Men might be forgiven for feeling flattered or even interested, when the blonde bombshell with blue eyes winks and purses her lips like an invitation. The first word out of her mouth, however, indicates she’s all business.
“Fapiao," she says in a heavy Russian accent that’s not quite pronounced properly. She repeats the Chinese word for “invoice," and there’s no mistake that she’s a working girl who can provide a way for her customers to covertly get reimbursed.
Pan Suiming, a professor with Renmin University of China and one of China’s leading sexologists, says high-end, foreign prostitutes are making big bucks while providing their clients with the added bonus of fake invoices.
“I am afraid all the sex workers know these two Chinese words," Pan told the Global Times. “It appeals to Chinese customers," who get free sex by claiming the expense as some far less nefarious business activity.
High-end call girls and high rollers aside, prostitution is far from a glamorous, innocent occupation. Caught by the police in China, hookers, their pimps and their johns can receive sentences up to 10 years in jail. Some have been given life sentences and in the past a few have been executed.
Yet the risks and punishment haven’t stopped foreign sex workers from coming to China where they have exotic appeal and can earn more than they would at home.
Sex workers from Europe and Asia
While there are no clear-cut statistics on the number of overseas sex workers, most white women practicing their trade in China are from Russia, Mongolia and Eastern Europe. There are also many Asian women from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, according to previously published police reports. The total number of sex workers in China has been estimated to be between 1 and 6 million.
The Global Times’ requests for interviews and information from Beijing police went unanswered.
Pan believes the number of foreign sex workers is on the increase and blames corrupt officials for the rise.
“They (the officials) have a lot of money to burn and it’s not even their money," he said, adding that officials who use invoices provided by their paid sex partners are stealing taxpayers’ money.
“Ordinary working Chinese men are not likely to spend that much of their income on a foreign prostitute," said Pan.
Exotic foreign women usually meet their johns in nightclubs, fancy bars or KTV clubs. They can earn several times more than Chinese sex workers who are more likely to work out of a dingy massage parlor.
With Chinese and foreign sex workers working their own territories in cosmopolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai, a number of neighborhoods have become notorious as the stomping ground of foreign women who sell their bodies.
Residents and shopkeepers around Beijing’s Ritan Park in Chaoyang district, which is the well-known lair of sex workers from Mongolia, Russia and Eastern Europe, told the Global Times that they have found a way to coexist.
“I do my business and they do theirs, we don’t bother each other," a rickshaw driver who wouldn’t give his name told the Global Times.
A well-known bar in the neighborhood was forced to close during the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 by authorities who were apparently worried about the city’s image. It reopened after the Games.
Police have, from time to time, carried out raids against organized prostitution in campaigns called saohuang, which literally means “sweep the yellow." In Chinese the word yellow refers to things sexually exotic such as pornography and prostitution.
In mid-January a group of 71 pimps, prostitutes and johns were tried in Beijing at a Fengtai district court. Twelve of the prostitutes were foreigners, the court told the Global Times earlier.
Thirty-three people were sentenced to up to three years in prison on various prostitution charges in the case. Few other details were made available.
In Guangdong Province, police broke a prostitution ring and rescued four teenage girls from Vietnam who said they were kidnapped and forced into prostitution in 2009. Six suspects were arrested.
In early 2010, three Eastern European women in Shanghai were deported after they spent 15 days in detention for prostitution. The women, between 20 and 30 years old, told police that they had been lured to Shanghai with promises of high-paying jobs.
Exotic pets of the powerful
Crackdowns on high-priced hookers have also snared some high-level philanderers.
Du Xiangcheng was discovered to be a two-faced hypocrite when he was caught with a call girl from Belarus in a five-star hotel room in Beijing in December 2006. Du was a top anti-corruption official with the Hunan provincial government. He was fired but it’s not known if he faced other legal or criminal consequences.
Prostitution has long been considered an unacceptable malignancy in China.
Just two months after the founding of New China in 1949, the Beijing government staged perhaps its greatest crackdown on what had grown into an industry. On a cold November night, 224 brothels were raided and 1,300 prostitutes, including numerous foreign women, were arrested.
Up until the 1990s there were few signs of open prostitution in the Chinese mainland. Today, however, the Chinese media often reports on the mass arrests of sex workers who apply their trade too overtly.
The headline-grabbing busts – especially when they involve foreign women – and the meting out of harsh punishment, make for sensational stories in media outlets around the country.
Two men in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, were sentenced to 14 years and eight years in prison for coercing three foreign women aged 19 to 29 into the sex trade in 2010.
A “Madame," whose stable of hookers included Russian and Chinese prostitutes, told the Global Times earlier that the police had turned up the heat and she was giving up the business and leaving Beijing. “The girls are gone, and my business is done thanks to the police," she said.
She recounted how her two Russian girls – Iva and Eva – could easily make 2,000 yuan ($317) a day.
The Russian pair made a hasty retreat from China a week after Beijing police closed more than 250 sex parlors – which often pose as hair salons – and detained more than 1,100 sex workers in April 2010.
Liu Wenyan, a lawyer with the All-China Women’s Federation, told the Global Times that Chinese police have a lot of difficulties dealing with foreign sex workers.
“There’s a language barrier and they have a foreign passport. Just about the only things Chinese police can do is issue a warning, report them to their country’s embassy, and deport them rather than try them in court," said Liu, suggesting that China’s relatively open visa requirements make it hard for police to prevent foreign prostitutes from entering the country.
Liu, who has researched foreign prostitutes and written a book on sex trade in China, said foreign sex workers seldom work on their own and are often “owned" by organized crime syndicates.
“The police should be cracking down on crime bosses, not just the girls," said Liu.
“The numerous foreign prostitutes in China cause a lot of social problems but more importantly selling yourself for sex is against socialist mores," he said.
Despite Liu’s arching view that prostitution is a scourge on society, ordinary people seem to be taking a broader, more sympathetic view of working women who have few other choices in life.
An online survey published by Insight China magazine in 2009 showed sex workers were rated more trustworthy than politicians, scientists and teachers. While only 7.9 percent of the 3,376 respondents agreed that sex workers were trustworthy, they still managed to rank No. 3 behind only farmers and religious workers. The least trustworthy were property developers, sales people and actors.
Help from Hong Kong
Many foreign sex workers enter China on tourist or business visas which limit their stay in the country to a few months at a time. Some end up in Hong Kong seeking visa renewals where they can also find an escape route from their profession.
A Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization called Ziteng, which safeguards sex workers’ rights, helps foreign prostitutes better understand the reality they face working on the Chinese mainland.
“We tell them, yes, you might earn more than you do in your country, but it is illegal and not worth the risk," said Lee, a case worker with Ziteng.
Some sex workers from Mongolia, Russia and Indonesia came to Ziteng looking for help last year with the hope they could get a ticket to travel home.
Lee said Ziteng can provide information and a free health check, but it doesn’t have the resources to help the women return home.
Ziteng produced a migrant sex workers’ handbook called Things to Know Before You Go. It includes information about prostitution laws, immigration laws, public health control and working condition within the sector.
“Even though they feel safer working outside of the country, we have to let them know that it’s never as great as they might think," Lee said.