Rape, bribery, organized crime, forcing women to sell their eggs, and surrogacy — the story of how notorious underworld figure Zhao Fuqiang turned his “Little Red Mansion” into hell on earth for countless women over the past two decades, has sent shock waves through Chinese social media.
The most shocking fact of all is that many of these women’s families are passively supportive of them going into Zhao’s trade and have knowingly turned a blind eye. How is this possible? And this case went to trial in 2020 behind closed doors and details were not released due to privacy; curiously, why has it become public at this time?
Subscribe to our Newsletter!
Receive selected content straight into your inbox.
‘Hair salons’ were a front for luring unknowing women
Zhao Fuqiang, the mastermind behind the Little Red Mansion, used to be a small-town tailor. He arrived in Shanghai in 2000 hoping to make some big and quick money. He gave up his tailor work for the more lucrative sex trade business by opening up “hair salons” as a front for luring unknowing women into his network.
His own wife was allegedly the first prostitute he recruited. He said to her that if she loved him, she should help make money for their future. They charged 150 Chinese RMB, (US$24) for one client. She then went on to recruit more young female workers through her network. They would find women through nanny agencies, online chat rooms, and even through prominent recruitment TV channel advertising under the disguise of well-paid positions at the hair salons and other businesses jointly owned by Zhao.
A woman who used to work at one of Zhao’s salons alleged that he recruited her from a nanny agency and then had sex with her, convincing her to become a prostitute by saying that he would be responsible for her welfare. However, he did not pay her wages and only gave her some living expenses at the end of the year. The woman also revealed that once girls become part of this network, they are scared into thinking their naked photos and details of their prostitution will be sent to families and friends back home. She called Zhao “a devil.”
In 2004, Zhao started a commercial subletting business where he tricked unknowing landlords into signing contracts with hidden clauses, and through blackmail and extortion, he would then sublease the stores out again for more profit. In a timeframe of nearly two decades, it is alleged that Zhao made around one billion RMB (US$156 million) from this. His network of sex and corruption consisted of very high-profile Chinese government officials, who also acted as his judicial protectors.
From ‘hair salons’ to a mansion
In 2014, Zhao bought a large building in Shanghai’s busy Yangpu District and moved his sex trade there. It is what we now know as the “Little Red Mansion” where Zhao provided customized escort services for Chinese government officials and businessmen, organized weekend trips, and facilitated sexual relations between the rich and powerful and his women.
The building was full of security cameras, potentially serving as blackmail material if ever needed, and only authorized persons could enter. Many residents living in the neighborhood had no idea such sordid dealings were happening behind the building’s closed doors, although the street on which the Little Red Mansion was located was a well-known “red light” district.
The first time Zhao’s case was reported to the police was when Chen Qian, a graduate from the U.S., applied for a high-paying job at one of his restaurants. Little did she know that her work location would be at the Little Red Mansion. She was then raped and lured into becoming his “girlfriend” and then used as a sex slave to serve public servants and government officials.
She managed to escape the high-security building during a trip to the bank in 2017 and reported her situation to the police. However, the police did not investigate further when Zhao brought in Chen’s mother to convince the authorities that it was a domestic dispute. It was later alleged Chen was beaten for her attempt at escaping.
Horrifically, she was also forced to make money for Zhao by undergoing egg extractions to sell to fertility clinics. Unfortunately for Chen, the excessive number of egg extractions she underwent resulted in fluid build-up in her abdomen and she eventually became infertile.
It wasn’t until 2019 that Zhao’s world started unraveling. The authorities finally took note when he was reported a second time by one of his ex-wives, Cui Qian, for rape, bribery, and prostitution, along with naming a number of people within higher-level positions as accomplices. Apart from rape, like Chen, she too was forced to undergo egg extractions, which caused her to suffer anxiety and depression.
In early 2019, Yan Lu, Party secretary of the Yangpu District Committee’s Political and Legal Affairs Committee, tipped off Zhao that authorities were coming to arrest him after learning through the deputy director of the Yangpu Branch Police Bureau that he had been placed under investigation. Zhao tried to escape with three women in his car but was later arrested.
The Shanghai Little Red Mansion is not an isolated case. There have been other similar cases in the past, but none as sordid as the details in this case.
Why did it happen?
One thing that baffled and angered the Chinese society was how Zhao managed to get away with such unbelievable acts of extortion and sex trafficking for over 20 years in a busy neighborhood and under the watchful eye of government offices located merely 300 meters away. There are two reasons for this.
First, the mansion was not only the workplace of these women, but it was also their entire world. Many of their relatives were involved and families lived and worked in the building. Those who were impregnated had their babies and they grew up there. Many of these women had husbands who worked as security guards for Zhao. The women themselves assisted Zhao with running his illegal network doing PR and acting as recruiters. This included all of his 6 ex-wives. So there was hardly anyone within Zhao’s organization who wanted to take the risk of reporting Zhao to the police.
In the early 1990s, this situation in Shanghai was not new. At that time, money was above everything and at the expense of human dignity. It was an open secret that local wives or daughters would willingly go into prostitution with foreign businessmen to earn easy money. Some would sell themselves for 2-3 year-terms as mistresses for wealthy Taiwanese businessmen.
Contract negotiations with foreign businessmen often involve escorts and “personal services.” These are the unspoken rules for any female involved in sales. As Shanghai became richer, locals gave way to outsiders in the prostitution industry. This also provided an unlimited supply for Zhao’s networks.
Secondly, and apart from the support of husbands and mothers of these women, Zhao was able to continue for so long through a protective “political umbrella,” many of whom were his clients. Shanghai’s Little Red Mansion had been protected by a huge political force for the past 20 years.
A drive to target factional opponents
The only reason this case made it into the courts is due to Xi Jinping’s politically driven anti-corruption drive to target factional opponents within the Communist Party. Many officials involved in protecting Zhao were undergoing investigations themselves.
Now, something else worth looking at is why details of this case have been released to the public at this particular time. Although many articles have been taken down since this didn’t occur before causing massive social discourse and outrage in Chinese society.
The verdict for this case was made at the end of 2020, with Zhao given a suspended death penalty and 13 government officials sentenced. Most of these officials are at a divisional level, which is not a very high level. There is speculation that the case has come to light 12 months later due to darker political reasons.
In China, nothing can be disassociated from politics. Analysts say that it is likely a much higher network of key Communist Party leaders are implicated in the case, possibly at the Current Politburo Standing Committee member level and CCP Shanghai Municipal Committee level, including Vice Mayors, Deputy Secretary Generals, and so on.
In China, every jaw-dropping case that sways public sentiment serves a political purpose, such as the cases involving corruption and sexual harassment in the entertainment sector not long ago. Each case was targeting the political influence network behind the perpetrators. It is not far-fetched to say that in this case, Chinese President Xi Jinping is using the case to target his political opponent, Jiang Zemin, whose power base is in Shanghai.
Some of the secrets behind Shanghai’s Little Red Mansion may just be too dark to ever come to light.