Li Yinhe’s latest blog post is about her position on the introduction of rules at Chongqing Normal University and Southwest Normal University that ban students from having one-night stands and being mistresses, an issue that has provoked a debate on sexual freedom, human rights, and the involvement of the authorities in people’s private lives. She argues that whilst from a legal standpoint people’s extra-marital affairs are their own dirty business, Chinese people should use the power of shame to prevent people from having affairs.
Recently, a certain university learned that a female student was a mistress, and planned to take disciplinary action, provoking much debate.
If a female student becomes someone’s mistress, it is certainly wrong on a moral level. Even if she is not a mistress, and just a normal lover, it’s still morally wrong, because she has ruined someone else’s family and marriage. This is essentially different to her having a relationship with and living with a single person; pre-marital cohabitation may contravene normal societal conventions, but on a moral level, it is not much of a problem.
The question is whether or not the university should take disciplinary action. The issue of how to deal with the violation of marital morality has been a focal point of debate in recent decades. Before Reform and Opening, extra-marital sex was punished quite severely, with administrative demerits and punishments that would [negatively] affect promotions and pay rises. It is said that during the Cultural Revolution there existed the crime of ‘breaking a family’, which specifically punished extra-marital sex. Since Reform and Opening, this crime no longer exists, work units no longer control the private lives of their workers, and the administrative punishment of this sort of immoral behaviour is no longer carried out. In 2000, when marriage law was amended, there were still those who strongly advocated the use of judicial powers to control extra-marital sex, but after the issue was debated in legal and social scientific circles, they ultimately abandoned this attempt. One reason for this was that studies conducted in Western countries showed an extra-marital sex rate of around 40 per cent. The proportion of extra-marital sex in China was a little lower, but it was still at roughly 16 per cent. If the target of a law renders 16 per cent of the population guilty, then even if it does become legislation, it will exist in name only; there is not enough police power to investigate these kinds of cases and to carry out this kind of punishment.
Aside from this, when we look at the extent to which the powers (judicial and administrative) should control the private morality of citizens, punishing extra-marital sexual activity also becomes a problem. If we are to punish this mistress, then are we also to punish the person who was keeping her (some say that his mistake was even greater, this mistress was, after all, single)? If we are to punish extra-marital sex, then are we also to punish pre-marital sex? Because, although there is no moral problem with pre-marital sex, it is certainly a contravention of traditional norms. If we are to punish this heterosexual activity that violates traditional norms, then are we also to punish homosexual activity, which violates traditional norms even further? The list goes on. This brings us back to the previous question: to what extent should [government] powers control citizens’ private lives, which [aspects] should they control, and which should they not.
My position on this is: the border of control should be whether or not there is personal harm. To put it differently, if someone’s behaviour causes personal harm (such as rape, seduction, obscenity), then punishment should be administered; if it has only violated morality and traditional norms, then criminal and administrative punishment should not be given.
So, how should we deal with behaviour such as keeping a mistress or having an affair? Just let things slide? No. This type of behaviour, we should correct with educational criticism methods. Our culture is often categorised as “shame culture” (as opposed to Western “guilt culture”), and the issue of extra-marital sex is exactly where we should allow this culture to show its strength. We should create a strong public consensus (in fact, this public consensus is and always has been strong), and disgrace those who have affairs and keep mistresses, and let those involved know that to have a mistress is shameful and devious. […]
This way, we can regulate immoral behaviour without having to use (judicial and administrative) powers, [which would] impose upon and control the private lives of citizens; we can both keep an orderly society and protect personal rights, prevent the abuse of common rights and the abuse of private rights, putting public and private rights into equilibrium.
Keeping administrative interference to a minimum? Cool. Doing away with the destructive and often exploitative culture of extra-marital affairs? Awesome. Doing it all the Chinese way? Right on. But whilst the proposed disciplinary policy is ill-conceived and unworkable, that doesn’t change the fact that thousands of female university students feel that their best chance of getting ahead in life is to go and ruin someone else’s marriage. Li is dead right that the problem is cultural rather than legal but, as she says herself, this type of behaviour is already publically deplored in China; when someone is caught having an affair, the media is very quick to shame them. Meanwhile, the practice is still rife in private. This would seem to be the result of a combination of a perceived lack of better options amongst female students (as pointed out by Shanghaiist), a swelling demographic of moneyed pervs, and a relationship culture that often places more importance on how much money your partner makes than on whether or not they’re already married. Whilst Li’s suggested course of action is probably the most rational, the roots of the problem could be far deeper than can be reached by simple “shaming”.