The farmer's wife is sleeping with his brother-in-law. The manager is having an affair with a co-worker. A rich husband has disappeared with a migrant laborer. A government official is vacationing with a call girl.
Morality is running amok and somebody is watching, camera rolling, engine running. It's not Big Brother. It's Wei Wujun, private eye.
The job may have become a stereotype in the West, but in Communist China it's still a novelty. There isn't even a category for what he does in the business registry, where all Chinese firms are licensed. That leaves Wei with a virtual monopoly on deceits of the heart.
Business couldn't be better.
Two decades of unprecedented social change have left the world's most populous country with a 20% divorce rate, a staggering number for a culture where divorce was unheard of before 1949. As many as 1.2 million couples ended their marriages last year, an increase of more than 50% from a decade ago.
Blame it on newfound prosperity, greater mobility, looser social controls and increased personal liberties. But breaking up is in vogue.
Traditionalists are in shock--so much so that China's legislature in April passed laws aimed at curbing the erosion of family values by punishing unfaithful partners, especially men who keep mistresses. Spouses who suspect infidelity can sue for compensation.
The challenge is providing the evidence. That's where Wei comes in.
"For every 10 calls I get, I have to turn away nine," Wei, a burly chain smoker, said in his stripped-down apartment on the outskirts of Shanghai. "I simply don't have enough time. The next available spot is in October. But people are willing to pay me now just to stay in line."
Back when the state thoroughly controlled people's lives, cheating on your spouse was a daunting task. If the work unit wasn't watching, nosy neighbors or relatives were. As impersonal high-rises have replaced intimate courtyards and meritocracy has shattered lifetime job security known as the iron rice bowl, minding other people's business has become a hassle.
It's easier to pay someone to snoop around. Wei's starting fee can be as high as $1,000. Even in China's wealthiest city, that's more than half what the average person makes in a year.
"This profession definitely has a lot of growing potential," said Dai Xiaoyun, head of the women's rights department at the governmental Women's Federation in Shanghai. "It's as simple as supply and demand. He provides a service that a lot of women need."
Since opening shop nine years ago in the central province of Sichuan, Wei has handled more than 900 cases around the country. Last month, the 48-year-old moved to bustling Shanghai because this most fast-paced of Chinese cities is full of willing customers.
"In the hinterland, clients are still not too comfortable with what we do. So they come to me only if they are desperate," Wei said. "Shanghai is much more open-minded."
Back in Sichuan, secret lovers were relatively easy to spot, even taking walks in public. In Shanghai, the cautious couple might pay for half a dozen rooms in a hotel but sleep in only one.
Wei says he almost always wears a baseball cap in public--without it, his high forehead and confident composure give him a striking resemblance to "the Great Helmsman," Chairman Mao. Too many people would remember his face. That would be bad for business.
Otherwise, Wei is perfect for the job. Born into a military family, he joined the People's Liberation Army at 15. After showing outstanding leadership, he was recruited by the Communist Party before he turned 18.
In the 1970s, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown at the hands of the Red Guard, the fanatical shock troops of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Wei nursed her back to health by talking to her round the clock, "like a priest," he said.
The experience left Wei with a weakness for women in turmoil. When suicidal clients call, he stays on the line until he's sure they're OK. He once spent countless hours on the phone with a professor whose husband had abandoned her. He didn't charge her a penny for the consultation.
"My first criterion for taking a client is, I have to feel for their plight," Wei said. "If money was the only thing I was interested in, I would go work for a bank."
Wei knows about a troubled marriage firsthand: The beautiful Sichuan girl he married--and divorced--turned out to have the explosiveness of a hand grenade. During one argument, she stabbed her own hand with a kitchen knife. During another, she doused herself with gasoline and threatened to light a match. Once, he said, she even woke Wei up by loading a rifle while pointing it at his temple.
"I was really spooked," he said, "by my . . . marriage."
Fifteen years after his divorce, Wei considers himself married to his job. His home is really a command center with a bed. Most of the time he's hot on a trail. He could easily spend two months on a hotel roof, Handycam rolling, waiting for that split second when the wind blows the curtain open and he gets a shot of two lovers bathing together.
A growing number of his clients need him to be more than a love cop. They hire him to check out copyright infringement, do background checks on new hires and verify how much money potential joint-venture partners have in the bank. High-tech firms also call on him to track down disgruntled employees who defect to competitors with vital company software.
Wei boasts the necessary connections from the top of the military command down to the hoodlum on the street. He claims to stay within the law by knowing all the loopholes.
Wei says he expects competitors to start entering this increasingly hot market. But, like him, they'll have to operate in a legal gray area.
For now, Wei is pretty much a lone ranger with a few stringers on standby. It would be great to hire more help, but he knows it's better to keep a relatively low profile. China's first private detective firm, which inspired Wei to start his own, was shut down almost as soon as it opened about 10 years ago--it was recruiting too much talent away from state police.
Staying in business doesn't mean Wei has to shy away from sensitive cases, even if they involve party officials. State media have reported that as many as 95% of party cadres charged with corruption have used public funds to indulge in mistresses, popularly known as keeping a "golden canary," or baoernai. One provincial governor lost his job as a result of Wei's poking around.
"We are small," Wei said. "But a mouse could frighten an elephant."