WASHINGTON—Raunchy miniskirted girls in vans at a popular tourist spot, virgin college graduates selling themselves to government officials, and lonely peasant miners spending their last bit of cash on female company—the seamier side of urban life—came into focus during a recent on-air debate on the status of Chinese women.
"At the moment, in China, especially in the urban areas, more women are unemployed or have been laid off," a male caller from the eastern province of Anhui told a call-in discussion run by RFA's Mandarin service. "Fewer women are being employed in the workforce. Many of them make a living by picking up garbage, selling blood, or engaging in prostitution.”
Zhang Kangkang, the studio guest on RFA's Democracy Salon , might have expected to debate ideas in her book, Uproarious Woman , about women who face the challenges of mass layoffs and rapid social change by tapping into their creativity.
But she soon found herself locked in a heated debate about China's increasingly rampant sex industry with three male callers instead.
"I just want to talk about an experience five years ago... I went to Haining to watch the tidal bore," a caller from Shanghai told Zhang. "During my stay there, I constantly heard loud non-stop music... There was a huge van, with loud music. Girls would drag you into the van. They wore short skirts and were very flirty."
Zhang replied: "Who is watching these strip shows? Do these women simply perform for other women? Of course not. These types of sex services exist because there is a demand or need for these services."
"I think men need to take the blame. Sex services exist to satisfy the needs and demands of men," she said.
I think men need to take the blame. Sex services exist to satisfy the needs and demands of men.
Zhang said many women entered the sex industry out of poverty and lack of education, but increasingly also out of a desire to get rich quick.
"Some are forced to engage in prostitution out of the need to survive. Since they don’t have other skills and have to choose this trade to support their families. Most of these women come from the isolated, poverty-stricken regions," she said.
"However...many women take up the sex trade as an easy way out. They may see the sex industry as a highly profitable business. You don’t have to invest much, but you get a high return fast," Zhang added.
She said the sex trade had permeated every level of Chinese society, from high-class bars serving senior government officials to women in vans targeting migrant workers a long way from home.
"They are very lonely. For those who work inside the mines, they work in extreme isolated conditions. After work, they use the little money they have earned to find prostitutes to satisfy their physical needs," Zhang said.
When I have dinner or go to the bar, I myself will invite some girls for entertainment. It’s becoming very common in China.
"Men from every social class are using various levels of sex services."
A caller from northeast China, who identified himself by his surname Liu, freely admitted to using the services of bar-girls.
"When I have dinner or go to the bar, I myself will invite some girls for entertainment. It’s becoming very common in China," he said, adding that government officials were among the most reliable clients of the industry.
"Senior government officials look for high-quality girls. Most of them are college graduates. You have to pay between 1,000, or 1,500 to 2,000 yuan," Liu told RFA.
"They are young and pretty. If they are between the ages of 19 and 21, their price can be as high as 3,000 yuan (U.S.$362). If the girl is a virgin, the price can be as high as 5,000 yuan (U.S.$604)," he said.
Zhang said part of the problem was a lack of opportunity for women in the workplace in China—where many well-qualified female college graduates have difficulty finding work.
"They have a whole family to support, a family in the poverty-stricken regions. They want to change their living conditions and earn income fast. This is because poverty has been a long nightmare."
"At the moment, the whole of society is now calling for equal educational opportunities for girls, or vocational training for women. Otherwise, it will be harder and harder to find employment," Zhang said.
The World Health Organization estimates that six million mainland Chinese women engage in prostitution.
The Chinese authorities periodically order raids on the sex trade. From July 2004, they have closed hundreds of phone sex service stations, and launched a nationwide Internet pornography crackdown.
Occasional trials of criminal gangs and top-level officials profile human trafficking and prostitution rings in state media, but widespread corruption makes the problem a hard one to crack.
"Most of the bars, or bathhouses that offer sex services in China, are connected with the police, or members of branches of the judiciary," caller Liu from the northeast told RFA.
"All the bars or bathhouses that have connections with the public security bureaus hire prostitutes. It’s almost unimaginable to find one without prostitutes," he said.
"If there is going to be a crackdown, these bars and bathhouses will be notified beforehand. They will immediately disperse the prostitutes and their clients."
"If you don’t combine cleaning up vice with a crackdown on corruption, you will end up removing the symptoms without finding a cure," he said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Lin Yueyang. RFA Mandarin service director Jennifer Chou. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.