22nd February 2024 – (Hong Kong) Recent controversies have brought public scrutiny towards officials’ extramarital affairs, highlighting ongoing social ambivalence. When rumours emerged in 2023 that married foreign minister Qin Gang fathered a child with prominent CCTV anchor Fu Xiaotian, their disappearances from public view fuelled speculation despite government silence. While proof remains ambiguous, the allegations’ prominence shows shifting attitudes on leaders’ accountability for abiding by moral standards they pledge to uphold. The scandal encapsulates persistent tensions around infidelity’s legitimacy and consequences in modern Chinese society.

In past decades, it was relatively commonplace for Hong Kong men doing business on the mainland to keep mistresses or second wives, a phenomenon sparking social controversy. While these arrangements persist today, shifting cultural attitudes and women’s empowerment have likely decreased their prevalence. Examining changes around the practice provides insights into evolving gender roles and relationship dynamics in modern Chinese society.

After mainland China’s economic reforms took hold in the 1980s-90s, Hong Kong businessmen flocked to invest in Guangdong province’s booming manufacturing industry. With wives and children often still based in Hong Kong, many men entered into extramarital relationships with local women. By the 1990s, an estimated 1 in 6 Hong Kong men working in China kept a mainland mistress.

The Cantonese term “second wife” encapsulated the phenomenon, referring to a man’s long-term mistress resembling a spouse. Unlike utilizing sex workers, these arrangements involved emotional bonds and enduring financial support of the mistress. Men visited regularly, providing housing and living costs. Some second wives even bore children fathered by the Hong Kong man.

This trend spread beyond just Hong Kong tycoons to encompass men of varying means. The rural migrant women involved were allured by the financial security, despite sacrificing autonomy and status. While controversial, the practice became relatively common regionally.

In recent years, the prevalence of mistresses and second wives appears to have declined overall. Shifting social mores have reduced tolerance for infidelity and imposed higher expectations of marital fidelity. Parallel economic empowerment of women grants them greater independence. Nonetheless, the phenomenon persists, albeit often more discreetly. The modern term “little third” downplays the practice as relationships grow subtler and more multifaceted. Independent, educated women partaking purely for affection rather than support represent one emerging dynamic.Yet at the heart remain complex power imbalances and emotional costs alongside perceived benefits. The wives, mistresses and families impacted endure ongoing wounds challenging to heal. And even financially independent women risk relinquishing autonomy and self-worth in such opaque arrangements.

While once reluctantly accepted as norm, the culture now asks deeper questions around consent and dignity in modern relationships. Hong Kong and China alike have evolved to enable more candid conversations empowering individuals, intimate partners and society.

During China’s economic ascent, Hong Kong businessmen were lured northward by profitable opportunities and looser regulations. Coastal cities like Guangdong became thriving manufacturing hubs fueled by Hong Kong investment.

At the time, cross-border travel remained strictly controlled. Hong Kong tycoons establishing Chinese operations often left families in Hong Kong for stability. But solitary living on the mainland prompted seeking emotional and sexual outlets.

Local women were alluring contrasts to Hong Kong wives. Seen as deferential and attentive, mainland women appealed to men feeling burdened by demanding Hong Kong spouses and duties. Although arranged for convenience, some relationships grew genuinely affectionate over years together.

The slang “second wife” captured how mistresses often served spousal functions – cooking, socialising, managing households and satisfying sexual needs. If not secretly wed, long-term mistresses resembled common-law wives, legitimised by enduring mutual dependence.

Beyond emotional succour, keeping mistresses also carried social sway for men. Parading young, attractive companions displayed virility and prestige. Mistresses publically demonstrated masculinity, unlike proper wives suited only to domestic spheres. Wives accepted husbands’ infidelity as unspoken norm, valuing family intactness over fidelity.

Just as alluring China was to Hong Kong men, these men symbolised cherished opportunities for rural mainland women. Many came from poverty in inland provinces, seeking city factory work for remittances. Encountering worldly, wealthy Hong Kong businessmen proffered financial security otherwise unattainable.

Becoming a mistress allowed escaping gruelling jobs for an existence of relative luxury. Hong Kong men provided apartments, clothing, spending money and social entry otherwise unfathomable. Some mistresses nourished dreams of being formally wed, socially elevating themselves through strategic affairs. Youth and beauty granted mistress aspirants leverage. Prospects dwindled as age diminished their edge over proliferating younger rivals. But for a time, aligning with a Hong Kong benefactor promised shelter from harsh realities faced by poor migrant women. Yet dependence fostered compliance and sacrifice. Outwardly pampered kept women often relinquished autonomy and dignity to maintain lifestyles. And without legal protections, they lived in perpetual insecurity aware relationships could abruptly end if benefactors’ affections wandered.

Wives affected by husbands’ mainland mistresses endured painful limbo balancing pragmatism, social pressure and raw emotion. Many suppressed suspicions to avoid conflict and preserve households – especially those with young children. Confronting cheating spouses risked abandoning security for single-mother struggles. If sufficient doubt built, some wives resorted to private detectives yet balked at divorce. Keeping silent on infidelity let husbands preserve images as moral family men. Publicly disgracing husbands for mistress affairs conversely brought wives humiliation for failing wifely duties.

Wives also stomached likely fiscal impacts from divorce given male dominance over household finances. With limited career prospects and social stigma around broken families, most wives endured mistresses as necessary evil. They found hollow consolation in husbands maintaining two separate households – though misery arose when funds flowed more freely to mistresses’ indulgent wants than wives’ domestic needs.

Beneath pragmatic motives, deeper gendered complexities surrounded Hong Kong men’s keeping mistresses. Conspicuously parading young beauties illustrated potency and status among male peers. Unlike proper family men, flaunting mistresses signalled playboy flair with women and life. Mistresses’ presence in nightclubs or banquets pronounced masculine pride, liveliness and desirability. Publicly exhibiting their feminine charms enhanced men’s social faces without compromising household dignity. The approving gaze of male colleagues further validated the practice.

In subtle ways, second wives also fostered men’s fragile egos. Deference and nurturing soothed insecurities while stoking feelings of strength and mastery. The domestic dominance exercised over financially dependent mistresses implicitly contrasted with limitations wives and mothers imposed on male prerogatives at home. Fluid meanings attached to different women allowed mistress affairs to simultaneously fulfil yearnings for prestige, youth, admiration, authority and freedom in ways socially respected urban wives could not satisfy.

By the early 2000s, keeping mistresses had declined among Hong Kong businessmen for varied reasons. Expanding transport links enabled regularly commuting between Hong Kong and mainland homes. Wives also grew less tolerant of infidelity amid shifting social mores. Plus, workers’ rising mainland prospects decreased financial dependence on Hong Kong benefactors.

Some businessmen shifted mistress relationships into quasi-polygamous arrangements, supporting two households, both with children. But more kept only original Hong Kong families as mistresses’ disfavor grew. No longer boons to reputation, mistress affairs now risked tainting status and jeopardizing political aspirations.

Yet mistresses never fully disappeared, only changing form as elite businessmen gave way to diverse infidelity seeking. The modern term “little third” captured evolving dynamics between independent women and married men. But while financially freer, emotional costs persisted in these murky affairs.

The advent of “little thirds” marked an important evolution in Chinese extramarital relations. Unlike dependents relying on external provision, little thirds are often educated urbanites with economic self-sufficiency. Contemporary little thirds enter affairs more voluntarily, whether seeking affection, excitement or status.

Financial motives still incentivise some women lacking lucrative professional careers. But little thirds are not outright dependents. Termination does not threaten destitution, only stings the heart. And with expanded life options, Walking away remains possible if benefits cease outweighing emotional tolls.

Little thirds exemplify modern women’s increasing yet still constrained empowerment. They embody seemingly liberated choices yet intimate compromises around fidelity and dignity echo past mistress norms. And while not financial, little thirds sacrifice life opportunities and emotional health in opaque affairs.

The persistence of little thirds reveals remaining gender inequalities and social pressures even amid women’s progress. Their continued existence highlights work needed at cultural and policy levels to further improve women’s economic, marital and intimate choices so dependence on men’s provision is fully unnecessary.

Despite evolving social forms, one detriment remains consistent across mistresses and little thirds – the systemic costs secrecy imposes through destroying trust and stability. However, responsibility for secrecy lies less with women than the masculine social norms encouraging men’s sexual license in contrast to enforced female monogamy and virtue.

When husbands conceal affairs, they betray wives’ trust and deny agency in marriage’s future. Wives agonize over faςades of faithfulness obscuring parallel families draining their household funds. The guise of devoted fatherhood sharpens emotional anguish for wives feeling their life partner’s intimacy bestowed elsewhere.

Meanwhile, pervasive stigmas around mistress status exert immense pressures upon women to keep affairs hidden. Fears of public judgment, not inherent shame, impose self-censoring isolation. Lost are the community ties otherwise fostering confidence and support through life’s challenges.

Even in an era of expanding options, social change still lags expectations of female virtue constraining women’s capacity to exercise full autonomy over their intimate choices. True progress lies not in judging women’s decisions themselves but removing the external constraints distorting choices and imposing silence.

Despite persisting practices of infidelity, progressive cultural trends have improved transparency and reciprocity in modern Chinese relationships. Chief among these has been strengthened legal rights, protecting women’s interests in and out of marriage. Clear civil regulations help disentangle complex interpersonal dynamics into equitable contracts freely chosen. At the same time, proliferating open dialogues empower women speaking out about intimate abuses and systemic biases. Public attitudinal shifts have accompanied increasingly vocal calls for gender-based violence prevention, workplace family-friendliness and protection of maternal benefits. Policy and social voices once quiet now demand overdue enhancements of women’s safety and equity.