SCMP Monday, June 18, 2001
Sex, divorce and videotape
MICHAEL DORGAN of Knight Ridder
The man known as the "Mistress Killer" stubbed out his cigarette in an overflowing ashtray and plugged a small video camera into a television monitor.
The footage was jerky and crudely edited. But the images, of a wealthy businessman taking his mistress shopping and to lunch, were clear and, to the businessman's wife, money in the bank.
"She tried to catch her husband for three years. I got him on tape in three days," boasts Wei Wujun, one of China's first private detectives, who spends his nights tailing unfaithful spouses and staking out their love nests.
Mr Wei has been riding a profitable wave of matrimonial infidelity. Among the many changes that have transformed China in recent years, some of the more dramatic have taken place in the nation's bedrooms. As incomes have grown and social controls have diminished, infidelity has soared, and so have divorce rates.
The Government recently revised the nation's 20-year-old Marriage Law, introducing the concept of fault in divorce.
Previously, divorce on the mainland usually meant an equal division of family property. But now, unfaithful spouses, who are mostly men, can emerge from divorce proceedings stripped clean. Not only that, but at-fault spouses can be forced to pay damages from future earnings.
Since the revised law went into effect last month, Mr Wei's telephones have been ringing off the hook at his home office in Chengdu, Sichuan province, and his new satellite office in Shanghai. Many women have been stockpiling suspicions of infidelity for years in anticipation of the new law, and now they are eager to collect hard evidence and cash in, he says.
Mr Wei hopes to cash in, too, though he says he often loses money on cases because of the long hours he logs to catch his prey on audio and video tape. The husky former army intelligence officer says he learned his detective techniques by watching American movies.
The night before a reporter visited his new office near Shanghai airport, he wasted several hours watching a parked car. A man and his mistress were inside, but Mr Wei's efforts to videotape them were thwarted by the car's dark-tinted windows.
"Tinted windows are a big problem in China," he complains.
Mr Wei charges 12,000 yuan (about HK$11,100) per case in Chengdu and 20,000 yuan per case in Shanghai, plus expenses. His Shanghai fee is about double the average per-capita annual income of the city's residents, but many among China's emerging middle class can afford such services.
He claims a 98 per cent success rate in collecting evidence of infidelity for his clients, 95 per cent of whom are women. But even with evidence in hand, how much help his clients will get from the new law remains unclear.
One woman hoping to benefit is Chen Jie, a soft-spoken, 36-year-old accountant who says her husband made off with all their property when they separated last October after she confronted him about his infidelity. She says the new law may be of little use to her and many other jilted wives, because China is still dominated by men. Judges and lawyers are not willing to investigate or take her case seriously, she says. She expects to be cheated out of a large chunk of the property when her divorce is finalised.
After their separation, her husband sold 160,000 yuan worth of jointly held stocks on the same day his mistress made a payment of nearly that amount on a new apartment. Mr Chen says it is obvious some of the money spent on the love nest belonged to her. But she says the court has ruled that because both transactions were in cash, she can make no claim on the new apartment.
Attitudes of lawyers and judges are not the only problems. Corruption is rampant, according to Mr Wei and others, who say favourable verdicts sometimes go to the highest bidder.
Tian Hong, a 35-year-old bank clerk, began to suspect that her husband paid off the judge in her case at the initial hearing, when the judge urged her to accept the terms proposed by her husband. Her suspicions grew when the judge refused to accept as evidence a videotape shot by Mr Wei of her husband with his mistress. She has appealed against the court-imposed settlement. But a reversal is unlikely. China's divorce courts, like its other courts, are built on weak legal foundations, with verdicts often determined more by vested interests or political pressure than by law and evidence.
The new law provides no mechanism for determining fault. Law-enforcement agencies have shown no interest in investigating divorce cases, and private detectives such as Mr Wei must operate in an unlicensed, quasi-legal grey area.
Still, Mr Wei says many women stand to benefit from the new law because many courts have begun to accept evidence and rule fairly.
Public pressure on the courts is likely to grow with China's divorce rate, which has tripled over the past 20 years.
The rate now is 13 per cent nationwide but nearly 30 per cent in some cities.
Li Yinhe, a sociology professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says women initiate 70 per cent of divorces in China, and the primary cause they cite is extramarital affairs by their husbands.