July 10, 2002

Protection

The night is rounding down and my friend downs the rest of his beer, takes a slow look around the emptying club and announces:

"I'm gonna get me a xiaojie!" (little sister/one-night lover)

He whispers and chuckles the finer points of xiaojie hunting to me as we exit the club along with similarly conspiring well-dressed men. As we wait for the cab and smoke our last cigarettes I inquire as to the hazards of xiaojie hunting and the precautions one must take.

"Chinese girls are clean," he tells me. "There is no need to worry."

I mention the "harmless" diseases that a person could catch he scoffs. I mention pregnancy and all the woes that could come of it he scoffs abortions are cheap. I finally bring up the Big One: AIDS.

"Only druggies and foreigners have AIDS in China."

And he disappears with a lazy wave and an anticipatory grin. According to the UN's latest assessment of the AIDS situation on the Mainland, there must be many like him. Men who have wives and girlfriends and regularly visit the brothels for cheap, quick anonymous fun. The sex business is flourishing as never before in a newly rich China: peasants from the countryside frequent the pink halls on the corners of most city streets, the university students slip in and out of inconspicuous apartments and the backdoors of small bars and the big whigs get a private room, a fancy apartment, whatever the case may be.

Peasant girls who used to shuck corn or make leather shoes or drip sweat onto microchips now giggle their way to the bank wearing designer fashions and glittering jewels. The best of them will be put up by a sugardaddy . They've never lived so good. But it is not just poor country girls. University students with broke parents are finding that a sugar daddy can put them through college, dress them up real nice and maybe even bring them to a fancy ball.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this picture. Except for the fact that condoms are used about as regularly as forks and knives in China.

Sex Education does not exist in China and if the government doesn't act quick with the 14 million the NIH promised them, it will be a long time before any Chinese youngster knows A) what a condom is and B) how to put one on. Attempts by well meaning foreign teachers can be met with cautious interest or outright hostility. But if the Chinese government were to institute sex education by decree, you can bet your bottom dollar that the whole nation would swing in line. Today's kids are more exposed and less inhibited than their parents or grandparents and also much more likely to have multiple partners. A whole generation of young Chinese may be at risk if they learn nothing about real life in the schools they attend most of the waking hours.

Because it's also not just the brothels: many college girls (the numbers are as nebulous as those from the UN report talking about sex is refined to same sex dorm-rooms and safe anonymous chat rooms) have an abortion story to tell. Abortion clinics pop up ON THE SIDE OF THE STREET next to the dentist, across the street from the brothel and upstairs from the STD treatment center.

If you walk the streets of any major city, sex shops carrying toys and tetracycline are a dime a dozen. Perhaps the shop won't have the toys, but a vast array of anti-viral drugs is available. The clerks even grin knowingly if a typical "I have an STD" purchase is made.

The UN report mentions drug users and blood banks as the two major causes for the rising AIDS epidemic the sex trade as an emerging source. The peasants who were infected in Henan made the pages of every newspaper in the West and therefore the blood-banks are mentioned in any report. The Chinese government would have you believe that drug users and assorted riff raff are responsible. But the ratio of HIV positive men to women has been shrinking in the last 20 years from 9:1 to 4:1. Either women weren't doing drugs/receiving as much blood in the past or .

Even in the US the traditions have remained strong, and therefore also the wall surrounding knowledge of sex: immigration brings certain perils, notes Pastor Chen of a Chinese Lutheran Church in Minnesota, such as the erosion of traditional Chinese values. Such as the class on how to use a condom at the local high school.

The Chinese leadership must realize that pushing the blame onto "criminals and drug users" is helping no one, least of all those who have already contracted HIV. Ostracized and shunned, these young Chinese are just beginning to find their voice. Perhaps this international slight (which always seems to move the ponderous CCP) will galvanize the nation. China needs to understand the perils of open doors and open markets and the revolution of Chinese society that will result.

Text-only printable version of this article

Sascha Matuszak is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily, and elsewhere. His exclusive Antiwar.com column (usually) appears Fridays.

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