By Markus Pohlmann
The anti-corruption campaign in China today has many faces. One is that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is now putting in crosshairs some of its officials’ beloved playthings, which are also cultivated by the state’s economic leaders and managers. One eminent victim is the practice of concubinage among high-ranking officials as well as senior managers of state-owned enterprises (SoEs). Whoever believes that concubines were part of China’s feudal past is wrong. Although concubinage was outlawed in China in 1950 when the first Marriage Law took effect, ‘secondary wives’ are part of everyday lives of many high-ranking officials and senior managers in contemporary Communist China. Polygamy, particularly polygyny, has a history of millennia in China. Despite its legal prohibition, the tradition itself remains in good order. Some ethnic minorities in mainland China, as well as residents in Hong Kong and Macao, have practiced it rather uninterruptedly. For example, Stanley Ho, the 95-year-old billionaire casino baron from Macau, maintains intimate relations and fathers children with four women at the same time. Since the 1980s, many Hongkongese have had concubines in nearby Shenzhen and Dongguan.
A widely practiced custom in some quarters of society
Now this custom has re-established itself in the mainland and is de facto widely practiced in some quarters of society. Many SoE managers have wasted no time following the lead of their private-sector counterparts in having one or more concubines. For example, Lin Song, top manager of the state-owned Fortune-500 behemoth China Resources (Holdings) Co., Ltd. (better known as Hua’run in Chinese), was accused of money laundering with the help of his concubines. The famous private entrepreneur Shiyi Pan of SOHO China also succumbed, when an illegitimate child he had out of wedlock came to light and placed him in the eye of a storm of public scandal. ‘Mistress Villages’ are an excess of this ‘concubine culture’ Chinese managers and officials have helped to foster. In the suburb of Chinese metropolis or even in places as far afield as the US, settlements for the secondary wives of Chinese elites have quietly emerged, where Chinese managers and officials rent or purchase houses and luxury apartments for their concubines. Arcadia and Rowland Heights in California, in particular, are widely regarded as ‘Mistress Villages’, as more and more rich Chinese entrepreneurs, managers and functionaries have resettled there not only with their families, but also their concubines.
With the end of Cultural Revolution and the transition to a ‘socialist market economy’ in China, the ‘concubine culture’ of Chinese elites regained momentum. First, draconian sanctions were withdrawn and social tolerance increased – partly due to the role-model set up by successful businessmen from Hong Kong and Macau. The fashion of keeping mistresses has consequently been able to spread nationwide since the 1990s. Having concubines has once again become a powerful symbol of the social status of government officials and state economic leaders who are mostly party members. Yang Feng, a former deputy party secretary of Xuancheng, a prefecture-level city in southeastern China’s Anhui Province, had by the official account seven mistresses. In order to avoid conflict between the women and to harmonize the relations with them, he assigned his first concubine, Ms. Zhou, with the human resource management function to lead the other six concubines efficiently. Ms Zhou then gave them different roles, in accordance with her assessment of their character traits. Subsequently some even took over the task of fostering relations with various top-ranking officials in the city, others in charge of running businesses. According to official sources, Qiyao Xu, the former head of the construction department of Jiangsu Province, has decorated himself with more than 140 mistresses. Weizhi Jin, a former CEO of the state-owned Nanjing Dairy Products Group Co., dissented: ‘Who, among cadres with the same rank as mine, does not have a few mistresses? It is not just a physiological need, but also a symbol of social status, for without a mistress one loses his face.’
According to a study by the Renmin University in Beijing, 95 percent of Chinese government officials convicted of corruption in 2012 had at least one mistress. Therefore, cracking down on concubinage is also a useful tool in the fight against corruption that China’s president, Xi Jinping, champions. In order to salvage the ‘morality’ of party members, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the CPC re-introduced the stigmatizing word ‘adultery’ in public communications in 2012. On top of that, ‘illicit sexual relations’ was added to the prohibition list as the latest disciplinary measures by the Party in 2015. From the Party’s point of view, having mistresses is not merely a ‘moral’ issue, but is closely linked to the political struggle against corruption. From a Western perspective, it is a deeply cultural aspect of this anti-corruption campaign, which has now taken hold of the entire country.
The ‘possession’ of one or more mistresses equally appeals to the top managers in modern China, because it serves as a symbolic expression of their power, potency and social status – an allegedly indispensable accessory of economic, political and masculine capacity. At the same time, keeping many concubines at the same time also requires a lot of money. Thus, the number of mistresses reflects the wealth of their owners, be they managers or officials.
True or not, the formula of ‘Tell me how many concubines you have and I tell you how corrupt you are’ nevertheless appears questionable, and the current struggle against the system of keeping mistresses must be understood as a means of political campaign. It seems appropriate to the Communist Party, not least because it receives applause of approval among the general public and, needless to say, “primary” wives of these officials and managers.