How China, The World's Fastest Growing Economy, Is Tackling Its Sex Problem

In 21st-century China, the sex trade is everywhere and nowhere, officially outlawed but widely accepted as part of life – and business. Can the world's fastest growing economy afford to crack down on sex for sale? Does it even want to?

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On a scrubland car park in a dreary suburb of Dongguan, on mainland China just north of Hong Kong, a dozen expensive sports cars sit baking in the early morning sun. Their owners are inside the adjacent building, a "luxury entertainment centre" as it styles itself. 

Here, men with eye masks doze after a night's carousing. They lie on rows of BarcaLoungers with built-in cable tuned to HBO or Korean drama.

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Upstairs, in the private rooms, a complicated menu details the services on offer. Below, in the basement, a spa ensures that everyone can head straight back to the office, clean-shaven.

Those baffling menus, drunkenly perused, allude to China's rich pre- and post-Confucian sexual history – as well as the language's endless talent for florid euphemism.

"Ice and Fire; Nine Steps to Heaven" is fellatio performed alternately with ice cubes and hot water. A customer asking to "Seek the Moon Under the Sea" can expect to have his testicles gently licked and nibbled.

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"Roaming the North Pole" and "Divine Dragon Sways its Tail": these are left to Esquire's imagination.

"Good evening, Royal Sir, welcome. How may we help you?" A phalanx of bowing greeters, dressed in traditional qipao, greets stumbling entrants to the club.

Prices range from £25 to around £80, depending on the services and their duration. A fetish for virgins, for example, has driven a market for "student little sisters" (xuesheng mei), who pose as naïfs and greet guests in girlishly innocent outfits.

In China's era of rampant consumerism, buying sex has become normalised: visiting an entertainment centre with friends or colleagues in order to buy sex is sometimes perceived as not all that different from having a pint.

A business dinner is likely to be considerably more successful if prostitutes are offered some time before the final toast of baijiu, China's lethal white liquor.

The sex industry is often not so much condoned as merely ignored: the Chinese have a polite way of overlooking the neon-lit "barber shop" – often just a bed and a makeshift curtain – just a few doors down from the neighbourhood butcher, grocer and noodle-maker.

Yet outwardly, when it comes to sex, China is a conservative, even backward, country. Marriage and divorce once needed to be approved by employers; just a few decades ago, adultery could result in a death sentence.

Even today, group sex remains illegal, while homosexuality is conveniently ignored. Pornography is banned, and sex education is close to non-existent.

Sex, especially the commercial-illicit kind, is ubiquitous yet at the same time, nowhere to be seen. Current estimates on sex workers in China range wildly – the World Health Organization puts it at a conservative 4–6 million people – and some economists claim that prostitution accounts for six per cent of China's GDP.

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Meanwhile Chinese buyers account for 21.5 per cent of the market in adult products such as "stimulus" condoms, and the country produces more than 70 per cent of the world's sex toys in an industry worth $2bn.

As former Chicago lawyer and creator of the made-in-China Autoblow 2 device Brian Sloan says: "To most Chinese people, business is business – whether they are selling toasters or fake pussies." Where there's love to be made, there's always money. And with this much sex, the spoils – and risks – are greater than anywhere else.

That sex has become big business is hardly news; what is arguably more surprising is the government's response. In a country as obsessed with no-strings economic growth as China, allowing the sex trade to flourish quietly might seem an obvious tactic.

Yet the adult playgrounds in which this nexus of wealth and influence routinely interconnect – nightclubs, member's saunas, swanky karaoke lounges known as KTVs – have come under the vigilant eye of the topmost ranks like never before. And the crackdown on dissolute lifestyles has spread beyond traditional protectorates.

But as the world's fastest growing economy starts to ease off, with a cooling housing market and export slowdowns, can China afford to be prudish? 

The history of sex in China, as seen by those inside or outside, in power or under it, is as complex as the history of sex anywhere. In an essay accompanying his 1888 translation of The Arabian Nights, the Victorian writer and explorer Richard Burton smeared the Chinese as the "chosen people of debauchery… their systematic bestiality with ducks, goats and other animals is equalled only by their pederasty."

When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, a longstanding "ban" on prostitution was rigorously enforced and thousands were emancipated from sexual slavery. Under Mao, procreation was positively encouraged to boost China's strength. Sex education was another matter, though: the stuffy though well-intentioned booklet Knowledge of Sex was first condoned on publication in 1957, then condemned by the Cultural Revolution, which saw its publishers and writers attacked in public.

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It would not be until the mid-Eighties that attitudes toward impropriety reached an apex of intolerance. As Deng Xiaopeng's power and reforms accelerated from 1978, policy and reality began dramatically parting ways. Wealth was now "glorious" to accrue; ads for Coke appeared on state TV; Wham! played the Beijing's Workers' Gymnsium.

But among hardliners, the pendulum swung back: 1983's "Strike Hard" police campaign against "hooliganism, disruptive behaviour [and] spiritual pollution" saw women executed for skinny-dipping in a public lake, adulterers sentenced to death, and numerous celebrities jailed for crimes such as "lechery… through seduction and deception."

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After the student protests of the late-Eighties, which included calls for greater sexual tolerance, met with tanks in Tiananmen 25 years ago, even the condom – unofficial sponsor of China's 1979 one-child policy – ended up labelled as "against the social norms and moral values of our country".

Today, Chinese society is experiencing a slow-burning societal conflict, as an older generation brings its own outdated models of sex and relationships to bear on children whose lifestyles so far removed from their parents that China may as well be a different country.

According to centuries-entrenched Chinese values, young people, especially women, are expected to marry young and multiply early – though by not too much, else they break the one-child policy. A son must marry as soon as possible; a daughter must marry "up".

"Some of the commercialisation of sex has its roots in conservative values," says John Osburg, an anthropology professor at New York's University of Rochester and author of Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China's New Rich. "Mothers tell their daughters that they should keep their virginity not because it's 'moral' to do so but because they can cash in on it one day [with a lucrative marriage]"; some have similarly indoctrinated their first-born sons toward notions of female "purity". (Fortunately in China, all things can be purchased – including virginity – and a Chinese virginity kit can be yours for £20.)

When Peter, a moderately successful salesman, finally met the parents of his girlfriend of one year, their conversation was straight out of a Dickens novel. "Her father sat me down and started listing all his assets," Peter remembers of their Chinese New Year encounter.

"He had 10 apartments, 10 this, and that. What did I have? He made me feel like…" Peter didn't finish the sentence. In fact, he was so angry at the time, he broke off the engagement afterwards.

Not that it bothers him today. Unusually among many men of his age, Peter possesses a natural confidence that belies his regular looks, and sometimes has sex with one, two or three different partners a week; research suggests Chinese males average four lovers in a lifetime (and women, 96 per cent of whom are "unsatisfied" according to the most recent data, just two).

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In his mid-thirties, Peter is unusually advanced in age for his marital prospects – parental pressure to commit fast and young often leads to botched relationships and quickie divorces. A close, white-collar friend in his late twenties bragged to me in his Mercedes that, after a month-long relationship, he'd found the "love of his life"; they were divorced within three weeks (before I'd even had time to present a gift). It was no great surprise, when China's separation rate has been increasing annually to a current high of 10,000 a day.

Perhaps partly because of this, in some ways things have never been better for Chinese women. Even experiences many Western women might take for granted, such as sexual fulfillment, haven't been on the agenda before.

"The extent to which young women in China see themselves as entitled to [that] is fairly revolutionary," reckons Osburg, who at least partly credits the Communist Party. Mao, whose early teachings included the quoted ad nauseam exhortation that "women hold up half the sky," did extol gender equality in public, if not in private.

In today's blend of Confucian tradition and materialist ambition, the most radical thing some women can do is engage in romantic and sexual pursuits without regard for the financial or moral consequences, in contrast to what their parents might hope.

And this increased gender equality manifests itself in some surprising ways: as the top-tier gender gap incrementally decreases – according to the recent Huran rich list which ranks female executives, more than half the world's self-made billionaire women are now Chinese – high-flying female clients are already being courted by the world's oldest business.

An attractive, unmarried and highly assured female lawyer in her thirties said she was invited as guest of honour at an exclusive club near Beijing's Ritan Park.

"When we arrived, everyone was immediately assigned a personal assistant for the night, who all happened to be tall and extremely pretty," she said. "And, of course, we also got given two very handsome men. We call them 'duck men' in Chinese."

These "duck men", or gigolos, are doing tidy business. Male brothels in Shenzhen can attract over a hundred regular female patrons (called fupo), though the clientele can behave a little differently to their male counterparts.

"Wealthy women are much more circumspect. [They] certainly don't flaunt their lovers the way rich men do," Osburg says. "There's still a clear sexual double standard in China, even among the rich."

Still, the stakes are just as risky for female players. In a 2013 scandal dubbed "Gigolo-gate", one female executive at a subsidiary of state-owned gas giant Sinopec was allegedly blackmailed by Agilent Technologies, a US multinational, into accepting a £1.8 million tender for an ethylene project in Wuhan.

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Agilent, it was claimed, had leveraged "Zhang" with photographs of her and two African male gigolos at "Obama" club, a suburban Beijing establishment supposedly catering to the wealthy wives of officials and celebrities.

But the biggest threat to China's more bawdy sexual escapades comes not from American conglomerates, but from the country's own leaders.

In official media, China has always pitted its traditional values against "foreign forces" or "Western pollution", threatening the Chinese way of life.

Now the pollutants are real, inarguably domestic and life-threatening: HIV infection is escalating at a rate of more than 70,000 cases a year, with people between the ages of 15 and 24 deemed most at risk. The government has been forced to speak up.

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However, it's not just the health of the people that is their concern. Populist president Xi Jinping, who took office last year, has begun a high-profile crackdown of the "Three Vices": gambling, drug use and, in particular, the sex trade. Xi's authoritarian style has prompted his juniors to clamp down on some of the country's other favourite pastimes.

Pornography is, for now, verboten once more and even "slash fic" sites – which typically host niche, homosexual reinterpretations of the lives of Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter, written by young Chinese women – have been targeted (in May, meanwhile, a heavily edited version of the sex-drenched HBO series Game of Thrones debuted on China's official TV channel to jeers of disapproval).

The moral crusade began in February, when state broadcaster CCTV revealed to a bemused nation that Dongguan – an otherwise-drab commercial conurbation, known to be populated by businessmen and thousands of prostitutes, known colloquially as the "Sex Capital" – was, for sure, populated by businessmen and thousands of prostitutes. The city's politicians went through paroxysms of disbelief.

"Frankly, I was surprised," insisted Mayor Yuan Baocheng about the nationwide open secret. His "surprise" cost the city dear: in the ensuing crackdown (prostitution, it must be repeated, is illegal in China), news agency Xinhua predicted the city would be taking a hit of 50 billion yuan (£4.8 billion) in lost revenue; the police chief was sacked; the vice mayor, Liang Guoying, is under investigation for "serious discipline violations" (party code for large-scale corruption).

Even China's least-glamorous provincial capital is no longer safe: with a gaudy turquoise edifice, mounted with yellow stained-glass, the Royal One in Henan's downtown Zhengzhou would have been nigh on impossible to ignore.

Which is probably why it was ignored until April, when anti-corruption officials "suddenly" discovered the Royal One was staffed with around 500 "Little Misses," whose rates and services ranged from between 990 to 9,900 yuan (about £100 to £1,000) a session; most johns apparently spent more than £500 a night, according to the Democracy and Legal Times. After seizing computers, police were "shocked" to discover the Royal One had an annual turnover in the region of £20m.

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Meanwhile in historic Hangzhou, a more genteel city on the eastern seaboard, the luxury "lounges" that once lined its famous West Lake have been re-opened as "cultural centers", offering books and relics for public view, according to China Youth Daily; the cuts are biting so deep, some are considering leaving the hostess industry altogether.

Researching this article, the effects of Xi's campaign were plain to see: elite VIP rooms sat empty; once-exclusive restaurants, whose business models depended on the taxpayer footing diners' bills, had shuttered; concubines draped in Prada furs and installed in high-end flats, had gone from being a "forbidden" luxury to an active liability.

"Does China's anti-corruption campaign spell the end of the mistress economy?" wondered Forbes magazine. As with any headline posing a question, the answer is "probably not", but it's undeniable that the "meinyu jingji", literally "pretty girl (hottie) economy", but officially "beauty economy" – a mercantile phrase that encompasses consorts, waitresses and beauty contestants – has been turned against many of its proponents.

Perhaps more importantly for President Xi's agenda, with the clampdown on sex, have come some political scalps: a Guangdong Land Resource Bureau deputy chief who kept 47 mistresses and £2.8bn in bribes; Qi Fang, a Xinjiang police chief, who installed a pair of sisters as his mistresses in a luxury apartment; the Shanxi official, Li Junen, who bent China's paternity rules with four wives and 10 children; and the granddaddy of them all, Liu Zhijun, the man who built the railroad – his downfall was spectacular even by China standards.

Bald, toothy 61-year-old Liu may have radiated all the charisma of a train ticket, but he had total charge of China's high-speed network. Before his conviction for corruption, the Ministry of Railways that Liu commanded was an unassailable, Leninist fiefdom – with its own police force and courts – but perhaps Liu's greatest personal coup was to wrangle a business deal via a female investor to sleep with the 12 lead actresses, and all the female production staff, of a TV adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber, in exchange for an RMB800m finder's fee (imagine – or don't – Alistair Darling working his way through the entire crew of Downton Abbey).

The Chinese media has a euphemism for these affairs: they are "lifestyle" problems, adding up to around half the corruption exposures over the last two years.

But the government knows that's a dangerous game at play: the more it exposes and punishes extraordinary examples of sexual decadence, the more people wonder how much more debauchery among the political classes is being kept hidden.

The circular Beijing expressway known as the Third Ring Road (there are currently five in all, with a sixth in the works and more to come) began construction in earnest in the Eighties, but was only finished in 1994, and expanded for the Olympics.

Built as an urban congestion-killer in the vein of Greater London's M25, it succeeded for a while – before five million vehicle-owners sprouted up over two decades, and the circular became yet another log-jammed caterpillar of cursing cabbies and stagnant commuters.

As it skirts the big five-star hotels, motorists daily pass – but usually fail to see – a decaying sign by the Great Wall Sheraton for a once-legendary institution, Passion Club, or Tianshang Renjian ("Heaven on Earth") as patrons knew it. This now-defunct neon relic marks the grave of a quasi-criminal empire that few dare discuss since its 2010 demise.

For years, the 12,000sq m Passion Club offered everything from dining and hostessing to the most recondite of predilections – all pandering to the capital's elite at eye-popping prices.

With the public picking up the tab, and government officials the highest rollers, spending was rumoured to be staggering. A spat between legendary ex-owner Qin Hui and two senior police officers over an unpaid bill resulted in a Swat raid but Qin simply had the officers sacked and demoted.

Even the vicious, unsolved murder of the club's RMB5,000-a-night (according to the Beijing News – a conservative estimate) courtesan queen Liang Hailing, beaten and strangled to death in 2005, wasn't enough to stop the party.

Yet stop it did, most suddenly, after a new cop called Fu Zhenghua went gangbusters in 2010, taking down Passion along with a number of well-connected sexual establishments.

At the time, Fu's move was once described as "career suicide" by the South China Morning Post; he has since risen to become deputy minister of Public Security.

Still, away from the headlines, brass is still in business. Back in Dongguan, the "Sex Capital", tricks are turning again. Motorcycle riders stop in front of pedestrians with the usual enticements.

Money keeps rolling. The Passion Club has reopened in Beijing: same name, just a few doors down within the same hotel complex.

Business has never been better. The sex industry continues to exist below – or perhaps, above – the pseudo-moralistic realm of politics.

Just where all this leaves laobaixing – ordinary people in China – is another matter.

With material wealth so abundantly flaunted, and ideas about proprienty and hedonism so confused, Chinese citizens are left to search for existential satisfaction in a muddled world of opportunism and exploitation, one where morality – at least as it is preached in the West – is a secondary concern.

"If it makes me happy," so the Chinese expression goes, "then it's OK."
 

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