China's freer market beckons old customer Prostitution's return met by tax collector

November 17, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HARBIN, China -- During the era of Mao Tse-tung, the Communist Party earned widespread praise for practically shutting down China's flourishing prostitution industry. But with today's freer economy, the sex trade's back, and some Chinese officials would rather tax it than fight it.

Since last year, at least 14 cities have begun taxing China's "san pei girls," young women who earn large sums for accompanying men in nightclubs and karaoke bars. For a higher fee, many of the women will sleep with their customers.

Local officials insist they are simply taxing a hugely profitable service industry. The women, however, complain that the new policy is grossly unfair: It requires them to pay taxes and still put up with police harassment, fines and even arrest.

"Society is hypocritical," says Zhang, a 23-year-old bar girl who works in this northeastern Chinese city of more than 5 million about 250 miles from the Russian border. "In law, we have obligations and rights. We pay tax, but we don't get any protection."

It is a measure of how much China's economy and moral standards have changed in the past two decades that some local officials have turned to taxing bar girls. After Mao came to power in 1949, the Communist Party sent tens of thousands of prostitutes to labor camps for retraining and shut down brothels in an effort to build a more principled society.

When Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, began developing a more market-oriented economy in the early 1980s, prostitution resurfaced and quickly spread. As the drive for wealth among Chinese has intensified and communist ideology has collapsed, prostitution has become increasingly acceptable and lucrative.

"In some poor areas, there is a popular saying: "Laugh at poverty, but not at prostitution," says Li Yinhe, a professor of sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "If some women go down to southern China, make a fortune as prostitutes and come back home, their friends will be envious."

One Sunday evening in Harbin, Zhang begins her first day on the job at the Zhong Da nightclub, which stands along a street lined with Russian colonial architecture in the center of town. Zhang, who asked that her full name not be used, sits in a room with more than 20 other women playing cards and mah-jongg.

Amid the clacking of plastic mah-jongg tiles and chatter, a customer enters. Some of the women giggle nervously. Zhang tries to hide her cigarette in her hand, so as to seem demure. She is tall and pretty -- nearly 5-foot-10 in platform shoes. She wears deep red lipstick. She looks a little embarrassed.

Once inside the darkened bar, she slides into a booth, places her hand on her customer's knee and begins to flirt. Over a glass of warm milk and the incongruous strains of Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair," Zhang explains the murky world the san pei.

San pei women -- the phrase literally means "three accompany" in Chinese -- are bar girls who earn money accompanying men as they drink, dance and sing karaoke songs. The woman are divided into two categories: those who "sit at the table" and chat with customers for tips ranging from $12 to $30 and those who "leave the table" and sleep with men for $60 to $180.

Under the new policy, Zhang must pay $36 each month to the local tax bureau, which issues her a certificate. At the same time, she tries to avoid police who might pick her up on suspicion of prostitution.

"If we are caught on the street with a tax certificate, we'll be fined, because that shows that we are 'san pei,' " she says. "So, normally, I keep my tax certificate at home."

Zhang, who owns a small flower shop, is saving to open a larger shop or clothing store. Earning up to $850 a month -- many times the average salary here -- she says she hopes to quit by the end of the year.

No one knows what percentage of bar girls are prostitutes. Zhang says that at the last club where she worked at least half were. She insists she has never slept with a client, but understands why some of her colleagues do.

"Many girls come to this business for various reasons," she says. "Some have losses in their own businesses. Some are poor. Some remain good."

About 300 miles south of Harbin lies the depressed, industrial city of Shenyang, one of the first to levy taxes on bar girls. In a roof-top, hotel nightclub amid hanging, colored lights sits Lu Yao, a friendly, 19-year-old bar girl and prostitute.

Lu charges $60 to $70 to sleep with clients. Of that, she must give $24 to her pimp, a burly male enforcer whom bar girls sometimes refer to by the Japanese expression "mama-san." The pimp then passes on about $10 to the tax bureau.

Lu says tax officials are strict. At the end of each month, they check into the hotel and watch security camera video tapes of the hallways to keep track of business. Lu says that some tax officials also sleep with the women, but still pay the regular rates.

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