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Those Seeds Unsown

May
16
2007

After many inhospitably cold months, a regular visitor to the local cafe – an man of import we call ‘Zhang Zong’, or “Mr. Zhang” – the honorific ‘Zong’ denoting the boss of a company – arrived for tea. He ordered a pot of Oolong along with five cups.

Zhang – whose name I’ve changed – is the developer one of the fancy indoor fashion bazaars designed to succeed the shuttered Silk Alley. As always, he was dressed by the vendors who rent his stalls. His crisp white Oxford was custom-tailored, while shabby black cotton-blend slacks dusted by Spring’s gusts off the Gobi. In-between: a spit-shined pleather belt with a chintzy gold clasp. There were other markings of new money on Mr. Zhang and one stood out more loudly than his outfit: his entourage of young dames.

There were four: two in flower-printed summer dresses, with whom he cavorted incessantly; one college-aged with glasses, whom he largely ignored; and one in a low-cut halter top and tight jeans, to whom he deferred. Advertising a Fendi leather bag high atop her long crossed legs, she grilled me on questions of high importance. “When will the Starbucks move in, already?” And later: “Do you agree that eating fish makes you smarter?” revealing herself to be a ranking concubine in the harem. Later on, after Mr. Zhang led them off on a stroll, a fifth woman in a tight white sweats appeared – another girlfriend – and Mr. Zhang’s executive assistant. She’d come to pay the check.

A chat with Mr. Zhang almost always takes a hard and fast turn to the topic of women. The first time we ever spoke, ten minutes in, he asked in all seriousness: “Why it was that foreigners’ ideas of what a beautiful woman is are so different from us Chinese? For instance, you think your wife (who is Chinese) is pretty, but I don’t.”

This time around, I asked him about his new projects. He mumbled something about a new real estate development or two. Then, unprompted, he launched into an analysis of my marriage. Next he posited expanding his network of female companions over the Internet. “When a man reaches 40,” Mr. Zhang reflected, “his main occupation should be beautiful women.”

It’s no secret that the power of the purse in China today is in many cases literally that – and it better be a Fendi or an LV, the real article. Money buys sex. Money buys power. Sex corrupts power. Capitalism perverts communism. Such are the ways of the world.

But there’s a demographic glitch: women, in relation to men, are a dwindling resource. For every 100 girls born in 2005, the most recently published statistics show, there were 118 boys, compared to 110 in 2000. This is the outcome of a quarter century of the “one-child policy” compounded by the age-old predilection for male heirs and the much more recent availability of $2-a-pop ultrasound tests. The gender imbalance of newborns is worse in the countryside – more than 130:100 in some areas. That means 0.7 or 0.8 women growing up for every man. Meanwhile, rich older guys like Zhang got three or four or five.

The verandas and VIP clubs of oversexed dandies are only half the story. Villages of unsexed tillers are the other. All too rarely are the two juxtaposed. That’s probably going to change. China is projected to have 30 million unmarried men by 2020. That’s a lot of unsatisfied urge. Are the seeds of underclass unrest being sown by seed not sown at all?

Over 2300 years ago, the Confucian sage Mencius diagnosed the social problems of the sexually unfulfilled. Guaren you ji, Guaren hao se, King Xuan of Qi confesses in a memorable episode of the Book of Mencius: “I have a weakness. I lust for beauty.” To which Mencius replies that the ruler’s indulgence is not in itself a determinant of a regime in decline. Depriving of his people of the same joy, however, is. Mencius makes poetic allusion to the dalliances of another fabled king, but notes:

“At that time, in the seclusion of the house, there were no dissatisfied women, and abroad, there were no unmarried men.” Mencius’s conclusion: “If your majesty lusts for beauty, let the people gratify the same feeling. Then what difficulty will there be in attaining the royal sway?”

In other words, Mandate schmandate. The difficulty the Communist Party has today is not really a matter of spiritual pollution or moral decay. It’s a matter of demographics.

The irony is that country “values” only hasten the flow of the action toward the city. To start with, Chinese peasants unwittingly produce fewer women to marry off to their sons. Those girls who are born aren’t needed – or asked, really – to work the land. Instead, tens of millions head off to towns and cities to find employment. Many do stints as sex workers in bathhouses and salons, where the best money is made, and send cash home. That trade, of course, makes it harder for them to go home and get married. Those who stay behind and marry often suffer cruelly. Suicide – by swallowing pesticide – is the number one killer of young women in the countryside.

In cities, by contrast, people have been awakened more successfully to the equality of the sexes. So there are more women to start with. There’s also more mobility. A clever and pretty girl can graduate to lifes as mistresses. Urban mores being what they are, more sex equals fewer scruples: A woman who’s long since lost her virginity on the job may be more acceptable to a rich businessman than a poor peasant. And, of course, these women tend to look down on the men from the villages, who are still expected to save for years to build a house before they can take a bride.

This substrata of poor bachelors is often blamed for venting their hostilities. Tens of millions are itinerant workers are fuelling rising crime and violence in cities and towns. Back home in the villages their needs have created a black market for kidnapped brides. At Chinese universities, top rural scholars has morphed into campus killers on being rejected by co-eds they couldn’t afford to court. Others have morphed into serial murderers – China’s Jack-the-rippers – on discovering girlfriends were turning tricks. One Beijing taxi driver killed and dismembered four prostitutes, reported Xinhua News Agency, because they made money more easily than cabbies.

In a recent article about the gender imbalance and the potential fallout, Geoff York of Canada’s Globe and Mail draws an interesting comparison to the Nien Rebellion of the 1850’s:

After a series of failed harvests, the local inhabitants adopted a policy of infanticide, and eventually 25 per cent of the men were unable to marry because of a shortage of women. About 100,000 unmarried men formed bandit gangs, which merged into armies that tried to overthrow the Qing Dynasty in a war that lasted for years.

At the peak of the uprising, the population imbalance was 129 men for every 100 women, smaller than the gender gap that is already developing today on Hainan Island.

A real Chinese feminist movement could take on a violent streak as well. Yes, the Communist Revolution officially liberated China’s women, but only on Maoist terms – along with peasants and workers. The ideal woman was a de-sexed version thereof, another social producer in the worker’s paradise’s. The end of hardcore socialism and the beginning of free markets has forced them to fend for their own rights. But only in the past decade have modern laws come to shield those rights, in cases such as adultery and sexual harassment. And still, in reality, their burden of proof remains hard and heavy. The country’s carnal revolution has not a women’s lib movement made. Outside of state-sponsored women’s organizations and the academic and avant-garde arenas, politics and media controls impede attempts to mount independent, broad-based agenda.

Which helps explains some of the desperate outbursts we’ve witnessed in recent years. The “mistress killers,” a P.I. agency of jilted wives helping clients catch their rich and influential husbands, made national headlines back in 2004 – until authorities cracked down. A teenage made waves last year by documenting her deadbeat dad’s infidelities on her blog. She called him “worse than Xi Men Qing,” the anti-hero of the 17th century epic novel, The Plum in the Golden Vase in which the sadomasichistic merchant is eventually sexed to death.

But that doesn’t seem to deter our friend Mr. Zhang from taking his conquests online. When he asked me what new projects I had going, I told him I was writing for a blog or two. “Oh, I bet you have a lot of female friends online. That must be a great way to meet women.” Actually, in my line of blogging, anything but, I answered. He scowled. Then an idea came over him.

“You know, I should start a blog.” Again he made eyes at the two in the flower-printed dresses. “Why don’t you open one for me? For goods like myself to have a blog would be a real shame.”

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