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Yesterday it was announced that Ma Yulan, a year-old Peking woman, had been sentenced to death for procuring women for prostitution at her Yuquan Restaurant. Had she been operating a nightclub in some of China's other cities, Ms Ma would have collected taxes from her establishment's san pei xiaojie literally: three-accompaniments girls, meaning drinking, singing and dancing to pass on to the local government, regardless of whether they were also selling sex.
Chinese law is clear that prostitution or organising prostitutes is illegal, but a recent decision by several cities to impose taxes on the san pei girls has thrown an ambiguous and often inconsistent government policy into the spotlight, especially when the death sentence is elsewhere being handed down for pimping. Some nightclub san pei women restrict their services to drinking, singing and dancing with their male clients, but it is well established that others provide a lot more for the right price.
A number of local governments in places as widely flung as Shenyang in the north-east rustbelt province of Liaoning, and Putian in the southern coastal province of Fujian, have decided that local coffers should benefit from the san pei nightclub-hostess business, whatever the women do.
Such places have imposed a flat-rate monthly tax charge on the san pei; Shenyang charges yuan a month, while in Putian it is just yuan. Both authorities would obviously deny that they were collecting taxes from women who also sell sex. There was a time when China prided itself on how Chairman Mao had stamped out prostitution after the Communist victory in Times have changed. A recent article in the China Women's News estimated the number of Shenyang's san pei women at , Even if only a minority extend their services to prostitution that is still a considerable number in an increasingly dangerous trade.
In the past three years 90 san pei women had been murdered in Shenyang, about a third by robbers after their earnings. Aids is another threat, with China's estimated , HIV cases forecast to reach 1 million by Prostitution is so widespread it is impossible to avoid. From five-star hotel foyers to karaoke and entertainment centres, in dance halls and massage parlours, and hairdressing and beauty salons, sex is for sale in China's market economy - and usually quite openly.