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Turning down an after-dinner invite to a brothel is always a social minefield. Perhaps the spa in the small-town Shandong hotel where I was dining with a cluster of businessmen and officials was an entirely legitimate establishment, and I was misreading the nature of the invitation. My status as a foreigner was enough to excuse me from the sex itself after only a light barrage of gay jokes from the others, but not from the social obligations around it. That was in , but the routine of much interaction between businessmen and officials has remained the same over the past decade.
An initial banquet and heavy drinking provides social lubrication, until, at about pm, the party shifts to a KTV, a spa, or a club. Another two or three hours are spent in a shared social space, either accompanied by hostesses making professionally flirtatious conversation, or naked together with other men in a hot bathtub. By 2 am, some of the party collapse in bed, and some retire with the girls. Prostitution is illegal in China, but also ever-present, masked in varying degrees of ambiguity.
The KTV, a form of karaoke parlor, comes in two flavors, sometimes mixed in the same establishment. Similarly, a spa that offers family discounts during the day may well be a de facto brothel at night. In , I saw the same framed print, apparently sold to every reputable and disreputable establishment across Northern China, about a dozen times; it showed a demurely sexy young southeast Asian woman.
In the restaurants, a tied white top covered her breasts; in the brothels, they were perkily exposed. Brothel visits are not the be-and-end-all of business relationships, which require far more expensive gifts, shared entertainment, outright bribes, and even long trips together paid for by one party.
Some of this may be a thing of the past, at least for officials. Before this year, periodic crackdowns on the sex trade would close down businesses for a couple of weeks or months, before all went back to business as normal.