get two apartments instead of one, and make some money off the second apartment once they remarried. The divorce rate in Renhe soared to 98% after the government seizure.

Of course, the government was not stupid, either; they cut the second apartment out of the deal. Couples who want to divorce can no longer do so, since separation inevitably means one of the partners will become homeless. Farm families who secured their right to a second apartment before the rule change ended up on a waiting list, since too few apartments had been built to accomodate all those people. The promised development is still in progress, so there are no jobs for all the displaced farmers, who are not able to pay for food and utilities. Worse, they have found that not all the divorces were shams:

Meanwhile, most of the former marriages are in tatters. Considering the prospect of a future without financial security, remarrying now simply seems too much of a hassle. Promises are souring. Stunned villagers are watching their life partners drift off. Some have found new love. Others are deciding to try out freedom from a marriage they never thought they wanted to leave.

Arguably, the whole process started with state seizure of the farms without adequate compensation, but the state is playing coy about the problem they caused:

“In the face of the law, there is no such thing as a fake divorce,” said Xue Xiang, an officer at the local marriage registry who oversaw the wave of divorces. At its height late last year, up to a hundred couples showed up at the office every day. “Every citizen has the right to marry and divorce. As long as it’s voluntary, we have to follow the rules and grant them their wish. We can’t help it if some people have ulterior motives.”

Much has been made of China’s liberalization and resulting success. Few recognize that China has been dragged kicking and screaming into these policies, and that the Chinese leadership still resists loosening their grasp of power. Incidents like this one may be small, but they illuminate just how fragile Chinese society is. Will the single-parent children of Renhe become the criminals and dissidents of China’s future? Time will tell.