ARUN RATH, HOST:
This is ALL THING CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
China's leader, Xi Jinping, has made a crackdown on corruption a centerpiece of his administration. He's vowed to root out corruption from the bottom to the top - or to use his expression, to go after the tigers as well as the flies.
When it comes to corrupt, high-ranking officials, there's a reliable source for tips - scorned mistresses. Some have even taken to shaming their lovers on social media, and the scandals have made international headlines. That got us wondering, who are these women? It turns out there's a whole mistress culture in China. These young women are professionals. Some get a very handsome salary for what they do.
According to reporter James Palmer, if high-rolling businessmen and government officials don't have a mistress, they don't get respect. Palmer lives in Beijing, and has written about mistress culture in China. He says it's like the Mafia culture portrayed in "Goodfellas:" Saturday nights are for wives, but Friday nights are for mistresses.
JAMES PALMER: You have events for your wives, but you also have these events where you're expected to bring a woman. And if you don't bring a woman, you're seen as not being a real man. And what begins as a commercial-sexual relationship transitions into what the men see as an emotional one. And the women, I think, sometimes they see it as purely business. Sometimes, it takes on emotional meaning for them too.
RATH: Give us some historical context here. How did keeping a mistress become commonplace?
PALMER: Traditionally, China, of course, had vast forms of polygamy. You could have multiple wives, and you expected, at a certain level, to have multiple wives. So in some ways, this is mirroring traditional Chinese habits. In others, it's just that when you get powerful men in a patriarchal society, they're going to set up women of their own.
RATH: Anthropologist Tiantian Zheng knows firsthand what women go through to become mistresses. She spent two years studying sex workers in China. To gain their trust, she herself worked as a hostess in karaoke bars, which in this context are, essentially, brothels. Zheng didn't offer sexual services to clients, but the other hostesses did.
TIANTIAN ZHENG: In the hostessing world, being a mistress is one step up. It's one of the dreams, for many of the hostesses, to be kept as mistresses. So at the first meeting, usually, in the karaoke bars, the women would try all kinds of activities to achieve immediate intimacy. For instance, they will sing romantic songs. They will touch the man - back and chest - resting their heads on the man's shoulders, sing songs when gazing at the man's eyes. They will sit on the laps of the man, and so on and so forth. And it was very common that the regular clients would propose keeping them as mistresses.
RATH: Zheng told me that for these women, hostessing was a way out of the bottom rung of society. And becoming a mistress is a ticket to the top.
ZHENG: Usually, the clients were responsible for all of the women's living expenses, entertainment fees and amenities, and plus a handsome monthly amount that the woman could put into her own bank account.
RATH: Mistresses can make a ton of money. Zheng encountered mistresses who owned businesses, multiple homes and various investments. But it's still sex work; and women working in karaoke bars have to deal with police raids, gangsters, abusive clients, and the daily threat of assault. Zheng said the hostesses in karaoke bars come from rural areas, where life is rough to begin with.
ZHENG: These are rural women, and they came from the countryside into the city looking for jobs because of the intolerable poverty that was engendered by the decades of biased government policies against rural people.
RATH: The policy Zheng is talking about is the household registration system. It basically makes rural migrants into second-class citizens in the city.
ZHENG: Without urban resident permits, rural migrants are denied subsidized housing, health care, employment, children's education, and other benefits that are only associated with urban residents' permits. The women that I studied with, they had to pay monthly fees just to be able to reside in the city temporarily and legally. Almost every hostess in my research, they started out kind of at the bottom rung of society. So among the jobs available to them, the hostessing kind of offer opportunity for them to escape.
RATH: You've talked about some women, they're doing fairly well financially. They're able to take care of themselves and their families, and run their own lives. But how typical is that? How much are these women empowered, or how much are they just being exploited?
ZHENG: The reality is, it's a murky relationship. It's not pure empowerment, and it's not pure victimization or exploitation. It's somewhere in between. I have to caution people against thinking that's in extremely black-and-white terms because for the women, their previous life as domestic workers, as waitresses, the men could use their body freely and can rape them anytime they wanted. But sex work gave the women power. The women could sit there; and the men have to pay just to see them, just to look at them, just to sit next to them. That's a lot of power.
RATH: But the public scandals involving mistresses have made for bad press, and James Palmer says some in power are trying to portray mistress culture as a cause of corruption rather than a symptom.
PALMER: The government has pinned its image on being anti-corruption, and anti-corruption is linked to the idea of cracking down on vice, cracking down on drinking and gambling and sex work. And the government tries quite hard to push the idea that the mistresses cause the corruption rather than that the corruption causes the mistresses.
RATH: Has that notion taken hold, you know, among typical people in China?
PALMER: I don't think it has, no. And I think fundamentally, the public understands that this is a distraction, and that the officials are the ones who are powering the mistress economy in the first place.
RATH: But Palmer is quick to point out that the anti-vice crackdown has focused on poor and seedy red light districts - the street-working prostitutes, not the higher-class karaoke hostesses or the mistresses living in luxury apartments.
James Palmer lives in Beijing. You can read his article online at Aeon Magazine. Tiantian Zheng's book about the women in karaoke bars is called "Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China."
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