Zhang Yufen set up the Fire Phoenix all-female detective agency in the northern Chinese city of Xian in 2003, helping wronged wives find proof that their husbands—officials in China's ruling Communist Party and government—had taken up with mistresses amid a widespread resurgence of the phenomenon. But her agency, whose private eyes once trod the streets of Chinese cities in search of clinching proof of marital infidelity, has long been the target of official harassment. As Zhang told RFA's Mandarin Service in a recent interview, it has been forced to offer advice and counseling by phone through new regulations forbidding private detective agencies:
The whole reason I'm not doing it any more is that it's been forbidden by the government. But if I do it, it's just a one-off collaboration to help people who get involved in such things and ask me to help. I don't charge any kind of fee. I just do it out of a sense of injustice, because I've been through the same sort of experience myself. I still get very angry when I come across this sort of situation, because ... it's really hard on the victims.
In China ... it was traditional in the past for women to give up any sense of themselves when they get married. It's not like overseas, where they maintain a sense of independence. They are expected to give up their careers to take care of the children when they get married. This applies more to women who married in the 1950s and 1960s. Those who got married [later] are a bit more independent.
Divorce can be harmful for the children, and there's not much financial loss involved. Overseas, if somebody commits adultery and there's a divorce, the woman gets half of the property. But in China, often high-ranking officials can transfer the property [so the woman can't get it]. The maintenance payments are the same [as overseas], but often they don't pay them, and the woman can't do anything about it.
It's not just the women. The men call me up for help too. They can be victims as well. And some women misbehave, and their men are hurt by it.
Sometimes [wronged spouses] will ask ourselves if we did something wrong, or if we didn't do enough. But this is a development within society as a whole.
There's a saying that goes 'don't rely on heaven or earth, but rely on yourself'. That's all people can do.
I had one client whose husband was a judge, and had a good understanding of the law. So his response to her [accusations] was, 'OK, so let's see the evidence.' So we collected a whole heap of evidence, only to be told that it didn't count as evidence. In the end, neither her husband nor the other woman was punished in any way.
You have to get the evidence. The facts. But sometimes you do that and then they tell you that these things don't constitute evidence. There's nothing you can do about a lot things.
Chinese people are very clever and they know how to skirt around the edge of the law. And there's a law in China that if you don't catch people in flagrante delicto, that it doesn't count. But how are you supposed to do that? It's very difficult indeed.
Women, in trying to protect are own interests, are also running risks, because doing this is on the edge of the law. [That's why] we're not taking on any more cases, but just offering advice and counseling over the telephone to people in this situation.
We get a lot of calls. They keep coming in, one after the other. People often find it hard to talk to their families or their friends about this sort of thing, and perhaps these phone calls are the only ... chance they have to unburden themselves. We will carry on doing this.
To mistresses, I would say, make sure that your happiness doesn't come at the price of someone else's misery.
To wronged spouses, I would say, be strong and live a good life. That's why we have to stand together and be strong, whether it's the husband or the wife that has this problem. We have to be strong, and get through it. There is room for everyone on this earth.
Reported by Han Qing for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie.