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Some call Shenyang 'the city of sex'. It has 5,225 'places of entertainment' - saunas, massage parlours, dance halls and nightclubs - for its six million people, more than Beijing, which has double the population. Shenyang, in China's northeast province of Liaoning, also has an estimated 100,000 prostitutes, more than any other city in the country.
The heart of the city of sex is 'Camp David', a three-storey building with a floor area of 10,000 square metres, providing tea shops, billiards, bowling, restaurants, dance halls, massages, karaoke, saunas, baths - and the best looking, professional and most expensive ladies in town.
It is built on land that belongs to the army, is next door to a military club and military theatre and is about 100 metres from the city's main police station. But it has experienced difficulties since Beijing launched a three-month 'strike hard' campaign on July 1 against drugs, gambling and prostitution. 'Business is suffering,' says the telephone operator at Camp David. 'We have been unable to provide ladies since the start of the campaign. But you can enjoy our other services - a sauna for 80 yuan [about HK$75] and 680 yuan for a karaoke room from six until two in the morning.'
How about October, when the campaign is due to end? 'We cannot promise anything. The crackdown is tough this year.'
Camp David is the tip of the iceberg of the mainland's fastest-growing and most-profitable industry: the sex business. It was one of the darkest episodes of the Deng Xiaoping era, as told in a detailed expose by the China News Weekly.
According to official figures, police nationwide detained 450,000 prostitutes, clients and pimps last year, 75 times the 6,000 detained in 1984. Unofficial estimates put the annual turnover of the entertainment business at 300 billion yuan, about 10 per cent of total consumer spending.
The mainland has 330,700 'places of entertainment' registered with the National Industrial and Commercial Bureau. Nearly 10 million prostitutes, full- or part-time, work in them, according to the China Sex Study Society.
Male guests at hotels are routinely called late in the evening and asked if they would like a companion for the night. Men who go to have their hair cut at barber shops are offered 'additional services', for 100 yuan or less. For migrant workers on building sites who can only go home once a year, the price is as low as 20 yuan.
Most prostitutes are peasant girls with no more than primary school education, below the age of 25, and some as young as 14. Many of them are tricked by brokers with the promise of well-paid jobs in rich coastal cities. Others are kidnapped and forced to enter the business.
But its high rewards also attract the well educated. In a case that stunned Beijing, an attractive 29-year-old university graduate named Liu Chunyang was sentenced to death in June for running a brothel in the up-market Asian Games Village area of the capital. She graduated from a top university in northeast China and received awards as an exemplary worker in her factory. But the wages were too low. She became a model, a rich man's mistress, and in March last year paid 576,000 yuan to rent a well-appointed apartment for a year and hired more than 10 prostitutes.
Her operation was secretive and professional. She only allowed members to enter her establishment. Before arriving, they had to ring with the number of their membership card and car and be met. She also provided drivers to bring women to and from work. On good days, takings were between 50,000 and 100,000 yuan.
'Competition between establishments to attract business is fierce,' says Shan Guangnai, a specialist in the sex business at the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 'They bring in new techniques from the West or classical Chinese literature to attract clients. The competition is as fierce as in the rest of the economy.
'It is the most profitable industry in China. In Beijing, you pay 100 yuan for a girl to drink with you and 1,000 to spend the night together. For those at the top of the market, it could be 10,000 yuan a night.'
The business has become highly organised and international. Prostitutes are exported from the mainland to Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, South Korea and Japan and imported to the mainland from Mongolia, Vietnam and Russia.
Prostitution has moved from dirty huts in the suburbs to the flashiest spots in the city centre, from underground to semi-public, with the acquiescence in many places of police and local authorities, who see it as a way to attract investors and extort money from the operators.
'The sex industry is no longer a simple matter of 'buy and sell',' says a recent report by the All-China Women's Federation. 'It has penetrated into all sectors of society and is very hard to root out. Banning it or conducting campaigns against it do not work.'
For elderly Chinese, the spread of the world's oldest profession is one of the biggest tragedies of the post-communist era.
They remember how, after taking power in 1949, the Communist Party embarked on a systematic campaign against prostitution, closing brothels, imprisoning the operators and putting the women into re-education centres where they learned how to do other work to support themselves when they were released.
By the mid-1950s, the party boasted it had eradicated prostitution, a claim most people accept. 'It destroyed the system,' the Institute of Sociology's Shan Guangnai says. 'It was a great achievement.'
The business made its comeback in the early 1980s, initially catering to customers from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere. Most Chinese men, working in the same factory or company their whole life, did not dare risk dismissal by visiting a prostitute.
But as the coastal areas grew wealthy, attitudes changed. A night out with a female escort became the norm for wealthy businessmen and the officials and clients they entertained. People started to change jobs and leave their home town, so the old social constraints no longer existed.
The gap between the rich coastal areas and the poor interior widened, attracting thousands of women to Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Xiamen and Shanghai in search of quick money.
The re-education centres for prostitutes re-opened. In 1990-92, there were 10,000 to 20,000 inmates. This year there are 40,000 in 183 centres, where the women serve terms of between one and 24 months.
In a survey of 50 women in one re-education centre, 59.5 per cent said they had turned to prostitution because of poverty, 19 per cent said they were forced into the trade, 21.4 per cent wanted to take vengeance on men and 7.2 per cent did it out of curiosity. None said they enjoyed it, while 42.9 per cent said they had sex up to seven times a night; 23.8 per cent said they had been sexually abused and 80 per cent said they had a sexually transmitted disease.
For the Government, the most ominous reason for the boom is the involvement of officials and police in the role of clients and beneficiaries. Prostitution is banned and almost no one proposes legalising it, except for some in the medical profession who treat Aids and other sex-related diseases. They argue that it is almost impossible to combat disease outbreaks as long as the sex industry remains underground. So each year police conduct campaigns, involving thousands of officers, which fine men, arrest women and close establishments.
Raids unearth the most unlikely people. In Liu Chunyang's brothel in Beijing, clients arrested included the deputy planning chief of Chongqing city and two law-enforcement officers. In June 1996, police in the eastern port city of Qingdao found 16 people involved in a mass sex session, including members of the local parliament, the city's chief procurator, deputy judge, the city police chief and his deputy, the chief of the frontier police, detectives and the city's deputy trade-union leader.
When police last year investigated Li Chenglong, ex-mayor of Yulin city in the southwest region of Guangxi, they broke open his safe to find bonds and paper totalling 15 million yuan and 10 envelopes full of photographs of women.
Shi Quanzhi, ex-head of the Transport Bureau of Chengdu city, paid 40,000 yuan to 'buy' a 19-year-old masseuse from a beauty salon and then gave her one million yuan to set up her own massage parlour.
In many cities, the police give protection to brothels in exchange for money, and in some cases, invest in them directly through subsidiary companies that belong to the police or army. Such establishments are seen as the most secure and least likely to be raided.
Mark O'Neill is a member of the Post's Beijing bureau
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Last updated: October 12, 2010