Chinas Female Private Eyes Go After Cheating Men

2006-03-15
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April 2004. Members of an all-women private detective agency in Chengdu. Photo: AFP

HONG KONG—China’s breakneck economic growth has seen a widespread resurgence of mistresses, long thought to have vanished along with bound feet and other mores of pre-1949 “old China.” Now Chinese wives are fighting back, using all-female private detective agencies.

The status of women as a group should be affirmed. How can they be protected?

One such agency, the Fire Phoenix, plies the streets of the northern city of Xian in search of paparazzi-style shots and other evidence, with which to confront men suspected of extramarital affairs.

Its team of middle-aged women offer their services free, because each was once a wife in the same situation as their clients.

“The emergence of this phenomenon shows that the concept of marriage and family in mainland China is undergoing a tremendous amount of change,” Cai Yongmei, executive editor of Hong Kong-based Open Magazine, told RFA’s Mandarin service.

“Cases of extramarital affairs, broken marriages, and divorce will be on the rise. It’s going to be a big social problem. A lot of people in the more affluent class are involved in some corrupt activities. In mainland China, most of the corrupt officials who have been exposed had done things like having mistresses or going to prostitutes in Southeast Asia,” Cai said.

Huge social changes

U.S.-based sociologist Liu Xiaozhu said the fault lies not just with corruption, which enables some officials to travel in limousines and keep strings of mistresses, but with social attitudes as a whole.

“It was a tradition in China for men to have many mistresses. Now the tradition has been resurrected,” she told RFA reporter Lin Ping. “It’s directly related to degenerating social norms and declining morality after economic development took off.”

Fire Phoenix’s founder Zhang Yufen founded the agency in 2003 after a woman she knew and her daughter committed suicide over the husband’s mistress.

She and staff members often use their own money to help clients, according to a report in the Law Weekly newspaper.

Zhang, whose business license was revoked after she ran up personal debts of 80,000 yuan (U.S. $9,940), called for legislation to punish those who keep mistresses. Mistresses who break apart marriages should receive legal punishment, not just a moral reprimand, the paper quoted her as saying.

Call for public debate

Liu said the issue of extramarital affairs should get more widespread public debate.

“The status of women as a group should be affirmed. How can they be protected? I think society first needs a stage for discussion.”

“Justice and the space for speaking out are especially inaccessible in China today. Even though in recent years some social problems are being discussed to a varying extent in different media, it’s not enough,” she said.

Such agencies are also subject to harassment from local officials none too keen to have their private lives uncovered by such zeal.

One all-women’s detective agency in the southwestern city of Chengdu was suspended after allegations that it was operating outside its business scope.

Another agency in Nanjing is up and running, but treading extremely carefully, local media reported.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Lin Ping. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Tony Young. Written and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Original reporting in Mandarin

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