You are on page 1of 1

Saturday, January 13, 2018 A13

Agree or disagree with the opinions on this
page? Write to us at If
you have an idea for an opinion article,
email it to

China’s economy
is fuelling a boom
in prostitution
Lijia Zhang says the country’s
economic reforms have ushered in
opportunities but also gender
discrimination that is pushing more
vulnerable women into sex work

In our old family album, there was only one
photograph of my maternal grandma in her youth,
in which she looked like a film star with her silk
cheongsam and permed hair. Then, at her deathbed
in 1998, I learnt that my beloved grandma had been
a prostitute! As this shocking revelation sparked an
intense curiosity about prostitution, I started to see
prostitutes everywhere. In the glow of pink neon
lights, made-up women, their dresses as thin as
cicadas’ wings, operate from massage parlours, hair
salons or bathhouses, all fronts for brothels.
I decided to write a novel on prostitution in
China. For a while, I volunteered with an NGO for
female sex workers in Tianjin, a prosperous port city
south of Beijing, where I discovered how massive
the sex industry had become.
I blame China’s market economy for this
phenomenon because, in the process of China’s
transition from a planned to a market economy,
women have shouldered too much of the burden
and cost. This has driven some of the most
vulnerable women into the flesh trade as it presents

one of the few options they have.
Having gained power in 1949, the Chinese
Communist Party shut down the brothels and
declared the oldest human trade eradicated. In the
reform era, with growing wealth, relaxed social
controls and a large mobile population, the sex
industry has made a spectacular return –
underground, of course, as it is still illegal. And the
market economy has also placed women at a
disadvantage. The income gap between genders has
been widening. In 1990, urban women on average Paul Letters says sports facilities should be more flexible, to accommodate the varying needs of people with disabilities
earned 78 per cent of what men did; the figure today
has dropped to 67.3 per cent. Rural women fare even

worse at 65 per cent. rom Hong Kong’s 2017 World Track was an international footballer who took the initia- When I eventually spoke to their 2018 World Cup
The market economy has brought opportunities Cycling Championships through to the tive. Hong Kong striker Jaimes McKee interrupted his ticketing department (based in Manchester, UK), the
to women, particularly educated urban women, but Ashes, which concluded in Australia this pre-match warm-up to run over and find help for me. manager displayed all the flexibility of Javert, the
also setbacks. The traditional attitude of viewing week, the more progressive practices Maybe Lionel Messi has to do the same thing at the unforgiving and unrelenting police chief from Les
women as inferior to men, which had been around the world cater for spectators Nou Camp, but I doubt it. Misérables. Fifa’s website states one thing for the
repressed by Mao, has resurfaced with the with a variety of physical needs. Not every wheelchair Flexible seating can involve removable seating able-bodied – “you may apply for up to 4 Tickets per
economic reforms. Some companies set much user can transfer to a seat, but many would. Not every alongside a space for a wheelchair: if a wheelchair- Match” – and another for those with mobility issues,
higher recruiting standards for women, while others ambulant person can manage 20 or 30 stairs, but they bound individual has two or three family members where all references are to a solitary companion for
refuse to hire women of childbearing age. Female may well climb a couple of rows to sit with friends. A with them, then the appropriate number of seats will whom “the exact location of the seat cannot be guar-
university graduates are having a harder time separate “wheelchair row”, isolated from other spec- be placed next to them. This is what we experienced anteed”. We are a family of three, but there was no
finding employment whereas, in the past, the tators, is not ideal or necessary for everyone with at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in website option to request three tickets together
government allocated jobs to graduates regardless mobility issues. Like anybody else, we like to feel part London. (when one person was disabled). The only way out I
of their gender. When the ailing state-owned of the supporters rather than apart from them. Indi- Flexible seating can also mean that certain back could see was to designate two of us – myself and my
enterprises laid off workers to become more viduals need to be treated as such. Physical access or front row seats near a gangway are prioritised for able-bodied 8-year-old son – as disabled and then
competitive, women were always the first to go. within a venue and blue badge car parking are per- fans with limited mobility (we made use of this at inform Fifa (which I promptly did).
Lin Zhi, from Shenyang in China’s northern “rust haps the more obvious needs, but flexible ticketing Arsenal’s stadium). If not all of those seats sell out to A month after debiting my bank account for the
belt”, was sacked from her factory job in the early and seating strategies are also fundamental. supporters with special needs, they can be sold to three tickets, and weeks after we booked our flights to
1990s. It was almost impossible for an unskilled When attending football matches in the UK, as a other fans. Disabled fans can mix with the able-bod- Russia, Javert contacted me to accuse me of “misrep-
middle-aged woman to find employment, yet she blue badge holder, I can often reserve a parking space ied, as though we’re all part of the same species after resentation” and inform me that our tickets would be
had to support her two children and a husband who next to stadiums – or in the case of Arsenal’s Emirates removed. Fifa later declared that it’s “obvious” that
had lost a hand in a work accident. So she travelled Stadium, inside the bowels of the venue. they would sit a family together if they applied for
down to Tianjin where she found a job at a so-called Can you imagine blue badge parking at an three or four seats separately. I’m glad they do that,
bathhouse. Then, when she realised that her international sporting event in Hong Kong? Well, yes, but it flies in the face of what’s written on their web-
colleagues who provided sexual services could make
a lot more money, she followed suit.
actually. Perhaps not at Hong Kong or Mong Kok
stadiums, but at Tseung Kwan O’s world-class velo-
Hong Kong striker Jaimes site, which states they can’t guarantee that the seat of
the carer (my wife) would be next to the disabled
Unlike my grandmother, who was sold into drome, parking spaces for the disabled are readily McKee interrupted his ticket applicant – so what confidence could we have
prostitution, the vast majority of women enter the
trade of their own accord, but often driven by
The problem in Hong Kong is that to attain the
warm-up to find help for that a separate application for our 8-year-old son
would result in him being seated next to us? Confu-
desperate poverty or unfortunate circumstances: blue badge in the first place, the disabled person me. Maybe Lionel Messi sion and offence can be caused by unintentionally
being abandoned by their husbands, having lost must be the driver. Let that sink in. If your son/ discriminatory language on a website.
their jobs, falling seriously ill. Women serving the daughter/parent suffers from a disability that pre- has to do the same at the My wife unleashed Twitter. Within minutes, her
middle to low end of the market are typically rural,
uneducated and unskilled women, with a few laid-
vents them from driving, your family car will not
qualify for a blue badge. I’ve taught students who are
Nou Camp, but I doubt it message was retweeted to hundreds of thousands,
and she had all manner of MPs, VIPs and television
off workers. They make up the bulk of the never going to be able to use their limbs to drive – so presenters knocking at her virtual door. Fifa relented.
prostitution workforce. For some middle to high- their family’s need for an accessible parking space is all. For the Ashes in Perth, I was able to book seats for But they have not updated the language on their
end sex workers, prostitution is a lifestyle choice. far greater than mine (I’m fully functional but suffer the whole family within a couple of rows of a thor- website, which would put off many families with a
Aware that their chances of securing a high-paid job from chronic pain when walking more than a short oughfare where security staff maintained a sensibly disabled member from even applying for tickets.
are slim, a small but growing number of attractive distance). Yet they cannot park in blue badge bays, flexible attitude as to where I could leave my scooter. Sadly, Twitter gushed forth a litany of related
university students offer themselves as mistresses to whereas I, as a disabled driver, can. The less severe Much of the WACA stadium is well ramped, despite experiences that transcend sporting events, such as
rich and powerful men, commonly known as ernai your disability, the more help you get. Go figure. dating back to the 19th century. the woman who booked Ed Sheeran tickets at Man-
(second wife), effectively a modern-day concubine. Football matches at Mong Kok Stadium are prob- In Hong Kong, new buildings are legally obliged chester’s Etihad Stadium for their first family concert
No one knows the precise number of sex workers lematic. I’ve attended international games there with to include wheelchair access but old buildings – trip. They couldn’t sit together because one member
in China as the topic is too sensitive for academic family, and no seating area could be defined as acces- including sports stadiums, public schools and pri- is disabled. Indeed, as others tweeted, this is often
research. In 2013, the United Nations estimated sible: all seating is reached via a flight of steps. vate medical clinics – do not have to be adjusted. standard practice for concerts, shows and other
there were four to six million, citing police sources. The Hong Kong Football Association has boxed Well, we wouldn’t wish to inflict additional costs on events. One tweeter, Angela Kennedy, opined, “Cos
The consensus is that there are between four and 10 away the problem as “due to stadium design and property developers or a Hong Kong government disabled ppl aren’t allowed to enjoy things with
million sex workers in China. One thing is certain: limitation”. Furthermore, it was so unclear as to that perennially suffers a budget surplus in the tens of friends or family”.
prostitution has been on the rise in China since where a wheelchair user should park themselves that billions of dollars, would we? My experience is that sometimes we can – but it’s
1982, as described by Elaine Jeffrey in her book on my first visit, with the ground staff seemingly as It was clear that the WACA’s ticketing staff are a battle.
China, Sex and Prostitution. The sex industry has mystified to see me (in a mobility scooter) as I was to trained to be flexible over the phone, particularly
become an increasingly important part of the see such little accommodation for the disabled, it regarding seating arrangements. Not so at Fifa. Paul Letters is a novelist, journalist and historian
Chinese economy. In an article published in 2000,
Zhong Wei estimated that the sex trade contributes
about 6 per cent of the country’s gross domestic
product with annual consumption at 1 trillion yuan
(HK$1.21 trillion). He also estimates that there are 20
million sex workers in China. This is a clear
indication of growing gender inequality, accelerated
by the market economy. Many vulnerable women
Post-Brexit, can Britain face its imperial legacy?
bear the brunt of cold-hearted capitalism without David Winner says just under the surface of Brexit lurks lingering Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in fallen condition and look for scapegoats. In
seeing any of the benefits of socialism: the social Germany after the second world war. Unable politics, Brexiters blame “Brussels” for
safety net is so thin that it is all too easy for them to English nationalism that never came to terms with losing its empire to acknowledge the emotion they had invested Britain’s problems and denounce opponents
fall into prostitution. in their love of Hitler, a generation of Germans at home as “mutineers” and “enemies of the
My grandma was always grateful to Mao, mainly Why did Britain get itself into its Brexit mess? winning at sport demonstrated their struggled to escape his malign influence. people”. Such language is new in British
because she was upgraded from a concubine to a Immediate causes – miscalculation by former superiority as a people and justified their Likewise, Boyle argues, the English have politics. But it echoes a decades-old discourse
wife under the Communists “one wife” rule. She prime minister David Cameron over the 2016 global pre-eminence. been unable to recognise how much their in football where every failure of the England
would be horrified to hear that millions of women referendum, the influence of anti-European Britain’s geopolitical status and its society and values are products of the imperial team is treated as a “disgrace” and “national
are still doing the same job that she spent the rest of newspapers, and so on – are well known. footballing hegemony both faded in the 1950s. period “and have therefore been unable to humiliation”, and managers or star players are
her life repenting. But deeper cultural forces are also at work. As the empire fell, the team started losing to mourn the empire’s passing or to escape from vilified. David Beckham, for example, was
Emotionally underpinning the drive to leave foreigners, famously crushed 6-3 by Hungary the compulsion to recreate it”. hanged in effigy by fans after a defeat in 1998.
Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator the European Union is an English nationalism in 1953. Yet Britain never suffered a national The guiding fantasy of Brexit, asserted Managers are subjected to extraordinary
rooted in that rarely discussed trauma, the shock equivalent to the French defeat in despite all objective evidence to the contrary, is abuse when the team fails.
hangover of empire. The days when British Algeria. English exceptionalism survived intact that, freed from the “yoke” of the EU, “global Brexit has already produced a condition of
maps showed a quarter of the globe coloured and the country remained emotionally hard- Britain” will resume its rightful, natural place permanent political crisis and economic fear
pink have long gone, of course. But the English wired to expect supremacy. as a world power. This idea contradicts the in the once-stable and prosperous UK. No one
continue to feel their lost empire the way The English take a rose-tinted view of their pragmatic pro-EU policy of every pre-Theresa knows how the process will go or what it will do
amputees feel a vanished limb. history and never think much – or even know – May British government since the 1970s. But it to the country. A dwindling band of Brexit
This was rarely discussed directly in about repugnant aspects of empire. fits with the football fantasy, asserted despite optimists still think all will be well. Others
politics, but the condition (and its attendant What lingered instead was a vague sense of decades of results suggesting otherwise, that predict severe damage to the economy and
delusions and prejudices) festered for decades having lost something precious, of having the English national team can and must win Britain’s international standing, and even the
in the important and emotive symbolic realm been somehow cheated of their right to be the Fifa World Cup. (They did in 1966 but have break-up of the United Kingdom (Northern
of sport, especially football. champions on and off the field. reached just one semi-final since.) Ireland and Scotland voted to stay in the EU
Empire and football always went together. In 1962, Dean Acheson observed that the As with empire, there were obvious reasons and could end up leaving). But there may be a
The game was nurtured in the elite private British had “lost an empire but not yet found a why the footballers fell into the second rank: sliver of silver lining. If the shock persuades the
schools of Victorian England and still carries a role”. But the problem was worse: they lost the they were overtaken by other, bigger global British finally to look more honestly at their
stamp of its use as an educational tool for empire and never quite got over it. The players and became a respected, successful, history, it may not have been entirely in vain.
inculcating imperial values and “manliness”. syndrome is all the more powerful for being medium-sized power instead.
One key attitude concerned contempt for rarely, if ever, discussed. Historian Nicholas Many countries would be happy with that David Winner is the author of books on
A woman awaits customers from the doorway of a foreigners. The English didn’t just play the Boyle has likened the problem to the “inability but it gnaws at the nostalgic nationalists who culture and football including Those Feet:
neon-lit barber shop in Beijing in 2008. Photo: AFP game. They also had to be the best at it, for to mourn” identified by psychoanalysts cannot accept this supposedly humiliating, A Sensual History of English Football