Many are familiar with the "calling cards" that get slipped under the doors of hotels. They are a sign that sex is just a phone call and a fistful of bank notes away. Due to the poor management of these hotels, little has been done to effectively prevent this sleazy business from thriving.
An April 13 assault in a Beijing hotel in which a pimp attacked a female guest who he mistook for a member of a rival prostitution ring has made headlines, and has also focused public attention on the rampant prostitution in China's budget hotels.
After security camera footage of the attack was released online, it had a huge impact and was watched hundreds of millions of times. Many women have begun to fear for their safety if they stay in these cheap hotels.
Last Friday, the Beijing police closed their investigation and detained five suspects. The police sent out a notice online, saying the attacker worked for a prostitution ring and thought the woman was working with a competitor.
The fact that ads for sex workers are slipped under the doors of hotel rooms is no news to anyone that has ever stayed in a budget hotel. While many hotels and local law enforcement bodies have tried to stop this from going on, the poor security of many hotels means that the practice is as common as ever.
A reporter from The Beijing News went undercover to a few hotels in the capital and called the numbers on a few cards to see the reality of this kind of prostitution.
Last Wednesday, the Beijing News reporter checked in at a Seven Day hotel in the city's Jingtaiqiao area. He called a number on a card and a man picked up the phone to introduce the "business."
The man said a "regular service" would cost 600 yuan ($93), "white collar woman service" costs 800, and "model service" costs 1,000. The package includes two hours of "bath and massage."
After 30 minutes, a woman called the reporter to tell him that she was in the hotel building. When they met and the reporter told her he just wanted to chat, the woman immediately called a man on the phone who reprimanded the reporter and said "It doesn't matter whether you go through with it or not, you have to pay up front!"
After she left the reporter called another number on a different card, and 20 minutes later, a woman who calls herself "Queen Fan" met with the reporter in the hotel.
She told the reporter she and a couple of other girls are managed by a so-called "chicken head," who introduces customers to women in different districts. She usually serves people in the southern parts of the city and about 40 percent of her business is in budget hotels. But she confessed these hotels aren't "safe" for their business, because there is sometimes a police presence.
"Our boss repeatedly warned us not to go to Haidian district, because there are many undercover police," she told The Beijing News.
Her boss has eight cell phones and receives calls about the "business" every day. The prostitutes are monitored by drivers who transport them to hotels and ensure their safety, and overseeing these drivers there are "chicken heads," who also organize the meetings and take part of their profit. Some prostitutes have never even met their boss.
She said the cards are distributed in many places besides budget hotels, they target sidewalks and cars' windshields. After a customer calls the card, they reach a "chicken head," who deals with them directly or through a mediator.
There are two ways a "chicken head" finds staff, "Queen Fan" said. They reach out to acquaintances or use WeChat to find people nearby, add them and ask whether they want a "part-time job."
"Queen Fan" once took a cosmetics training course. But after she paid thousands of yuan she realized she had been cheated. Then she went into prostitution to recoup her losses.
At midnight, the Beijing News reporter checked in at a Seven Days hotel near Beijing Industrial University in Chaoyang district. When he called a number on a card, the woman gave the phone to a driver.
"We will wait outside when they are working and drive them back when they are finished," said the man. He said he usually drives a girl somewhere every two hours. There are about 10 women in their "company" and he earns about 10,000 yuan every month. Whatever the sex workers earn, they have to share with the "chicken head" and driver.
The "porno cards" have their special ways of getting into hotel rooms. Even though many hotels have taken security measures and only allow people to use the building's elevators after they swipe their room keys, it still doesn't prevent people from getting in. They can get in the hallways using the fire-escape stairs and won't be stopped by anyone.
The Beijing News reporter visited 10 budget hotels, including Hanting, Seven Day, and Rujia. Porno cards can be seen easily in these hotels, emblazoned with the words "emotional company," "passionate woman" or "traveling to paradise."
When hotel staff clean rooms and hallways, the most common piece of trash one sees is these cards. Sometimes a few dozen cards can be found on one floor.
"I can often see the distributors when I clean," one cleaner said. He remembers seeing a few young men distributing the cards, and they would run away as soon as they see hotel staff. "We can't stop them anyway. All we could do is clean these cards away."
A security guard at a Seven Day hotel in Chaoyang district tried to stop a card distributer once. He said he was cleaning the cards off the ground while he saw someone in his 20s distributing the cards. When he said he would call the police, the man quickly ran out the door and the guard couldn't catch him.
Police told The Beijing News they've received many phone calls concerning these calling cards. But distributors usually conceal their tracks and they are hard to track down. Even if they are caught, because there's no proof they participate in prostitution, they can only be punished for "disturbing social order," and there's no guarantee the cards won't appear again.
In September 2011, the Beijing government sent over 340 policemen to catch suspects in many hotels. One operation seized more than 60,000 calling cards.
The ease with which these cards are distributed shows how chaotic management is in these cheap hotels, said Wang Xiao (pseudonym), manager a budget hotel.
While visiting, Beijing News reporter found these hotels don't keep strangers out of hallways or stairways.
At a Hanting hotel on the South Third Ring Road, though one must swipe a room key to use the elevator, it's easy to access hotel rooms by stairs. All the hallway doors on every floor are open.
Wang said the shoddy management in these economy hotels is connected with the fact that many are part of a franchise. If the franchisee has enough money, then the company will cooperate with it.
Even though the management and business standards are provided by the parent company, in reality, the franchisees are the boss, Wang said.
"Our company doesn't protect us at all. If these investors ask the company to change managers, we'll be fired immediately," he told The Beijing News.
Furthermore, these investors often want to cut costs and expand the business at the same time.
Wang gave an example, saying that according to his company's standard operating procedure, there should be 20 to 25 staff per 100 rooms. But in reality, in order to reduce costs, many only hire 12 to 16.
The poor security is a direct result of this understaffing. There's not enough eyes to keep watch all the time.
According to the standards, there should be four maintenance and security staff who take rotating shifts to patrol rooms.
But in practice, only two people patrol the hotel, Wang said.
Wang told The Beijing News that a "chicken head" once sought him out and asked whether they could rent a long-term room in the hotel, to make it easier to distribute cards. Because he and his boss both don't like this kind of business, they turned him down.
"But not all bosses think this way," Wang said. Some investors might think this is a good idea to boost business, he added.
Recently, a few incidents have happened in these cheap hotels. Last Wednesday, following the Heyi attack, a woman found a stranger taking a shower in her room in a hotel in Chongqing Municipality. Shocked, the woman demanded to check out and switched hotel.