The prostitute in the How Cool Coffee Bar on Hainan Island, 270 miles southwest of Hong Kong, was young and beautiful and she claimed to be a distant relative of Chairman Mao Tse-tung. With her pimp watching warily from a comer, Audrey Mao (the name she uses with English-speaking customers) said that she had escaped the grinding poverty of the former chairman’s home village, Shaoshan, three years ago—when she was only 17—for the fast life on tropical Hainan. China’s leaders once regarded Hainan as the island of the future, Beijing’s version of Hawaii or Hong Kong, an offshore attraction for tourists and investors. Then, last year, after Chinese leaders brutally suppressed pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, they all but stopped Hainan development, making it one of the most prominent victims of the Communist party’s efforts to roll back the capitalist reforms of the past decade.
Publicly, government officials say that they
have not halted the island’s development campaign, which began in earnest three years ago. But, last September, they installed Liu Jianfeng, an ideological hardliner, as the island’s governor, replacing the reformminded Liang Xiang, who was placed under house arrest on unspecified charges. There has also been a dramatic downturn in foreign investment, partly as a result of uncertainty about the future and partly because of the economic and ideological austerity of the government. Even the prostitutes are feeling the pinch: Audrey Mao said that she had to hide for several months after the Tiananmen affair to escape a government crackdown on prostitution and
pornography. Even now, business remains off. “I was learning English,” said Mao, “but there is nobody to practice with now.”
On the surface, however, little has changed in sun-drenched Hainan. The island’s six million people are still among the freest in China. Unlike Audrey Mao, most of the initial wave of immigrants who came from the mainland three years ago have been sent home. Now, mainlanders need a permit even to visit, although many land illegally at night in small vessels.
The island really comes alive at around 10 p.m. Pop songs blare out of the ghettoblasters of street vendors. Madonna videos play on giant screens, enticing big spenders into discos that feature the latest laser lighting and offer such drinks as San Miguel beer and Tia Maria liqueur. Outdoor restaurants and street markets bustle through the night, and shops sell fake Rolex watches, computer games, freezers and state-of-the-art stereos.
But Beijing’s chill ideological wind is clearly blowing. That was evident from the removal from office and subsequent arrest of the 71-year-old Liang. During his 18 months as governor, the flamboyant official succeeded in winning provincial status for Hainan, with special powers to make its own decisions in most dealings with foreign investors. He also presided over marked improvements in the island’s public services, including roads, power plants and the telephone system. His arrest appeared to be politically motivated.
Liang was a pragmatist and political ally of Zhao Ziyang, the Communist party chief who was forced out in disgrace after the Tiananmen uprising. One source close to Liang said that he was a “great guy in the sense that he hated the Chinese system itself.” But the source, who requested anonymity, added: “In China, you cannot forget politics. He was too anxious to get things done and he created a lot of enemies.” Friends say that he now spends his days restlessly roaming his apartment or watching videos as investigators from Beijing attempt— so far unsuccessfully—to find evidence to convict him on corruption charges.
The Chinese government, led by hard-line Premier Li Peng, has also delayed one of the boldest foreign-investment projects planned under Liang’s leadership. A consortium of Japanese firms led by the Kumagai Gumi construction company wanted to lease a 14-square-mile area of Hainan. Using Chinese labor, they then hoped to develop it into an industrial and tourist centre that would be totally independent of China, with separate police, customs and communications networks. After 70 years, the entire project would have reverted to China.
But the new leaders clearly disliked the proposal. They said that the project would involve capitulating to capitalists and losing control over part of the motherland. Other Hainan investment has also suffered. In the first three months this year, only 38 jointventure contracts have been signed, compared with 775 in all of last year.
Hainan’s development is essentially frozen, at least for the time being. Chen Zhi Wei, an official in the island’s bureau of industrial and economic planning, said that, although Hainan officials theoretically have the authority to make many of their own decisions, the real power lies in Beijing. Added Chen: “That is the problem in China. We want to do things but we can’t.” As a result, he said, the business environment had deteriorated radically. At the same time, a foreign investor, who asked not to be named, declared: “When I came here in 1986, it was all smiles and endless possibilities. But business is bad now. I will not recoup my investment, and anything I request to do gets caught up in the bureaucratic machinery.”
Still, the bustling streets of Hainan have acquired a life of their own. Although the government did close a few massage parlors and arrest some prostitutes in a blaze of publicity last fall, that anti-vice campaign, like dozens of others before it, has faded quietly away. Now, the prostitutes are plying their trade again, and although they may have fewer takers, Audrey Mao says that she has no plans to return to the mainland.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.