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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

Neither Shenyang nor Harbin officials would comment for this article. Shenyang taxes 10,000 bar girls. During one six-month period, the tax bureau brought in nearly $1 million, according to the newspaper China Women's News.

Shenyang and Harbin have thousands of nightclubs and bars. They range from well-lighted, upscale places with names like "Famous Models" to seedy, hole-in-the-wall joints where the foyers are bathed in red light and the women live dormitory-style -- forbidden to leave except for a few hours each day.

Down narrow hallways, customers can retire with women to private rooms with sofas, fruit trays and karaoke machines as the neon "KTV" signs outside indicate. At some hotels, prostitutes blindly dial rooms at night trolling for customers.

Shenyang officials say that taxation does not equal approval.

"Don't mingle the issue of illegal service with the tax certificate," a city official was quoted as saying last year in the Liaoning Evening News, the provincial newspaper. "Issuing a tax certificate is only to strengthen the regulation of personal income."

Prostitution is often called a victimless crime, but that doesn't seem to be the case in China.

In the past three years, 90 prostitutes have been killed in Shenyang, often for their money or in disputes with pimps. In one instance, several men tried to recoup business losses by robbing and killing three bar girls and disposing of their corpses with hydrochloric acid.

China Women's News recently reported that at least 15 women around the country had jumped out of windows in the past two years to avoid being forced to work as prostitutes. Two died. Eleven were paralyzed.

While AIDS rates in China have not reached the levels of some other Asian nations such as Thailand, Chinese health officials say the disease is spreading rapidly. Lu says she almost always requires her customers to use condoms, but on at least two occasions she has not because they refused.

"Yeah, I'm worried," she says, sitting at a table by candle-light overlooking the city. "But when you come to the moment, you really want the money, so you do it."

Lu says that she sometimes becomes emotionally involved with customers. Last month, she saw a Taiwanese businessman off at the airport. She spent four weeks living with an American, for whom she cooked and cleaned.

"I wish I could have a long-term relationship with a customer," she says wistfully, "but people who come here to [have sex] with us never want to have a long-term relationship."

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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