Xie Qingtong, a 58-year-old farmer in Da'ao village, in Yunyan district, Guiyang, Guizhou Province, says he had no choice but to divorce his wife, Zeng Lihong, in November.
It was not because of any dispute; the couple loved each other dearly. Rather, they felt they had to protect the 500-square-meter house they built seven years ago.
"No one wants to do this, but we really have no choice," the couple was quoted by the China News Weekly magazine as saying.
The decision to divorce came after a new regulation on rural housing was announced on August 28 by the city government of Guiyang, which limited the size of new rural residential properties built on collective land to 240 square meters per household. If the household has more than one property, the total floor space is added up.
Floor space exceeding this will not be recognized by the authorities as owned by the household, affecting compensation in cases of land expropriation - one of the most sensitive issues in rural China, where spiraling land prices have often resulted in local governments seizing land for development.
"After divorce, one family becomes two and the housing size permitted by the authorities is also doubled," Xie said. "We just followed the torrent of divorces."
A torrent of divorces
The regulation covers 1,313 villages in Guiyang. One week after the regulation was published, rural residents flocked to marriage registration halls to split up with their beloved ones, as a means of protecting their "oversized" properties.
The civil affairs bureau in Yunyan district alone witnessed 120 couples divorcing daily in October, six times the usual level, the Guizhou Metropolis Daily reported on October 31.
Among the divorcees, there were young couples who had only been married for two or three months, as well as those in their 80s and 90s who were divorcing with the help of their kids, reported the newspaper.
The newspaper also stated that couples left the halls cheerfully after they were issued with the dark green divorce certificate.
With hundreds of people waiting in line at a hall that can only hold dozens, windows for other marriage services were switched to handling divorces.
When filling in a form that requires couples to state why they divorced, many ticked boxes with reasons such as having nothing in common, frequently quarreling or loss of affection, the newspaper said.
Reluctant to oblige
A 65-year-old villager from the district's Dongshan village, who used the pseudonym Guo Chaoqing, said that divorcing for these reasons does sound ridiculous, but all the adults in his family are doing it anyway. "We have to do so for very practical purposes," he said, saying that they needed to safeguard the family's 1,000-square-meter house.
Guo has two sons and two daughters.
"I was afraid that my kids' families would be destroyed if they chose to divorce, however, they persuaded me that we had to, or we would have had large financial losses," he said.
Residents said they were fearful of the repercussions of having illegal floor space.
"In a neighboring village, a sum of up to 4,000 yuan would be given per square meter for relocation, in contrast to less than 1,000 yuan in compensation or nothing at all for the unauthorized space," He Mingshi, a Qianling villager, told the magazine.
He also decided to divorce for his 500-square-meter house built in 1993, which brings a monthly rent of 3,000 yuan ($481.5), an amount accounting for a significant part of the whole family's income.
The magazine cited insiders as saying that the regulation was put into place after a fatal accident.
In March 2011, a farmer's house built with hollow bricks in Yangguan village collapsed, killing nine people, an accident that drew government attention to rural housing.
Two weeks later, Li Zaiyong, the mayor of Guiyang, said the city will work on a long-term mechanism for managing illegal rural buildings and this regulation was one element of that, reported the magazine, adding that the city has had lax regulations for a long time.
In September, Liu Wenxin, a deputy mayor of the city, said that local government will finish the authorization process by the end of this year, the city government's website reported.
An illegitimate law?
All the experts reached by the Global Times expressed sympathy for the farmers.
The 240-square-meter standard is much lower than the size of many farmers' houses in the country, Liu Weiwei, a researcher with the Shanghai-based E-house China R&D Institute, told the Global Times.
Wang Zhenyu, a lawyer with the Beijing Impact Law Firm, told the Global Times that the regulation is illegitimate and the local government had no right to put it in place.
"The terms deprive citizens of their property and limiting their rights to own property. This kind of regulation can only be made by the National People's Congress and its standing committee," said Wang, adding that the residents' divorces could destroy their families and may have a bad influence on their children.
"They should apply for an administrative reconsideration of the regulation by the local government. If the government refuses their request, a lawsuit can also be filed," Wang said. "The farmers should resort to the law instead of sacrificing their family's happiness."
"Following the torrent of divorce, there will be a surge in remarriage," Dong Liming, a deputy director of the China Land Science Society, told the Global Times. "However, some 'divorces' will become an irreversible reality."
Officials from the marriage registration department of the Guiyang Civil Affairs Bureau and the Guiyang Housing and Urban-Rural Development Bureau said they were not sure about the issue when reached by the Global Times Thursday.
It is not uncommon for Chinese homeowners to divorce to protect their assets and receive compensation.
About 200 people attempted to get divorces at a civil affairs bureau in Jiangning district, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, in order to receive more compensation during a relocation project, the People's Daily Online reported in September.
Officials then issued a regulation saying that residents who have divorced or will divorce couldn't have any compensation, the Yangtze Evening Post reported.