The Return of the Chinese Concubine?

Chinese "netizens" often use the Internet to vent their anger at corrupt officials but now they have found a new target : the secret mistresses of the officials.

"These women have no iota of morality," one Web posting read. "They only want an easy life and they avoid any hard work. They should be punished."

"They are so shameless, they deserve to be slapped," an angry blogger wrote.

Such anger was aroused by a series of reports that put a spotlight on the role of mistresses in several high-profile corruption cases.

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"Behind every corrupt official is a scheming mistress," as the now-popular saying goes.

A leading official in south China, Chen Shaoji, was dismissed last month from his provincial post and expelled from the Communist Party for corrupt practices. State media reported that the high-ranking official in Guangdong province was brought down by the testimony of his purported mistress, a well-known television presenter, who spilled the beans on his allegedly illicit dealings.

In July, a court handed a suspended death sentence to Chen Tonghai, the chairman of the giant, state-owned oil company Sinopec, for taking $29 million in bribes. It would have been simply another in a long series of corruption cases in China except that the Chinese blogosphere was incensed by how the oil industry veteran used his position to help his mistress clinch some business deals with Sinopec.

Chen's mistress owned a real estate company and was able to buy land linked to a Sinopec refinery at prices below market value, according to Caijing, a business magazine known for its investigative reporting.

Moreover, the mistress provided investigators with information that led to the downfall of a high-flying city mayor, Du Shicheng. Du was the top public official in Qingdao, a scenic coastal city that hosted last year's Olympic yachting competition. The real estate company owned by the woman also happened to be based in the city.

Two Corrupt Men Involved With the Same Woman

The Qingdao mayor was sentenced to life in prison in February for taking $872,000 in bribes. The official report on Du's case described him as "leading a dissolute life," without getting into details.

But Chinese and Hong Kong media reports provided riveting information about the case. The Sinopec chairman's mistress was apparently involved with the mayor in more ways than one. They were both engaged in illegal land deals, according to the news reports.

But the plot thickened when the probe resulted in the abrupt resignation of Finance Minister Jin Renqing. The official statement said he was stepping down for personal reasons and he was transferred to a low-profile job. But other media reports suggested that the finance minister was implicated by the same lady who told investigators about her affairs with him, the Sinopec chairman and the Qingdao mayor.

Chinese bloggers have tagged the woman as an example of the growing tribe of "public mistresses" -- women who sleep with several senior officials in exchange for business favors.

The scale of the problem was highlighted in July by a communist party official in charge of inspecting discipline. In a speech, Qi Peiwen of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission said that more than 95 percent of government and party officials found to be corrupt had one or more mistresses.

He warned officials to avoid the practice because they don't earn enough income to afford it. Otherwise, the party discipline official said, the officials will end up trying every possible way -- legal or otherwise -- to use their position to make money and end up in prison if they break the law.

A report in 2007 by China's top prosecutor's office disclosed that 14 out of 16 senior leaders punished in major graft cases since 2002 were involved in "trading power for sex" -- the official code for having one or more mistresses.

Among the corrupt officials who traded power for sex was Politburo member and Shanghai's powerful party boss Chen Liangyu, the highest-ranking official to fall in a corruption probe in the past decade. A court sentenced him last year to 18 years in jail for embezzling public funds.

Mistresses Are a Throwback to Concubines

Another was Beijing Vice Mayor Liu Zhihua, who was in charge of the capital's construction projects, including the Olympic venues. He was accused of abusing his position to get contract projects for his mistress and was given a suspended death sentence last October for taking $878,000 in bribes, which he and his mistress allegedly pocketed.

Professor Li Yinhe, a sociologist who has researched Chinese sexual behavior, said the practice of keeping mistresses harkened back to the past Chinese practice of emperors and rich men keeping concubines. The communists abolished it when they came to power in 1949.

"But these concubines had a certain legal status then and they were publicly accepted," she told ABC News. "Now, these mistresses are different, they are kept secret from the public. They behave like secret concubines.

"The Chinese public is very upset about this phenomenon, particularly since it has become linked with official corruption," she added.

She said the economic prosperity and the loosening of social controls in the past 20 years has contributed to the emergence of the practice.

"This phenomenon was quite rare during the 1950s or even the 70s," the professor said. "There were tight social restrictions then and the behavior of officials was closely monitored by their work units. Even if somebody wanted to keep a mistress, it was very difficult to do so."

She blamed the double standard in society for this practice, saying Chinese men tended to view keeping mistresses as a symbol of power.