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'The government thinks sex is dirty. I don't'

A 26-year-old erotic dissident who calls herself Li Li is leading the way in China's sexual revolution -- which, says MARCUS GEE, may be moving faster and going further than the Western version ever did

COMPILED BY RICK CASH

GUANGZHOU, CHINA — With her kinked, dyed hair, white pumps, pink handbag and matching pink cellphone, Li Li doesn't fit anyone's picture of a dissident.But in her own, odd way, she is one -- a sexual dissident, challenging the government's prudish views and speaking for a new generation of Chinese women who are giving free rein to their desires.

When she wrote about bedding a famous rock star last year, adding him to her tally of more than 70 lovers, she became the talk of China's youth. A popular website that picked up the confession (from her private weblog, Love Letters Before Dying) saw its number of visitors rise to 30 million a day from 20 million.

Unamused, the government banned her confessional novel, Ashes Of Love, for its "extremely depraved moral quality."

Under pressure, Ms. Li had to stop posting anecdotes about her sex life on the Internet and leave her job writing for a lifestyle magazine in Guangzhou, a booming southeastern metropolis.

But if authorities hoped to control her, they have failed miserably. She continues to chronicle her encounters with men she meets in bars, through friends, over the Internet and on public transit, running up her number of lovers to nearly 100.

"The government thinks that sex is dirty. I don't," says the rail-thin, birdlike 26-year-old, who goes by the pen name Mu Zimei. "It's just a way to get in touch with other people, express myself and have some fun."

More and more Chinese seem to agree. Ms. Li is in the vanguard of a sexual revolution sweeping urban China. Though few can match her numbers, millions of people in the once strait-laced society are having multiple lovers, one-night stands and extramarital affairs.

China's Family Planning Agency found that only 30 per cent of Chinese are virgins when they marry, down from 84 per cent in the late 1980s. Hospitals report a sharp rise in the number of women having DNA tests to check the paternity of their babies, a sign that marital infidelity is on the rise.

Like so many things here, sexual mores have changed with breathtaking speed. Pollster Victor Yuan says China's sexual revolution is happening faster and going further than the one that swept Western countries in the 1960s and 1970s.

Just 10 years ago, there was no such thing as a sex shop in China. Now, Beijing alone has an estimated 2,000, four times the number of McDonald's restaurants in all of China. Known as "adult health" centres, they supply everything from nipple clamps to "penis-enlargement spray" to Vigorous Dragon vibrators.

"People have been in the dark about sex for generations," Ms. Li says, drawing on a Player's Light in a hotel bar. "Now, they are curious. They want to know everything and do everything."

She had sex for the first time at the age of 21, choosing her partner carefully from three "candidates." The encounter led to an abortion. Now, she always practises safe sex.

Since then, her lovers have included couples and married men. She has never had a steady boyfriend for more than three months. "Love and sex are not the same thing," she says. "You should be able to have sex and still have your freedom."

While most people like to get to know someone before sleeping with them, she says, "for me it's the reverse: I like to begin in bed, and then decide whether we have something in common."

When a Chinese journalist once asked how much time she could spare for an interview, she replied: "Let's have sex. The longer you last, the longer you'll have to interview me." (He declined.)

Until quite recently, comments like that were heresy in China.

In historical times, views about sex were liberal. One of China's more famous literary works is an erotic novel, The Golden Lotus, published more than 300 years ago. But the Communist Revolution of 1949 brought a wave of Puritanism.

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