Despatches: Chinese TV breaks taboo to put sex on small screen

Chinese television is testing the limits of what its propaganda masters will allow. Teresa Poole, in Peking, says today's viewer can find much more than glowing despatches from the latest tractor collective.

The camera had been hidden in a shoulder bag as the television reporter wandered into a barber's shop at 3pm, and the grainy footage clearly showed a young Chinese woman in a long black and white diamond-patterned dress greeting him at the door. "Massage 80 yuan (pounds 7.50)," she smiled. "Is that one hour?" asked the fearless investigative journalist. "Yes, do you want one?"

"How about the tips?"

"Depends on the places I massage you."

Prostitution is thriving in China, but it is not normally featured on mid-morning television. So when Peking Express, one of a new brand of Chinese current affairs and consumer shows, recently set about exposing the city's undercover sex trade, it trod a careful path.

The subject matter was easy enough to find. As the hidden camera was led into a small curtained-off room at the back of yet another Peking barber's shop, the girl said she could offer a "special service" for 300 yuan (pounds 23). Looking about 18 years old, she said: "Do a business of 300 yuan with little sister ... do little sister a favour."

Sympathy was not high on the agenda from the television programme, however. "Those playing with fire will be burned," said the concluding censorious commentary. "The Public Security Bureau will intensify its strike against this ugly behaviour."

Mainstream television news in China is still under the firm control of the propaganda bosses, but a handful of current affairs shows now offer more ambitious fare. Peking Express, a 20-minute programme started by Peking Television in 1995, produces four editions a week, each of which usually airs three times a day. The audience is big - up to 2 million. A telephone hotline allows viewers to phone in with complaints that need investigating, including tales of bureaucratic intransigence.

The mix of subjects would seem bizarre to a British television audience. The prostitution report was sandwiched between a survey on the causes of stress (inadequate social welfare and increasing income gap) and warnings about small, private watch-repair stalls which rip off customers.

Championing the consumer and exposing shoddy goods allows the programme greater leeway than one might expect, given that the media is still one of the tightest government-controlled sectors.

Everyone knows there is a limit beyond which it would be professional suicide to venture. "There are some subjects which we want to make programmes about, but are not allowed," said Niu Zhenqing, 25, a reporter on Peking Express. No programme could investigate Peking's biggest corruption scandal, which saw the toppling of the city's party chief.

Du Xin, the deputy director of the Peking Television department which makes Peking Express, said: "No matter what programme you are making, you'd better get the support of the relevant government department first."

So when the Peking Express journalists came back with hours of footage about city prostitution, the programme contacted the Peking Industrial and Commercial Bureau and the Public Security Bureau and made a return visit to the karaoke bars with the police.

The girls and women were shown being arrested and questioned in prurient detail. The programme never asked why women from the provinces find themselves as "hostesses", the cameraman paid scant attention to the male clientele, did not reveal who owned the clubs, and did not ask why all this prostitution has been going on relatively openly under the noses of the police.

One punter, caught quite literally with his pants down, was led away quickly, while the camera zoomed in on his female companion.

If there is one rule which television programmes know well, it is not to risk stepping on important toes. And these days in China, who knows which official one might find in a darkened room in a karaoke bar.

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