Article 301 of China’s 1997 Criminal Law bans “group licentiousness,” and has been used in the past to bust would-be swingers. But why?
Illustration by Katie Morton
It was women who brought down Ma Yaohai 马尧海. The older, nosier kind — not the ones he liked to watch having sex.
In 2010, the then-53-year-old bespectacled academic became the face of Chinese swinging when he was arrested for “group licentiousness.” Although one of 22 charged, it was Ma’s refusal to quietly roll over and plead guilty, coupled with his professorial status, that made him a cause célèbre; it was thusly revealed, to many in China, that orgies are technically illegal.
The case symbolized the division between an older, staunchly conservative establishment and its more progressive, post-Reform juniors, who take freewheeling, pluralistic runs at formerly forbidden fare.
In Ma’s case, the meddling seniors won. His arrest was, Ma now believes, primarily the result of prudery and petty politics. A newly created neighborhood “senior’s court” had been “aiming to be declared a ‘Leading Work Unit,’” the professor explained over the phone. “So of course, they needed some achievement with which to get promoted. And in China, internet and mobile phones are all monitored, so they can easily find what anyone’s up to.”
Since at least 1954, Chinese have gone about their daily lives under the watchful auspices of “residents’ committees,” whose memberships are usually filled by jobless or retired women. Although they are viewed as “gossips in red armbands,” members’ duties mesh personal scrutiny with political aims — such as monitoring potential violations of the (now-overturned) one-child policy — and can breed behavior far removed from the affectionate, doltish image of “pensioner police.”
The heyday of the committees — curtains twitching and eyes widening at their neighbors’ proclivities — seems to be back. In 2016, police in northeast Heilongjiang Province sought out snitches with a sliding pay scale: Swingers fetched a bounty of 1,000 to 2,000 yuan ($150 to $300). In Kunming, the bounty was 1,000 to 3,000 yuan, while Xiamen’s flush Public Security Bureau offered “up to 10,000 yuan for information of such a kind.”
And their information can be particularly precious if it helps defenestrate the reputation of government critics, such as the liberal blogger and venture capitalist Charles Xue 薛必群 in 2013. As police explained, it was a resident of the same Beijing building that tipped them off to Xue’s penchant for “sex parties” with escorts (award-winning director Wang Quan’an 王全安 enjoyed similar services in the supposed privacy of his home). Although Xue was charged with solicitation, it was his “irresponsible” behavior online that apparently warranted a televised confession, which Xue delivered in a green jumpsuit and warning that careless tweets could lead to “social chaos.” The curious propensity of China’s boldest voices toward reckless sex was seen again with the arrest in 2015 of Ou Shaokun 区少坤, detained for solicitation only hours after whistleblowing on a government official; as writer Murong Xuecun 慕容雪村 once remarked, “The Communist Party under Mr. Xi [Jinping] has made public shaming an exquisite Chinese art.”
By the time Ma’s case came to court, however, he had an older woman of a distinctly different stripe in his corner. The well-known activist and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) sexologist Li Yinhe 李银河, then 59, was a veteran of the war against wantonness. In 2007, she’d defended a woman fired for spouse swapping, arguing that it was a matter of “free will, privacy, and being an adult.” An energetic backlash to Li’s remarks called for a return to “traditional Chinese morality,” with one commenter exhorting: “Swapping husbands and wives? Why don’t they just go ahead and have sex with animals?”
Now, Li told reporters, Article 301 of the 1997 Criminal Law, banning “group licentiousness,” was a relic of the Cultural Revolution that hadn’t been applied once in more than 30 years; she then called on “the relevant departments to quickly investigate and abolish the crime of ‘group licentiousness.’”
Those who favored prosecuting Ma, and liberalism in general, evoked the end-times rhetoric of Fox News: The law must “protect the sexual relations of mainstream society,” insisted law professor Sun Guoxiang. Ma had “affected social order,” fumed another. Group sex was “decadent behavior…hindering the pursuit of the majority toward good behavior,” Ming Haoyue, a commentator, declared on Weibo. “Chaotic sexual behavior could fuel other evils.”
CASS, long considered a top academic research institute, would later come under fire from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Party’s anti-corruption squad, accused of colluding with “foreign forces,” “ideological problems,” and promoting unorthodox viewpoints online. As President Xi Jinping continues his reactionary conservatism, calling on artists and filmmakers to ignore market forces, for example, or explicitly cautioning against the promotion of “Western” values, it seems unlikely the Party will relax its claims to moral leadership on issues usually kept behind bedroom doors anytime soon.
Indeed, the strident language of China’s outspoken conservatives echoes the “strike hard” (严打 yándǎ) campaigns that swept up China’s “floating population” (流动人口 liúdòng rénkǒu) in the early 1980s. These yanda targets were typically vagrants, uneducated former Red Guards cut loose after the Cultural Revolution or migrants in search of work. Relaxed registration rules had allowed this itinerant (“low-end”) rural population into China’s prosperous cities, where they were greeted with disdain and hostility. By 1983, economic reforms had invigorated previously suppressed appetites, and supplied people with the financial means to pursue them. Prostitution, human trafficking, pornography, and narcotics were among a raft of vices that re-emerged from the hibernation of the planned economy, and the response, delivered in August 1983 in “one fell swoop,” was a campaign intended to, according to a Central Party internal document, “show absolutely no mercy…to strike fear into the hearts of criminal elements, to instruct and save the many young people who have been led away.”
The West was fingered as a chief culprit. “Spiritual opium,” People’s Daily reminded readers, “undermines morals [and] poisons the minds of the young.” The editorial approvingly recounted the executions of a production unit in Fuzhou in which 27 workers had committed criminal offenses “after having watched pornographic video tapes.” Overzealous policing was frequent: Under Article 160 of the 1979 Criminal Law, “hooliganism” included any act that “undermined social order,” broadly applied to any “other activities” considered morally or politically offensive, including homosexual, premarital, and group sex.
By the mid-80s, “hooligans” (流氓 liúmáng, “people from elsewhere” or “wilderness people”) accounted for almost half of those languishing in China’s overflowing detention centers and jails, most of which were ill-equipped for this vast influx. New prisoners slept in corridors, while the condemned shared quarters with detainees awaiting trial; sex became an official sin. Ma Yanqin 马燕秦, an unmarried woman, was arrested in Xi’an during a ferocious crackdown on ballroom dancing, and later executed; a promising young actor called Chi Zhiqiang 迟志强 was labeled a “black sheep” for sleeping with an official’s daughter, and sentenced to four years in jail.
Then there are those whose names are lost: a 15-year-old Peeping Tom sentenced to death; another jailed for four years for “cuddling” a woman; a pair of female students detained for “multiple boyfriends”; a ménage in which two received hefty sentences and the trois was put to death; organizers of a “nude dance party” sentenced to death at a mass rally; a woman sent to 15 years in a labor camp for nude modeling. As Li Yinhe told the Brookings Institute in a keynote address on Women, Sexuality and Social Change in 2015, “The punishment for spousal swapping was death…[and] people would be sentenced to death for organizing sex parties.” One activist recalled meeting “long-term prisoners who turned pale at the very mention of 1983.”
“I find getting married and having one child is too boring. We should just enjoy our life and make love.”
They came for the professor at night. “I was watching TV at home, about to go to bed,” Ma remembered. “I opened the door and two people came in. They asked if I’m ‘Sunshine Journey’ [his online username].” Ma said he hadn’t been in quite some time but, after a brief conversation, agreed to accompany the pair to the police station.
Things took an odd turn there: Ma’s phone was confiscated and he was instructed to “think over what [he’d] done and confess.” Eventually, an officer asked if Ma had been having sex with more than one partner at a time. The question puzzled the academic, and his interrogator took a different tack: “He said, ‘You’re a professor? Okay — I’ll find another professor to talk to you, then.’” An officer duly fetched one, who then explained that the authorities were “simply clarifying some facts.”
A decade previously, with two failed marriages behind him, Ma began seeking satisfaction outside the traditional Chinese prescription. “I find getting married and having one child is too boring,” he told me. “We should just enjoy our life and make love.” Ma briefly shared a house, and more, with a married couple who regularly hooked up with strangers at hotels around the country and “played quite crazily.” The pair was eventually caught up in a sex bust at a Chengdu VIP club, but by then, Ma’s laid-back ethic had found an online match with a younger woman, who introduced him to swinging parties in 2004, an arrangement he found “a very good solution.” Their relationship later foundered, and it was another two years before a married friend suggested reviving the hobby, this time using Ma’s place as a venue. He was skeptical at first, reckoning himself too old, dourly observing, “Even two people having sex is hard — let alone three or four together.”
Besides, he never considered himself much of an instigator. “I always insisted it should be completely voluntary… There was no embarrassment at all. But I wouldn’t be the first one to propose having sex,” Ma said. “If we hadn’t all got the same hobby, we wouldn’t end up together.” His descriptions of their evenings depict a middle-class pursuit, benign, almost banal: “Sometimes they just came for a chat or tea,” he said of fellow swingers. “Sometimes we’d have a party in the morning, one in the afternoon, and another in the evening.”
After the arrest, mainland media emphasized Ma’s professorial status at the Nanjing University of Technology (in initial reports, he was given the pseudonym Wang Honggao). The Jiangsu-based Modern Times claimed the “orgies” had taken place in an apartment Ma shared with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, and the professor usually preferred to watch rather than participate. Ma’s QQ group had more than 190 members at its peak; his real crime, the paper suggested, was negatively influencing a group of unemployed youngsters. That’s “all bullshit,” according to Ma: Most participants were typical middle-class professionals with mundane jobs or government gigs.
Nevertheless, Ma was charged with organizing 18 sex parties between 2007 to 2009 and convicted the following year — beginning a banner period for sex scandals in China. There was a slew, each seeming to top the previous: the Xinjiang sheriff who hired 31-year-old twin sisters as mistresses; a Shanxi village chief with four wives and 10 children; a balding former railways minister who kept at least 18 girls and somehow worked his way through the entire female cast of a Dream of the Red Chamber remake, filmed solely for his benefit; then the fatal car crash of then-President Hu Jintao’s chief of staff’s illegitimate son, who plowed his Ferrari into a Beijing embankment at 3 a.m. with two women, one naked and another half-undressed, sharing the front seat.
It was amid this remarkable roll call of bacchanal that a set of 120 photographs [NSFW], entitled “Comrades in Charge” and purporting to show three Communist middle managers from Anhui swapping wives and high-fives, began to circulate. As it happened, only one — Wang Yu, a deputy secretary of Hefei University’s Communist Youth League — was an actual government associate (Wang quickly stepped up to apologize, and be sacked), and the photos turned out to be an old batch, lifted from a computer sent for repair in 2007, quietly floating around the web until someone decided to put a fake name to a face. The participants turned out to be innocent nobodies — one was a teacher, the others complete strangers — and the hubbub quickly faded. But the incident demonstrated three things: Regular people were enjoying “irregular” activity; the public wasn’t all that fussed about it; and Ma Yaohai had been exceptionally unlucky.
Everyone seems to be getting laid, but no one’s talking about it.
I’d been curious to meet a Chinese swinger in the wild, and an opportunity seemed to arrive with “Charles,” a disheveled businessman who accosted me at a long-demolished bar in the Gulou district of Beijing. He tipsily showed off pictures of his topless wife wearing a sarong, assuring that “She’s a bit ‘plain Jane,’ but very keen.” But Charles heavily hinted that money needed to be involved and seemed to be a kind of cuckold-pimp whose kink was prostituting his spouse to strangers. “How much would you like to donate?” he asked in his final and most aggressive missive, warning: “No free lunch.”
Like many nocturnal animals, it turns out swingers are somewhat shy of the light (I did have one fortuitous, if decidedly unerotic encounter, described in my forthcoming book Red Sin Rising). Others have had better luck: In 2002, a journalist for the New Express met prospective swinger “Daming” (大明) via an unnamed “Same City Meetings” site. The swap began with the trading of credentials. Daming’s opener was typically Chinese in its fastidious detail: “I work at a bank, I’m 37, 176 cm tall. My wife works in real estate, 32, 164 cm tall and 57 kilos…” After some email ping-pong, with meetings scheduled then rescheduled, the two couples finally met at a restaurant. Daming told the journalist and his female companion that they’d had several experiences: twice with an employee of a state-owned enterprise and his wife, another with a businessman and his “pretty hot” mistress. Both were egalitarian affairs, twin beds at a hotel and the foursome “went AA,” meaning they split the bill.
While his wife shyly nodded along, Daming explained that the couple enjoyed swapping because it was “new and exciting” and, moreover, free. Some estimate that fewer than 100,000 Chinese participate in group sex, but a chat forum dedicated to swinging on the (now defunct) website “Happy Village” once had more than 380,000 registered members. Most continue to meet via hobby groups on lifestyle sites. One commenter from Zhihu, a popular Q&A site, enthused that “We’ve been swinging with my wife’s best friend and her husband for more than a year; about once every one or two months. We’d do it in our home or theirs, or whenever we’d travel together. Sometimes four of us, sometimes three. It didn’t affect either of our families. But now our child is in school, we don’t have the time.”
Children: perennial wreckers of the nuptial bed. The Chinese government, though, facing an incipient age crisis, is vested in encouraging birth rates, reversing decades of draconian family planning. Free love tends to be frowned upon by authoritarian regimes, which prefer the stability that flows from monogamous, legalized, and — for now, at least — heterosexual unions. Deng Keping 邓克平, a lawyer from the Guangzhou Women’s Association, claims that while swinging may be consensual, it is “against the spirit of the law.”
It’s certainly part of the spirit of the age, though: The pursuit of profit and pleasure is perhaps the most authentic Chinese Dream. Group sex is particularly popular among the idle 富二代 (fùèrdài), or second-generation rich: Every summer, the Paper reports, the “Hos of Chaoyang” put on their game faces and slinkiest lingerie and head south to Hainan Rendez-Vous, an annual yachting orgy patronized by wealthy young patrons of the island province. Their parties are a stable moneymaker for girls seeking financial stability and reliable for local GDP growth. One enterprising participant, Xiao, told an undercover reporter from Phoenix News that a top-rate “dirty secretary” (脏蜜 zàngmì, high-class hooker) can make hundreds of thousands at elite swing sessions. Eventually, though, like most of us, “she plans to save some money, repair her hymen, and marry a good man.”
After graduating from the Shaanxi School of Justice, Su Xiu 苏秀, an introverted clerk at the Liquan County public security bureau, believed she had found a good man, a chauffeur she met at the police dormitory and married within a week. “[We had] an extremely good relationship,” Su would later tell women’s magazine Weekend. “We share exactly the same views; what you hear from me would be just the same as what you’d hear from him.”
In October 2006, Su made the curious decision to out herself as a swinger to Phoenix TV’s Decoding Sex and Relationships, describing herself as “female, 30, married for eight years to a bureaucrat five years younger, [who] likes writing.” The program offered participants a chance to meet the sexologist Li Yinhe; Su explained that she’d been introduced to “the lifestyle,” (as it’s called in the West) by her husband: “My first reaction was no different from yours now: Was he crazy?”
At some point, though, Su changed her mind, and the couple graduated from indulging to organizing, setting up Fuqibar (“Couple’s Bar”), an online club that would eventually attract 67,955 members. The site also produced a modest sideline in monthly fees — and soon proved so popular that the couple had to transfer the overloaded server to Hong Kong — although Su insisted that Fuqibar was “not a club for spouse swappers, but a platform for couples to ‘get to know’ each other.”
Still, she didn’t anticipate the blowback that would ensue from broadcasting the couple’s peccadilloes to the public. Later, Su acknowledged two missteps: “Underestimating the media’s power and overestimating the openness and tolerance of society. Otherwise I wouldn’t have accepted the interview,” she told Weekend; inevitably, Shaanxi police suspended Su.
Now living in Beijing, she and her husband work in e-commerce, hosting forums where anyone can meet: virtual versions of the brick walls tattooed with 小广告 (xiǎo guǎnggào, small ads) and graffiti, offering underworld services from fake diplomas to real hookers. Lewd pop-up gifs jostle for clicks on popular websites even within the Great Firewall. Everyone seems to be getting laid, or trying to, even if no one’s talking about it.
Ma hopes his travails may have started that discussion, though. “Had I not gone to jail, I’d be worthless,” he mused, comparing himself to Ximen Qing 西门庆, the rakish protagonist of swing Ming classic The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅 Jīnpíngméi): “Do you know him? Do you know which emperor ruled over him? You don’t.” Actually, having waded through an exhaustively academic 20-year, five-volume edition by late University of Chicago professor David Tod Roy, an endeavor that appears to have killed off the translator as well, I did: The book’s anonymous author, the “Scoffing Scholar of Lanling,” likely finished his erotic epic around 1610 under the Wanli Emperor, a ruler who rarely left his own harem.
There was no need to argue the point — polyamory can be difficult to discuss, let alone practice in China. Like the fictional Ximen Qing, Emperor Wanli died young of sexual excess, and the lifestyle seems to have sapped some of Ma’s qi, too. He no longer swings, but looks forward to a time when Chinese filmmakers can finally put his life on celluloid. “There was a scriptwriter who came to me once and said, ‘Your story would be valuable after I’m dead.’ But I don’t think it’s time yet,” Ma sighed. “Maybe it will be, when Mr. Xi Jinping thinks it through.”