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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 January 2008, 14:21 GMT
Beijing bulletin
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and girlfriend Carla Bruni
The romance between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and girlfriend Carla Bruni is big news in China

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

China resembles Victorian Britain in many ways.

First, there are the factories that have turned China, like Britain before it, into the workshop of the world.

The wheels of this industrial revolution are kept turning by an army of poor workers, who have left their farms for China's booming towns and cities.

Many of these live and work in conditions that would not be out of place in a novel by Charles Dickens. It's still a hard life for many Chinese workers.

China's attitude to sex is also Victorian.

Outwardly, people are conservative and strait-laced. But in private it's an altogether different story.

Charles Dickens
There is a Dickensian feel to life in modern China

Just as in 19th century London, brothels and prostitutes flourish against a backdrop of official disapproval.

This disapproval comes in periodic sweeps against the sex trade.

A recent newspaper photograph showed a police officer smashing up a "hairdresser's" that provided a little more than a shampoo and set.

The cop looked just like a gangster from TV show The Sopranos. He was using a chair to batter a mirror.

But, as there's always demand, these "hairdresser's" usually pop up again when the heat is off.

This underground world of sex is not hard to find in China - and sometimes finds you.

On a recent trip to Henan Province, I stayed at the three-star Hotel Victoria, which looked like a respectable establishment.

I was wrong.

There's been a debate here about the possibility that Playboy could be available on the newsstands during the Olympics

I was awoken from a deep sleep in the early hours by the ringing of the telephone; someone wanted to send a woman up to my room to give me a "massage".

I wasn't interested, but the caller was persistent. "She's very pretty. Perhaps tomorrow night?"

It's not just the seedier side of sex that has a double life in China: It's the same in ordinary relationships.

Young couples who have flocked to the cities to find work often move in together - but they keep the news secret from their parents back home.

And even these progressive couples would rarely consider having children out of wedlock. It's just not done.

Sexual gossip is also subject to double standards.

Just like in the rest of the world, Chinese people are fascinated by titillating news about the private lives of the rich and famous.

The Playboy logo on a Las Vegas hotel
The Playboy logo flies high in Las Vegas, but pornography is still illegal in China

The romantic shenanigans of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his new girlfriend Carla Bruni is a hot topic.

My Chinese teacher was laughing about it just the other day.

Perhaps this interest is a reaction against the complete lack of personal information about Chinese leaders.

The media is closely controlled and little leaks out.

"President Hu Jintao relaxing at home with his wife" is an article that will never appear in the magazine Hello!

And pornography might be freely available, but it's still illegal.

There's been a debate here about the possibility that Playboy could be available on the newsstands in China during the Olympics because of relaxed censorship rules.

But even if that does happen, it will be a long time before playmate of the month becomes an acceptable topic at Chinese dinner parties.

Michael Bristow will be filing fortnightly columns from Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in August.

Countdown: loading...

Beijing bulletin
07 Jan 08 |  Olympics & Olympic sport
Olympics stir mixed emotions in China
02 Jan 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Olympic tickets on sale illegally
10 Dec 07 |  Asia-Pacific
China rules out West's democracy
15 Oct 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Olympic crackdown on China's bad habits
06 Aug 07 |  Asia-Pacific


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