Zhu Lifei took the call on one of his two cellphones — both of which ring constantly. A woman in Hangzhou needed help. She couldn’t leave her unfaithful husband and begged Zhu’s company to do what it does best: Get rid of the mistress.
He sent his team to confront the lover. It didn’t work.
So they covered the wife with chicken blood and dented her car, faking an accident to gauge the husband’s sympathy. He didn’t care.
“People hate us,” Zhu said.
Zhu, 30, runs Changzhou Sincere Heart Marriage and Family Consulting, one of several Chinese companies that have found opportunity in desperation. Part detective, part confidant, they specialize in sabotaging extramarital relationships by steering lovers away from cheating spouses. They’re known as mistress hunters, affairs doctors or splitting specialists — an antidote to the rising divorce rate and loosening morals.
“They create chaos,” said Liu Weimin, president of the Guangdong Marriage and Family Counselors Assn. With marriages, “we have to deal with the internal problem in order to solve the external one.”
Though most mistress hunting companies sprout up in wealthy metropolises on the coast, such as Shanghai or Shenzhen, Zhu’s enterprise sits in the nondescript, third-tier southern city of Changzhou.
His 12th-floor office, located in a building littered with cigarette butts, is stuffed with cubicles. Counseling accreditation plaques hang near the entrance.
Zhu’s staff of 23 includes psychologists, lawyers, counselors and beauticians — who make the customer more alluring. Men occasionally request his services, but the majority of clients are women who want their marriages rescued. For that, he charges $15,000 to $150,000.
Zhu tailors plans for his high-roller customers and recently partnered with a law firm next door so the company can better investigate mistresses. Zhu said he succeeded in 73% of his 362 cases last year.
Customers call in a panic, and conversations “always end with: ‘Money is not a problem.’”
China’s divorce rate reached 2.8 per 1,000 people last year, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, more than triple the rate in 2002. The shift occurred as the country’s economy grew and better-educated women no longer needed to rely on a husband’s finances. America’s divorce rate still more than doubles China’s.
Companies such as Zhu’s cater to an affluent clientele that has much to lose financially in a divorce and little faith in lengthy court procedures.
Sometimes one of Zhu’s psychologists and a jilted wife directly confront the mistress. More often they resort to a “public relations consultant” — a.k.a. fake suitor — to split up the lovers. The company trains these employees on luxury brands, wine and Western food, delights they believe will entice a mistress away from a straying husband.
Cases play out like a mystery novel.
In one last year, Zhu and his team got a call. They researched the mistress’ habits and then set up an employee with the fake identity of an affluent auctioneer. The man rented an apartment in Hong Kong, down the hall from the mistress.
Zhu’s stylists, in the meantime, gave the wife a new look. Behavioral specialists coached her to sound more appealing.
We are fighting for justice.
He hired fake loan sharks to show up at the mistress’ apartment and demand money. The “auctioneer” appeared afterward with wine to ease her stress. He sent presents the cheating husband would find, so as to arouse suspicion and foment distrust between the couple.
In several months, the affair was over.
“We are fighting for justice,” said Zhu, who has a master’s in business administration and a marriage counseling certificate.
In most interventions, which tend to last one to six months, Zhu’s employee withdraws afterward with an excuse such as family disapproval. In the rare instance of male clients, Zhu provides a female affairs doctor.
“It feels like we have achieved something, helping to repair marriages,” said the fake auctioneer, who would not provide his name out of safety concerns.
Dalliances in China underwent a resurgence as the country opened up. The keeping of mistresses began to confer status on businessmen and government officials. At least 95% of the officials detained for corruption in 2012 had mistresses, according to a study by People’s University in Beijing.
Some wronged spouses deliver their own form of justice. A gang of angry wives beat an accused mistress last year in the middle of a crowded street, one of several incidents that went viral on the Internet.
This “indicates that Chinese women are much more assertive and vocal than in the past, and that extramarital affairs are more common,” said Sandy To, who studies Chinese relationships and lectures in the University of Hong Kong’s sociology department. “Marriage itself is becoming more fickle, with individuals more interested in pursuing their own gratification.”
On a balmy day this month, Zhu and his team pondered how to salvage the marriage of the Hangzhou wife whose husband barely noticed her “car accident.”
Psychological consultant Meng Hao suggested threatening to expose the affair to local media. (The mistress later became more aggressive, at one point slapping the wife in an encounter. So they turned to a splitting specialist whose presence demonstrated to the husband how little his lover valued him and how much she enjoyed his money. It took 13 days.)
But such an approach almost always ends up punishing the mistress and not the deviant spouse. Critics point to this dynamic and accuse companies of lacking either moral principles or legal grounds.
“It all depends how they hunt the mistresses and how they persuade them to leave,” said Hailey Han, a civil attorney based in Shanghai. Companies enter illegal territory when uncovering information through apartment break-ins or other nonpublic means, she said.
Zhu says the company does not violate anyone’s privacy and employs the law firm to stay within legal bounds. He sees himself as the man who mends marriages, creating unorthodox solutions in a society that eschews public discussion of private matters.
“When I get phone calls, someone is cheating, someone is splitting,” he said. “My heart is tired.”
The phones rang beside him as he spoke, playing the same few lines of a Chinese love song.
Meyers is a special correspondent. Nicole Liu and Yingzhi Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report from Changzhou and Beijing, respectively.