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CHENGGUAN, China — The sign above the entry to the Water Cube bathhouse lit up at night with blue ocean waves, palm trees and red characters advertising spring waters. It was one of the last things the girls saw before their lives changed forever. |
Lured to the club, the high school students were forced either to strip naked or to have sex — accounts vary — and their naked bodies were photographed. The pictures allegedly constituted a threat: Bring your classmates to the Water Cube, or your nude image will be passed around the streets of Chengguan.
As the string of victims grew, teenagers reportedly were pressed into prostitution. By the time authorities put a stop to it last year, as many as 50 to 60 students may have been snared in the trap, according to accusations published last month in a story by Legal Daily, a publication overseen by China's Ministry of Justice.
Past the terrible details set at a drab spa on the edge of an industrial park in central China, the incident raised troubling questions in the minds of residents: Did government officials and their associates provide protection to the Water Cube? Were they among the customers who paid cash to rape local girls?
The Legal Daily carried allegations of some 10 instances of unnamed officials and well-known citizens in Chengguan having sex with young prostitutes at the Water Cube in the spring of 2010. The club, named for the Olympic aquatics center in Beijing, is one intersection away from a police station.
"People here are angry about the behavior of these government officials and they want a thorough investigation," said one Chengguan businessman, a 46-year-old surnamed Zhang. Like almost all residents interviewed for this story, Zhang asked that his full name not be printed for fear of reprisal.
In Chengguan, authorities are said to have delayed investigating the Water Cube until provincial leaders, alarmed by public discontent and online postings, demanded action. Even after a series of court verdicts, many in this township of about 67,000 people felt certain that officials of higher stripe had escaped punishment.
"A lot of people have used their 'big money' to buy their freedom in this case," said Yuan, a 30-year-old primary school teacher in Chengguan, who agreed to be interviewed but only if away from public view.
"People are very angry that you need connections here to avoid prosecution, but no one dares to speak up," Yuan said, sitting in a small sport utility vehicle pulled to the side of the road.
"The government is a family that includes these sorts of people," Wang said, standing in front of his home in a relatively upscale quarter of Chengguan. "There's nothing we can do about it given the fact that the government turns a blind eye to these dark things."
Five low-level security and government functionaries stood convicted this year for not properly attending to inspection duties related to the club. The sentences — ranging from six months to two years — were suspended, according to Legal Daily, allowing the defendants to go free under probation.
One man publicly identified as an owner of the Water Cube, Jiang Junwei, was sentenced Tuesday to seven years in prison for sheltering prostitution and, in one instance, arranging sexual services for friends, according to his attorney.
The lawyer, Xu Zhongqiu, said that Jiang had held a 20.4 percent stake in the club and transferred it to another person in January 2010. In a series of email exchanges, Xu wouldn't describe the backgrounds of the other owners. He declined to meet in person at his office in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou, about 40 miles from Chengguan.
Xu said the number of girls referenced by Legal Daily, 50 to 60, didn't match what was given in court.
How many, then?
"Because it concerns personal privacy, it's not convenient to disclose details," Xu said.
In Jiang's home village, which sits near the Water Cube, a couple of women who were getting out of a nice Buick sedan said that everyone knew his story. Jiang had risen from working in the construction trade to buying real estate, they said. Plus, his older brother is the head of the village.
"When he opened this business and as he was trying to build guanxi" — connections — "he probably got into something that was bigger than he could handle," said one of them, a 30-year-old surnamed Liu who's a former neighbor of Jiang's.
"People here try not to talk about it much, probably because news about it was suppressed locally," [a local] said. "Or maybe it's because a lot of officials were involved."