The Chinese Reaction to the Petraeus Scandal: ... That's All There Is to It?!

Internet users in the People's Republic scoff at the modesty of American infidelity.

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While the 18th Party Congress unfolded last week with all the cinematic verve of Friday-night C-SPAN, Chinese citizens might have done well to skip the latest James Bond release and watch U.S. political theater -- sequel-ready and better scripted than any Hollywood potboiler -- instead. The episode in question? Former CIA director David Petraeus' extramarital affair in all its unspooling drama, surely the envy of screenwriters from here to -- well, anywhere short of China.

It's not that the Chinese are bored by salacious scandal; how could you be bored with a plot like this? Rather, it's the banality of the offense that elicits yawns. In the words of one Internet forum contributor: "What's the big deal? Someone in his position, getting involved with two middle-aged women is really to be expected."

In another conversation thread, someone sighed: "His resume is truly impressive. What a pity to be felled by the mere matter of a woman." "An injustice has been done to him," echoed a fellow chatroom participant. A third voice was more indignant, though not necessarily at Petraeus: Womanizing is really nothing! [...] It's just his position [...] when did the CIA become so open with its private business?"

If China's digital citizenry seem nonplussed by lechery, one must consider their point of reference. According to one anti-graft official, as many as 95 percent of officials netted in corruption cracks are discovered to be keeping mistresses. The mind-boggling examples are countless. Liu Zhijun, the former railway minister, kept 18 but still managed to find the selection wanting. Fortunately for him, his friend, an official in the province of Fujian, was in a generous mood and hosted the first (and last) competition to judge which of his own stable of 22 lady companions Liu found most pleasing.

Neither does the licentiousness exist on gossip columns alone. All over China, apartment compounds devoted exclusively to the housing of mistresses have risen, accommodating the second, third, and perhaps 21st and 22nd families of party apparatchiks. And if these urban concubine colonies are still not enough proof of philandering prowess, an official may do well to document his conquest in longhand, as one Guangxi tobacco bureau chief has done in a Twitter-style diary that quickly became a viral sensation.

In fact, China is so inured to the womanizing ways of its party officials that it has published rankings, complete with photos, to the top 10 mistresses of corrupt officials, in order of their "beauty and intelligence." (one assumes that with her lean physique and West Point pedigree, Paula Broadwell would have done well here.) To emphasize the labors involved in culling such a list, the introduction to the rankings reads: The number of corrupt officials and mistresses in China are truly beyond a person's ability to enumerate...."

Then again, hasn't this been the case for centuries? In China, the culture of concubinism stretches back to the first dynasties when emperors and ministers alike regularly indulged in the possession of harems. Ironically, it was the Communist Party who in the early years of its reign, banned, or at least sought to ban social sins of promiscuity and prostitution. The campaign was successful enough, keeping such vices invisible well into the early 80s, even if its paramount leader, Chairman Mao, took exception to the rule with his own numerous dalliances. In the aughts, its flagrant proliferation has caused the Party to issue warnings to its top-ranking cadres, one more explicit than the next, against the temptations of "money and beautiful women," though to little avail.

Mistress-keeping, in the post-Deng's era of "To Get Rich Is Glorious" economics, is as much of a status symbol as a BMW convertible and as often-decried as its concomitant twin, corruption. Unfortunately for the nominally socialist state, the phenomenon is about as prevalent as another target of resounding condemnation: hypocrisy.

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Jiayang Fan does story research and translations for The New Yorker.

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