When the rumor broke that Chinese film star Zhang Ziyi had been paid for sex with disgraced Communist Party strongman Bo Xilai, the story grabbed headlines around the world. But in China, where many believe that liaisons like this are just part of doing business, few eyebrows were raised by the allegations.
An angry Zhang, 33, was quick to deny the rumors that she’d had sex more than 10 times with Bo between 2007 and 2011 for $1 million each time. Industry sources have also expressed doubts about the news, saying that the wealthy actress, who has starred in a number of Chinese and foreign blockbusters, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Rush Hour, and Memoirs of a Geisha, would have little need to trade her body for cash.
Her latest movie, interestingly named Dangerous Liaisons, had its world preview at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, but Zhang failed to appear, leading to speculation that she is under investigation in the Bo case and so couldn’t leave China. Zhang explained to the media that she was busy working on her next film and thus could not attend the event.
It’s very possible that Zhang has become the latest victim in the Communist Party’s smear campaign aimed at thoroughly destroying Bo. The once powerful princeling, who is under investigation for violating party discipline, was dismissed as party chief of Chongqing in March and dropped from the Politburo a month later. His wife, Gu Kailai, is reportedly suspected to be responsible for the murder of a British businessman in November. In recent months, a steady stream of scandals surrounding the Bo family has been leaked to the Western media—most likely by his political opponents.
Film-industry sources say that the Chinese actress has offended a number of people, anyone of whom could have been the source for the unsubstantiated rumors.
Still, many Chinese say they believed the story of sexual liaisons. Right or wrong, there’s a widely held perception in China that many beautiful actresses, singers, and dancers sleep their way to success.
Ada Shen, an American who has worked as a film producer for years in China, said that she’s seen little evidence that Chinese actresses regularly trade sex for favors. “The idea that you can sleep your way to the top is not well founded,” says Shen. ‘I can’t say it’s not a problem, but I also can’t say it’s institutionalized.”
Yet insiders say the problem of trading sex for favors may be more prominent among young star wannabes, who’ve not made it in the industry yet. It’s no secret that expensive cars pile up outside the gates of the Beijing Film Academy, the Central Academy of Drama, and other prestigious arts schools around the city, waiting to pick up students as they leave campus.
The editor of the Chinese edition of a leading American fashion magazine says girls at performing-arts schools openly talk about their gandie, or “godfathers,” who fund their expensive lifestyles and who hopefully will be able to give their nascent careers a nudge.
“People who want to get into the Beijing Film Academy need guanxi [connections],” says Yu Qi, a book editor in Beijing. “And once you get in, you need money.”
“To become famous you need expensive clothes, name-brand bags, to be seen in expensive places, and you need directors to give you roles,” she says. “They have a great number of needs.”
The magazine editor says the skyrocketing property market in leading cities is another factor pushing the liaison between beautiful young women and powerful men. She says a decade ago she was able to purchase an apartment on her modest salary as a young journalist. No more. “Housing prices have shot up and many people have had their dreams shattered,” she said. “A girl today could work her entire life and never be able to afford an apartment.”
“But if you have a godfather, he may give you a car and a house, something that otherwise could take a lifetime to obtain,” she says.
Meanwhile high-level officials and wealthy businessmen see beautiful young women as status symbols to be conquered. “I’ve got a Mercedes and now I have a beautiful girl sitting in it,” says the editor, mimicking a powerful man.
Yu says further that wealthy businessmen can be quite persistent. “I have money and I like you,” they say. “I’ll pelt you with my money until you come with me.” She says the girls are showered in money and gifts and are taken to good restaurants and interesting places. “How long can they resist this?” she asks. Yu tells of a wealthy Chinese businessman who apparently invested in a TV drama just so he could get close to the actresses.
Observers say the trend is a sign of the moral decay in China that is a byproduct of the country’s breakneck economic growth. “The whole society is like this,” says the editor. “We don’t have any values. Our parents believed in communism and Marx, but we don’t believe in anything. There are no beliefs and nothing is revered.”
“Girls feel, ‘I’m young and beautiful, why can’t I have a great life?’” she continues.
The situation can be summed up in a popular Chinese expression that says “Men turn bad once they get rich, while women get rich only after they turn bad.”
“There’s no shame at all, none at all,” says Yu. “And everyone accepts this.”
According to the Chinese media, an online poll conducted by China Youth Daily found that nearly 60 percent of respondents had peers who hoped to marry rich, or to rely on wealthy and powerful men as a means to realize their personal goals. Perhaps in response to this kind of attitude, several prominent universities have drafted new regulations that prohibit female students from becoming mistresses—the punishment is being expelled from school.
Writer Zhang Lijia, the author of Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of The New China, says that young women have grown up in an increasingly commercial society, and that they’re “more calculating, materialistic and with a greater sexual license.”
“They don’t carry the same sense of shame,” says Zhang, who is currently at work on a novel about prostitutes. “They’ll do anything. If they can sell their body, why not? They’ll do whatever is necessary to get ahead.”
“Sex is not a big deal anymore,” she says. “If you can have sex for gain, why not?”
She contrasts this with her own generation, which grew up during the Cultural Revolution, which had a far more conservative upbringing. “For our generation, sex was something you only did after you got married,” she says, “and not something you took advantage of.”
“There’s no bottom line anymore,” says the editor. “Business people put poison in our food. And so girls just think if they’re just hanging out with a sugar daddy, what’s the difference? It doesn’t hurt anyone.”
Yu says that since reform and opening up, everything in China has been “measured in terms of money.”
“Young people feel the only value is money,” says Yu. “Their parents keep telling them money is important, and if you want to live well or go places, you need money.” She says beautiful girls are more likely to get “resources”, and that when someone goes back home wearing expensive clothes and other luxury items, “everyone envies you.”
“People will laugh at you if you’re poor, but they won’t laugh at you if you’re a prostitute,” she says, quoting a traditional Chinese saying that has greater resonance today.