Chinese women pay thugs thousands of dollars to win back their cheating husbands

A dangerous game.
A dangerous game.
Image: Reuters/Claro Cortes
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His days in one of Chongqing’s many infamous gangs are behind him. Today, the shaved-head 40-something “Mr. Li” calls himself a private detective. But recently, he has seen increasing demand for a service in which he rids marriages of an unwanted third party. He has become a professional at making mistresses disappear.

I met Li a few years ago at an impeccably quiet coffee shop in downtown Chongqing, above empty Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani flagship stores and wedged between luxury watch retailers. I was accompanied by a local friend after spotting Li’s online ad, which offered his services to eliminate mistresses and restore peace to a marriage. My friend told him she needed to inquire about his services.

It is no secret in China that many men who reach a certain level of wealth opt to keep a mistress. Some men keep two, and some keep many more than that. “Any society as dominated by male leaders, and with as vast a chasm between the elite and the poor [as China’s], sees the same exploitation of young women by powerful men,” wrote journalist James Palmer in an essay on why women in China become mistresses.

Most of the time, husband-mistress relationships find a natural end. But sometimes, Li’s services are necessary.

His clients aren’t the husbands, but the wives. They hand over anywhere from $500 to $16,000 for Li to employ threats, intimidation, and the occasional use of brutal violence to scare off their rivals and get their lying husbands back.

“Sometimes, the man’s wife will come to me to collect evidence of their affair,” explained Li. “I can photograph them together, or sometimes the wife wants to confront them in the act.” That evidence, collected for around 3,000 yuan ($480), helps the wife in a divorce case.

But in Li’s experience, he said, more often married women don’t want to divorce their husbands, regardless of their transgressions. And that’s where Li’s services get a lot darker. For a certain price, he explained, there are ways to “disrupt” the illegitimate relationship, without confronting the cheating husband.

First, Li will see if the mistress has a boyfriend—i.e. a man for whom she actually has feelings—and will bring evidence of her affair to him, in the hope that her boyfriend will persuade her to end her relationship with the married man.

If this doesn’t work, or if there is no boyfriend, then Li will chat to the mistress’s family in the hope that they will instead do the serious talking. “Sometimes, though, the girl is from a really poor family,” he said. “These are the most likely to want to stay with their married man, because they really have no other way to make money.”

In cases like this, he said, he will have to visit the mistress directly. “I can scare her, threaten her with violence, and tell her that there will be trouble if she doesn’t stop seeing her married man,” he said. Ultimately though, some girls do not heed his warning, and it is in these cases that extreme measures are required. “If it comes to it—if the girl will absolutely not give up the man—then we must take a different approach,” he explained. “We must make it so that the man finds her less attractive.”

His most extreme service costs the client 100,000 yuan ($16,100). Li said he will enlist thugs armed with a bottle of acid and a knife. They follow his instructions to find the mistress, get hold of her, pour acid on to and then cut the skin off of her face.

“The husband won’t want to keep seeing a woman whose face he cannot bear to look at,” Li said. “The relationship will find a natural end.”

The stigma of divorce

Women in China weighing the option of divorce can be forgiven for feeling that the law is designed to dissuade them from breaking it off with their spouse. In August 2011, the Supreme People’s Court issued its third reinterpretation of China’s marriage law, stating that any property owned by an individual before marriage is theirs after marriage too.

In China, property is a big deal, and owning an apartment is almost the only measure of security a family can hope for. It is so important, in fact, that an eligible bachelor can be said to be judged by the size of his mortgage. Young men typically use their parents’ money to pay the down payment on a house, often before finding a partner. The problem with this is that because he bought his house before marriage, unless he adds his wife’s name to the deed it will remain his if the couple divorces.

This leaves women in a predicament. Staying in a bad marriage, of course, means continuing unhappiness—but leaving could mean homelessness.

There also remains some social stigma to being a female divorcee in China, which can add to the difficulty of finding a new partner. “Traditional attitudes among men looking for a partner emphasize the woman’s purity, or chastity,” said Sandy To, a lecturer at the Department of Sociology of the University of Hong Kong. Being a divorcee lowers these values in a woman; it is no longer true to say that society itself frowns upon divorce but, To added, “although society won’t judge you, new partners will.”

Ultimately, the choice between divorce and staying married is an intensely private one, and while social stigmas are fading (divorce rates are rising rapidly), one would hope the law catches up with the times. Meanwhile, To added, there remains another powerful reason why some married women choose to spend so much money on a dangerous and possibly brutal means of ousting a mistress: “Maybe they just still love their husbands; maybe they believe things can still work out.”