Mistresses a must-have for China's elite

The rich and powerful are flouting laws about marriage and parenthood in a return to a pre-revolutionary tradition of taking a lover. Hannah Gardner reports from Beijing

In Shenzhen, a troupe of young artists dressed as mistresses and as a corrupt official to speak out against corruption and the decadent behaviour of officials. Imaginechina via AP Images
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BEIJING // As someone in the jewellery business, Mr Huang knows all about beautiful luxuries: the way they excite, the envy they invoke and, most of all, the feeling of power and success that they bring.

Now the 37-year-old wants the latest luxury status symbol for wealthy men: Mr Huang is looking for a mistress.

"160 to 170 centimetres tall, beautiful and sexy, with a brain", writes Mr Huang of his would be-lover in an ad on website Baoyang.cn.

The position would come with a salary of 100,000 yuan (Dh58,900) a month and a car, he says.

On the same website - its name means simply "to keep a mistress" - hundreds of women also post messages every day offering their services.

It seems it will not take long for Mr Huang to find, as he puts it, "the right candidate".

As the China's ruling Communist party has loosened the social and economic reins over the past 30 years, many men with wealth or power have re-embraced the pre-revolutionary practice of keeping a mistress, or mistresses, as sign of power and status.

"Among men of a certain status it is the norm, not the exception now," says Li Yinhe, a sexologist at China's Academy of Social Sciences.

"They think of it as a tradition, like an emperor keeping concubines," she said

One recent academic report found that of the officials found guilty of corruption last year, 95 per cent kept mistresses, including one member of the Land and Resources Department in the southern province of Guangdong who kept 47 of them.

And this year promises to yield similarly shocking examples, as China's new leaders begin to fulfil their promise to crack down on the corruption that plagues the Communist Party's ranks and threatens its hold on power.

Already, the head of the party's powerful central compilation and translation bureau, Yi Junqin, has been fired after his former mistress posted an account of their affair online, and last week Huang Haiqiu, a politician from the northern province of Liaoning, was found to be cohabiting with five women who had borne him six children - a violation both of China's marriage law and one-child policy.

Sociologists see the boom in mistresses as a result, in part, of China's increased wealth - even at the height of the last imperial dynasty only a small fraction of men could afford to support a second wife or lover. Mistresses were dubbed "er'nai", or second breast, a label that has stuck to this day.

But the phenomenon is also a result of rising inequality and the fact that men still largely hold the reins of power in China.

"China is still a patriarchal society. A lot of girls still think the only way they can get anywhere is to find a powerful man," says Prof Li.

That is borne out by many of the ads from women on Baoyang.cn.

"I love wearing costumes, I love everything that's pretty, I want a man who can improve my life, I want a better life than I have now," writes one girl who identifies herself as "student from Nanning" in southern China.

Another writes: "I have always wanted to travel but nobody finances me. While I am still young I can come to your city and we can have fun. I want 6000 rmb a month."

Many ask for much more. A mistress with a degree from one of the top universities in Beijing or Shanghai will cost tens of thousands of yuan every month, as Mr Huaung's ad with its request for an intelligent mistress illustrates.

"These women already have a good life and good earning potential but they can't afford the designer clothes and bags that they aspire to, so they find lovers to foot the bill," says Fei Yang, who runs a so-called anti-mistress course designed to encourage women to earn their own money and start their own businesses.

But beyond the monthly stipend, these liaisons also offer the possibility of connections that, if well managed, may set a woman up for life.

In this respect 50-year-old Li Wei is the ultimate role model. Known as the Queen of Mistresses, Ms Li came to China from Vietnam as a child refugee.

A plain-looking woman, she used her quick wit and natural intelligence to seduce a series of officials, starting with a member of the local Tobacco Bureau in the southern province of Yunnan and ending with Chen Tonghai, the chief of the state-owned oil and refining giant, Sinopec.

Along the way, many of her lovers were charged with corruption, but she managed to escape prosecution - and keep the billion-dollar fortune she had amassed - by agreeing to testify against them.

In 2011 she told her story to the Chinese magazine Caijing and immediately became something of a folk hero among women.

As many remarked at the time: "Laugh at the poor, not at the whore."