Peng Shuai and China’s mistress problem

Mistresses remain a potent status symbol in China

27 November 2021

9:00 AM

27 November 2021

9:00 AM

A high-flying Chinese businessman once told me his secret to happiness: ‘Before a man is 35, women are tools; after 35, women are toys.’ It worked for him. He married an educated woman from a good family who helped him climb the career ladder; but once established in his career, he began seeking more exciting female company.

I’ve been thinking about that man since the story of the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai broke. Peng detailed a three-year affair she had with the retired vice premier Zhang Gaoli, 40 years her senior. During the good times, they would ‘talk for hours, play chess, play tennis no end… our personalities fitted so well’. But when he got bored, he ‘disappeared’ and ‘tossed me aside’, she wrote on Weibo.

Chinese social media was treated to an insider view of the salacious lifestyles communist officials still lead. This was no ordinary affair. Peng says it started when Zhang forced her to have sex after they played tennis — ‘that afternoon I cried and didn’t agree at first’ — but she stayed for dinner, and Zhang kept up the pressure. ‘Yes, we had sex. Emotions are complicated, hard to put into words. From that day on, I decided to open my heart [to him].’ A far cry from your average ambitious mistress, Peng seems to be someone who was abused, groomed and abandoned. She was at pains to say she didn’t take a penny from Zhang.

The #MeToo scandal hit China’s celebrity world earlier this year with the arrest of the actor Kris Wu, a Chinese R. Kelly. Beijing leapt on the bandwagon when pop stars were the ones being accused. What would the Chinese Communist party do once the scrutiny turned on one of its own?

Censor, of course. It wasn’t long before Peng’s post, account and all references to the statement were scrubbed clean from social media. For a time even the word ‘tennis’ was censored as a search term. Then came radio silence from Peng — until last week. Presumably in response to growing international pressure (the Women’s Tennis Association has threatened to cancel all China events, and tennis stars from Serena Williams to Novak Djokovic rallied around the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai), a series of ‘proof of life’ videos, photos and emails of Peng in public have surfaced. But these have all come from state media sources, such as the Global Times, leading to questions about how scripted they are. One video even starts with a director off-screen cueing Peng’s coach to start talking. In the coming weeks, state media outlets are likely to continue disseminating these staged appearances. It allows the Chinese government to present interest in Peng’s story as ‘western media hysteria’. But while no one is quite sure where Peng is, she has revealed a rot at the highest level of the party, a dangerous thing to do in Xi’s China.

It’s a story as old as sin. In China’s imperial past, men were entitled to have a wife and as many (legally inferior) concubines as they could afford. Emperors would have hundreds, and even now a mistress is referred to as a ‘concubine’; a wife is an ‘empress’. Polygamy was officially abolished in 1949 with the communist takeover, but the mindset didn’t change much.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when China started to get very rich again, it became fashionable for men of a certain stature to have a mistress. Young, pretty, often uneducated and poor girls offered intimate company, yet some men wanted more: the former head of propaganda at Chongqing, for instance, required his lovers to have a bachelor’s degree. The more generous men gave their mistresses pocket money, cars and even flats. One neighbourhood in Shenzhen was dubbed ‘concubine village’ in the 1990s, reportedly being home to 50,000 mistresses. Their lovers, mostly businessmen in Hong Kong, were a short train ride away, and much wealthier than anyone in the mainland. One Jiangsu party official had 146 mistresses, detailing them all in a sordid little notebook. The former head of the Nanjing Dairy Industry Group (also known as ‘the Milk King’) put it well when he said: ‘What official at my seniority doesn’t have a few lovers? This isn’t just a biological need, it’s more crucially a status symbol. How else will you get the respect of others?’

For a time, stories of such philandering made the news, especially when officials got done for corruption (the two tended to go hand in hand, as the mistress lifestyle can get expensive — one disgraced Shenzhen official’s harem cost him almost £3,000 a day). Then came Xi’s 2012 anti-corruption campaign: a root-and-branch operation that indicted 100,000 officials within a few years. Almost all those arrested were having some kind of extramarital affair, according to Renmin University. After the purge, there was silence on the romantic lives of high-ranking officials. Had it scared politicians into monogamy? Peng’s story suggests otherwise.

Most mistresses don’t have such harrowing stories, but what is a status symbol for the men is a mark of shame for the women involved. Nobody wants their daughter to be a mistress. It’s telling that Peng announced her affair with the words: ‘I admit I’m not a good girl.’ Grisly videos circulate online of mistresses getting their comeuppance as angry wives enlist family members to beat and publicly humiliate them.

More often, the wives can only turn a blind eye. My businessman friend was upfront with his wife, telling her upon proposing that she should never expect him to be faithful to her. She agreed to marry him on three conditions: that he would never bring a mistress home, that he would not have children with his lovers, and that he would not financially ruin his family. Zhang’s wife seems to have gone one step further and ‘stood guard’ while Zhang forced himself on Peng that first time. Peng compares her to ‘the empress in Zhen Huan Zhuan’ (a TV drama about the palace intrigues of a Qing dynasty harem), saying the wife shot snide comments at her when Zhang wasn’t around.

Under Xi, the CCP has made a big show of abandoning its old reputation for corruption and extravagance. But Peng Shuai’s story — and the way the party quickly closed ranks — raises the question of how much decadence still goes on beneath the surface. And outside of politics, successful men like my businessman friend continue their lifestyles as their wives ignore the goings-on. China hasn’t yet said farewell to the concubine.

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