Beijing, China - Chinese history abounds with concubines, many of whom commanded significant influence in the political life of past empires. But the Communist followers of Mao Zedong (1949-76) banished every sign of sexuality and individual desire that were seen as "bourgeois indulgence".
Things have changed, and sexuality has now taken centre stage with the Party using mistresses and sex scandals as political tools. Even wives of officials, with their jealousies and hatred towards mistresses and hostesses of karaoke parlors, are anti-corruption tools.
Two recent incidents highlight the change of mood. One involves a Communist leader punished for raping 10 underage girls during official interrogations. But global attention is riveted on the ongoing political thriller concerning the one-time party strongman, Bo Xilai, who has now been accused of paying a world-famous movie actress for sex.
Herein, lies an almost Shakespearean tale: Bo made his political bones as governor and party chief in the cities of Dalian and Chongqing using many of the Mao-era slogans and methods. He knocked down brothels, jailed corrupt officials known for keeping mistresses and ran a campaign against moral decay brought about by China's recent forays into capitalism.
The allegations came in a report in a Hong Kong-based daily, which said he paid the famous film star Zhang Ziyi $1m to have sex with him each time for 10 times between 2007 and 2011. Few in China believed the charges because Zhang, 33, is rich and famous after the success of foreign blockbusters, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Rush Hour; and Memoirs of a Geisha.
But Zhang went on to deny the charges, and announced she was planning legal action against the publication.
"This 'news' is a complete lie. Both within the article and between the lines, there were contemptuous lies," she said, according to Chinese media reports. "Whatever the cost, I will seek legal recourse and pursue this matter to the very end," she said while attending a China film awards event in Haikou, the capital of Hainan province, on May 31.
For Bo to be charged of the same excesses he opposed is not just a case of crowning irony. There could be one of two reasons: he was a victim of a tense power struggle ahead of the country's change of guard in late 2012, or he merely slipped and lost his way into the mire of greed, lust, and arrogance.
"When China opened its doors to international markets in early 1980s, it inadvertently let in another phenomenon - the West's sexual culture," wrote sociologist and China specialist, Amy Braverman.
This may seem obvious to anyone walking through the streets of any of the several thousand Chinese cities and towns filled with sex-related facilities: massage shops, hair-dressers offering sexual services, dance halls where visitors do not bring their spouses, karaoke clubs, shops filled with sex toys, and, of course, outright prostitution joints.
What remains invisible are apartments and houses given to young "erni" - "second wives" in Chinese - by aging "sugar daddies". Entire residential colonies filled with "comfort women" have cropped up in outskirts of cities like Shenzhen. Contrast this situation with the 1950 Marriage Law, which outlawed the practice of keeping concubines.
|Actress Zhang Ziyi has denied allegations that disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai paid her for sex [Getty Images]
"Politicians and wealthy businessmen usually bring beautiful girls as status symbol. Some of these girls are called secretaries in public. They seem to have a lot of influence with the powerful man," a restaurant manager told this correspondent.
Now, with the official media being encouraged to expose corruption, a lot of bedroom secrets are tumbling out. Neglected mistresses are coming out with murky details that officials share with them during nightly adventures, often with the encouragement of anti-corruption investigators.
"For anti-corruption investigators, mistresses often provide the breakthrough evidence," says Li Chengyan, a Peking University professor engaged in research on the whistle-blowing role of the so-called "kept" women.
Here are some examples.
- The government last month jailed former railway minister Liu Zhijun for accepting kickbacks on purchase deals. Somehow, a directive sent to newspapers by the Party's Central Propaganda Bureau was leaked. It said: "All media are not to report or hype the news that Liu Zhijun had 18 mistresses."
- Liu Zhihua, former vice mayor of Beijing, was accused of taking bribes worth $1.1m during the construction of stadiums and facilities for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. His mistress Wang Jianrui acted as conduit for channeling nearly 80 per cent of the bribes.
- A senior navy officer was sentenced to death some years back after one of his mistresses, who bore him a baby, exposed his corrupt practices. Jiang, the mistress, wrote 58 letters to higher officials exposing the misdeeds of Wang Shouye, former Deputy Commander of the Chinese Navy, after he refused to pay the mother of his child support money. Wang later got a reprieve from execution from the court after he confessed his crimes and offered to help investigators with their work.
- Wang Jiping, the former director of the Beijing local taxation bureau, was exposed after the mistresses of his deputy passed on information of wrongdoings by both Wang and a subordinate.
- Xu Maiyong, the former vice mayor of the capital of Zhejiang Province, Hangzhou, was executed for bribery and embezzlement worth more than $30m. The local media nicknamed him "Plenty Xu", saying he kept several mistresses.
It is tempting to declare the emerging culture as a result of the capitalist path chosen by China, and the subsequent wealth generation. But there are other dimensions to the changes taking place in the traditionally puritan Confucian culture in China.
Having beautiful mistresses, and showing them off, evokes more jealousies in the public than amassing riches.
Pan Suiming, director of research on sexuality and gender at Renmin University in Beijing, sees the situation differently. He says the government's push for the one-child policy and use of contraception is what advanced the idea of non-productive sex and sex for leisure.
For the top leaders, the most important issue is how ordinary people view the extravagant lifestyle of the rich and politically powerful.
Having beautiful mistresses, and showing them off, evokes more jealousies in the public than amassing riches. The public outcry against what is seen as a corrupt and reckless lifestyle has been too strong for the government to ignore.
Even the country's Supreme Court was forced to reinterpret the Marriage Law to protect legally wedded wives from the property claims made by mistresses. The court ruled that a mistress has no right to demand compensation or claim title over property even if her secret lover had promised to reward her.
"This issue about the third party is addressed by law for the first time, and it aims to safeguard the sanctity of marriage," Li Hongxiang, a professor at the School of Law at Jilin University, said.
An anti-mistresses club came up soon afterwards last year. The fact that the official media gave it publicity suggests the secret hand trying to encourage a new trend among wives of officials, and perhaps cause a rift between legally wedded wives and "second wives".
"It is a campaign for women's rights," Jiang Yue, a law school professor with the Xiamen University, told the local media. "The association provides a place where women suffering from their husbands' infidelity can help and console each other," she said.
Many in China regard Hu Jintao, the general secretary of the Communist Party of China and the country's president, as a bit prudish and uneasy with the system of second wives. This was evident early on in his regime in 2006, when anti-corruption investigators began listening to revelations of corruption made by mistresses.
But later years showed a rising trend of officials keeping mistresses, and getting into divorce suits with their wives on the issues of infidelity and division of property. He was clearly not able to grapple with the trend brought about by the massive growth of wealth generated in China, and businessmen falling over each other to support the second wives of officials in return for favours.
The trend apparently caused a lot of heart burning in China, if one goes by the thousands of Internet postings by ordinary people linking corruption with keeping mistresses. This is why Bo Xilai, the Chongqing governor, managed to strike a chord when he criticised the new ways of wealthy businessmen and officials and called on the people to return to the old ways preached by Mao, analysts say.
“Bo became very popular after a harsh anti-crime crackdown in a city notorious for powerful organised crime syndicates,” a China specialist, Rogier Creemers, wrote in an article published on a website run by the University of Oxford. "He further consolidated his popularity by embarking on ambitious social projects, including housing and health care, and by launching a ‘Red Culture’ campaign, where he tried to reinvigorate traditional Communist virtues,” the Oxford scholar wrote.
He further consolidated his popularity by embarking on ambitious social projects, including housing and health care, and by launching a "Red Culture" campaign, where he tried to reinvigorate traditional Communist virtues.
Bo was due to be taken in as one of the nine-member party politburo standing committee, which is due to replace the old members completing their term of office in 2012, according to the Communist Party's mouthpieces. But his ambition hit a wall when the party held him responsible for serious discipline violations last March and sacked him from the governorship.
He was initially charged with corruption. Investigators later arrested his wife, saying she was involved in the killing of a British national. The latest allegation about Bo paying for sex with a famous actress is bound to strengthen the case against him.
The point is not whether or not Bo should be blamed for sexual adventurism. That is for the courts to decide at a later date. What the incident shows is that the government and the party have found sexual permissiveness to be a ready and useful hook for nailing officials, many of whom have already been prosecuted on the score.