Sex and corruption in China's Dream City
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - Until recently, Deng Yujiao seemed an unlikely hero. The 21-year-old pedicurist worked in obscurity at the Xiongfeng Hotel in central Hubei province's Badong county. The hotel's Dream City leisure center is probably a euphemism for a brothel, but she was known only as a toenail cutter there until May 10.

On that night, she says she was assaulted by two government officials, one of whom slapped her repeatedly with wads of cash while insisting that she have sex with him. When the two men pushed her onto a sofa a second time, she recalls, she reached into her bag for a knife, an instrument she used in her trade, and began slashing away.

One of the officials, Deng Guida, the 44-year-old head of business promotion for the town of Yesanguan and the apparent would-be sex client, died from his wounds; his unnamed colleague, also 44, survived.

While there was little public sympathy for the dead man or his injured cohort, suddenly a previously unknown pedicurist working in a seedy hotel was being hailed by Chinese netizens as a champion of women's rights and hero of the underclass. Women's groups, including the semi-governmental All-China Women's Federation, took up her cause, and even state media picked up her story, which has become a national sensation.

Until last week, that is, when the country's censor tsar, jittery about public ire manifested in any form as the 20th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown approaches, decided to pull the plug.

“Hubei's case concerning Deng Yujiao,” a gag order from the Central Publicity Department stated, “has been under judicial investigation in accordance with the law, and news organizations should halt following up the case temporarily and call back journalists working in Hubei immediately.”

Since the department issued this edict, two journalists - Kong Pu of the Beijing Times and Wei Yi of the Nangfang People Weekly - have reportedly been beaten and detained as they attempted to interview Deng Yujiao's grandmother, and Yesanguan has been sealed off by local authorities.

Only a few days before the gag order was handed down, China Daily, the Communist Party's chief English-language mouthpiece, ran a detailed account of the young woman's allegations against the two officials.

Also prior to the order, her blow-by-blow account of the alleged assault appeared in the Southern Metropolis News, a newspaper that frequently runs afoul of Chinese authorities.

In the article, based on the pedicurist's conversations with her lawyers, Deng Guida is quoted as shouting at her: "What do you mean about working here or upstairs? Aren't you all the same? You are a prostitute, but you still want to have a good reputation."
Before he allegedly began beating Deng Yujiao on the face and shoulders with lumps of cash, the official is quoted as saying: "Don't you want money? You have never seen money! How much money do you want? Just say so. Would you believe that I am going to beat you to death with money today?"

To which Deng Yujiao reportedly replied: "Yes, I have never seen money. If you have guts, you can beat me to death."

That challenge Deng Guida apparently took up, but he was the one who wound up dead. His death has reminded ordinary citizens of the deep-rooted arrogance and corruption that still suffuse the party that rules them.

Once it was clear that the story had captured widespread public attention as a kind of morality play in which victimized womanhood finally strikes back against official corruption and brutality, it was deemed a threat - especially with June 4, the ultimate symbol of the party's brutality, just around the corner.

News that Deng Yujiao's family had fired the two lawyers, Xia Lin and Xia Nan, who have so aggressively pursued her case, may be a sign that authorities have gone beyond suppressing the news to trying to manufacture it. The young woman's netizen champions refuse to be silenced, however, suspecting that the family has been paid off by the Badong county officials who claimed that the lawyers had been sacked.

The family has neither confirmed nor denied that claim.

At the same time, according to a report in the Hubei Daily, local police have concluded that there was no attempted rape in the case, contradicting their initial investigation.

Ironically, it was Deng Yujiao who called the police to the dying man and his wounded colleague in the first place. She was then arrested in the lobby of the hotel on suspicion of homicide.

In a sign that officials are responding to public pressure, she has since been released from custody and put under house arrest. In addition, the official Xinhua News Agency announced over the weekend that local police now say Deng Yujiao acted in self-defense, although with "excessive force". Xinhua also reported that two other officials who worked under Deng Guida and were at the hotel on the night he was stabbed have been sacked for violating party rules on self-discipline.

The worst outcome for Deng Yujiao now appears to be a conviction on the charge of manslaughter. But that result would only exacerbate the anger of a public that has adopted her as its latest champion against China's base and arrogant class of local officials.

Further complicating the case is the country's perversely hypocritical attitude toward the sex trade. In the new, market-oriented China, sex is for sale everywhere, just like everything else, and yet the government continues to live in puritanical denial of this reality.

In every city and town in China, establishments like the Dream City leisure center are flourishing. With a government in denial, however, the women who work in and around the sex industry are left in an extremely vulnerable position. When you don't officially exist, who can you call on to protect you?

That leaves Deng Yujiao in a tough spot. Moreover, her story has captured the imagination of a public that is bucking to stand up against official corruption at a time when Beijing is wrapped in paranoia about the imminent June 4 anniversary.

There is no more sensitive date on China's political calendar this year. As it approaches, Chinese leaders appear absolutely determined to snuff out any signs of dissent that could be even remotely associated with the student-led pro-democracy movement crushed by the Chinese military this week 20 years ago.

After all, that movement was also an uprising against the corruption that, both then and now, is endemic to the Communist Party.

Pity Deng Yujiao, its latest victim.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.