Driving through the streets of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, in a fleet of blacked-out vehicles, the Women's Rights Protection Investigation Centre (WRPIC) metes out justice to wife beaters and errant husbands alike.

The only group of its kind in China, the mainly female investigators don dark glasses and carry telephoto lenses in their quest to help rid China of these increasingly prevalent social ills.

Currently in high demand, the centre is headed by Yan Guoqiong, a no-nonsense 38-year-old divorcee. 

In 1994, suspecting her own husband of infidelity, she began to track his movements. Eventually confirming her suspicions, she realised she had inadvertently found her calling.

Changing trends

With growing personal wealth, less restrictive living conditions and a more sexually open society, more men (and women) are straying from their marital bed.

Now fielding almost 30 investigators, some of whom are former clients, the WRPIC has been kept on its toes, handling over 1000 cases in the past two years alone.

"We started because we felt women's rights and family violence are not in a good condition... China has the laws but still many women do not have the necessary protection"

Yan Guoqiong,
head of WRPIC

Its spartanly decorated office boasts a single wall hanging, the company motto "Encourage Justice - Kill Marital Affairs", while atop each desk are their hotline phone numbers, one for domestic violence, the other for unfaithful spouses.

The WRPIC shows Aljazeera.net its latest case. Pulling up at an ordinary apartment block somewhere in the west of the city, Yan produces a file complete with Polaroid photos and police records.

"That is the target," she explains as she points to a photo of a middle-aged couple embracing in front of a Buddhist temple. The woman is his wife but suspects him of having an affair. She has done a little spying of her own and has discovered that he is renting a second apartment somewhere in this complex.

It is now the WRPIC's job to complete the jigsaw. By obtaining some eyewitness or photographic evidence that can then be used in court, the client can secure a better settlement when filing for divorce.

"We started because we felt women's rights and family violence are not in a good condition and this is detrimental to both the family and society," says Yan.

"China has the laws but still many women do not have the necessary protection. This centre was founded to offer that protection."

Legal grey area

The detectives operate in a grey area as China's estimated 1800 private-investigator groups have yet to be given a clear legal mandate. But the Chengdu police are apparently happy to offload these seemingly more menial tasks on someone like Yan.

Private investigators in China are
yet to get a clear legal mandate

Paradoxically, though, a perceived lack of legal support for women, especially those being physically abused, is one reason women have trouble speaking out, and end up going to the WRPIC for advice.

"It is difficult for women to speak out in China as we are traditionally very conservative. The question of preserving face is important to many people even if they are the victims, and they know that once they divorce it will be hard to find a new husband.

"Also, the police tend to treat family violence as being a domestic matter, unless it is very serious, of course," says Yan.

But at what point domestic violence becomes "serious" remains hard to define. Yan produces some pictures of a woman, her swollen head swathed in bandages, while her husband is being led away in handcuffs, as an example of a "serious" case.

The phenomenon is nothing new says Yan, who now spends much of her time travelling around the country attending conferences on the subject.

In one study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), one-third of Chinese women living with a partner were found to have been victims of domestic violence, a figure that CASS says is comparable with the global average.

Dangerous work

Run for profit, each WRPIC case takes about a week, involving a process of investigation followed by legal and medical consultation. Proof of a misdemeanour is necessary before an application for prosecution can be made to the courts.

"It is difficult for women to speak out in China as we are traditionally very conservative. The question of preserving face is important to many people even if
they are the victims"

Yan

Sometimes, says Yan, it can be dangerous work.

"We often get offensive phone calls from husbands or their male friends threatening us. Once, someone got out of their car and asked why we were following them, so we just pleaded ignorant and they went away," Yan said.

In the case of the temple couple, it looks as if they are in for a long stakeout.

After knocking on the door of the suspected love nest, the detectives found the birds had flown.

Opened by a sixty-year-old woman, the apartment's lease had apparently expired just two weeks before. The pair had moved on. "I did not think they were married though," said the apartment's latest tenant.

"Not to worry," said Yan. "We know where he works and we can follow him when he leaves the office at five."

He, and all the other errant Chengdu husbands, had better think twice before straying or beating their wives - or they may have to contend with the WRPIC.