IN RECENT weeks China’s leaders have been talking up the need to enhance the rule of law. Their aim is to strengthen the Communist Party’s grip on power while at the same time ensuring that justice is served more fairly. This may improve the lives of some. Many people complain bitterly that courts often pay more heed to the whims of officials than to the law. But in the realm of death, it is the law itself that is the problem. The country’s statutes on inheritance remain little changed from the days when few had any property to bequeath. The rapid emergence in recent years of a large middle-class with complex property claims has been fuelling inheritance disputes. The crudity of the law is making matters worse.
Today’s inheritance law was adopted in 1985 when divorce and remarriage were rare and international marriage nearly unknown. Few owned homes, cars or other valuable property. The law does at least grant men and women equal rights to their kin’s estates, but otherwise it is based largely on tradition. It is specific when it comes to handing down “forest trees, livestock and poultry” but runs out of steam when it comes to newfangled notions such as intellectual property; never mind domain names and digital photographs. A sweeping reference to “other lawful property” is its unhelpful attempt to cover all eventualities. What counts as property? By whose laws? The statute has no answers.
Modest changes were approved in 2003, but woolly areas remain such as in procedures for registering wills. This has led to rancorous court cases like one that last month attracted much public attention. It involved a disputed will and the embattled surviving family members of a famous calligrapher and his estate worth about 2 billion yuan ($326m).
Since the last revisions to the law, society has kept up its blistering pace of change. The divorce rate has risen in each of the past ten years. In 2009 divorces outnumbered marriages. Thus there are now ex-spouses and stepchildren among those squabbling over estates. China’s embrace of globalisation means that some assets (and indeed, clamouring relatives) are located in other countries.
China’s one-child policy has sometimes complicated matters. State media reported on a car crash in 2012 in which both parents died several hours before their sole child, a six-year-old girl. She automatically inherited their assets in that short interval but had no legal heir herself, meaning the assets went to the state instead of other kin.
At a meeting in October Chinese leaders expressed support for amending the inheritance law (though a long-mooted plan to introduce an inheritance tax still looks far from being put into force: the middle class does not want that). Yang Lixin of Renmin University in Beijing says that despite this resolve it could still be several years before the law catches up with reality. It is enough to send legal drafters to an early grave.