Beauty and the escort boom
AT THE southern resort of Beihai, dozens of attractive young women in bathing suits lounge on the beach, not for the fun of soaking up the sun or the romance of listening to the waves roll in. This is business: for a fee, the women will accompany men for aswim, allowing themselves to be hugged and caressed.
In the interior city of Lanzhou, young women hang around a pool hall where again, for a price, they will have a game of billiards with any man who wants to pay for their charms. They are even tactful enough to let the men win, unless asked to play for real, in which case the women show off impressive dexterity with their cues.
Bathing and billiard escorts are the latest twist in a phenomenon which has the Chinese Government less than amused. Rich men no longer need to eat, drink, sing and watch movies alone, thanks to a variety of specialised escort services.
The services are a seedier side of a revived sexism which has become almost fashionable in China. Economic reform is giving women new opportunities in education and business, as witnessed by the growing number of female entrepreneurs. But it is also in many respects turning them into commodities whose value is judged by their decorative potential, whether they are working as secretaries or bar hostesses.
''We don't think we can change men within our generation,'' said Xie Lihua, chief editor of a woman's magazine. ''Thousands of years of feudalism has left too much in their minds.'' The government and the Women's Federation is less than amused by the escort services.
Last summer, the authorities declared war on the so-called ''three accompanies'': accompanying men to dance, drink and sing (though nothing was said about billiards, swimming or movies).
The Chinese media has reported crackdowns on the ''three accompanies'', and those who dare to defy the government risk long jail sentences.
''But they haven't disappeared,'' said Wang Xingjun, head of the Women's Studies Institute of the Chinese Administrative Sciences Academy. At best, ''the problem can be controlled, but not eradicated''. IT IS not hard to understand why escort services have sprung up all over the country: income gaps are growing, creating an elite of rich and an underclass of poor. In one evening as an escort, a woman can earn what she would make in half a year at a factory.
Added to economics is a tradition of sexism which the Communist Party may have suppressed for four decades, but is no longer able to restrain in today's relatively liberal climate.
''Fooling around with women is a tradition,'' Ms Wang said. There are numerous men who ''think that if they eat or drink without a pretty woman, then the food is tasteless''.
Sexism also reveals itself in more subtle ways, in realms where it should, in theory, not exist. For example, when an International Olympic Committee delegation came to Beijing last spring, the city authorities assigned each delegate a personal aide - and not one was a man.
Sometimes it is hard to say whether changes in Chinese society boost or hurt the position of women. Take fashion, for example. ''Many women find it an aspect of freedom, even if it looks a bit coquettish,'' said a Western observer.
The attention to physical beauty has not gone unnoticed by the Women's Federation, which fears things have got out of hand. Within the space of a few weeks earlier this year, 50 beauty contests were held, arousing controversy.
One might argue such contests are stepping stones to careers as models or actresses, or, more fundamentally, encourage women to nurture their femininity. The Women's Federation disagrees.
''An All-China Beauty Contest would have been under way if it had not been blocked by the federation,'' Ms Xie said.
Beauty contests were ''purely commercial, I didn't support them'', she said. ''I hope women can be successful with their wisdom and ability, instead of their pretty faces.'' But the efforts of the Women's Federation did not stop the Beijing Olympic bid committee from holding a contest for both Mr and Miss Olympics - a contest in which looks seemed to be the deciding factor.
To counter the beauty contest trend, Ms Xie has been campaigning for an event which would give women a chance to show off skills, rather than appearances.
She wants big companies to sponsor an All China Nimble-Hands Women's Contest, in which contestants would enter samples of handicrafts.
After half a year, Ms Xie says with a tone of dismay, not one company has offered to sponsor such an event.