By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 20, 2010; 4:24 PM
A 53-year-old university professor in China was sentenced Thursday to 3 1/2 years in prison for helping organize like-minded "swingers" for group sex parties, concluding a case that has attracted widespread attention in the country.
The prosecution of Ma Yaohai, a computer science expert, has highlighted the changing nature of social mores in China, as well as the ways in which the country's authoritarian leaders have tried to regulate private behavior. Ma had objected to the government case against him, saying officials were prosecuting him for his private lifestyle.
The Qinhuai District Court in China's southeastern city of Nanjing convicted 21 members of Ma's sex club of "group licentiousness," the first time anyone in China has been prosecuted under the 1997 law, according to Chinese media reports. Excluding Ma, the public face of the group, the members received suspended sentences ranging from six months to three years.
Ma's attorney, Xue Huogen, said in a phone interview that the verdict was "very inappropriate" and that he would appeal.
The trial was held last month, but unlike in most cases in China, the verdict was delayed. Analysts suggested officials may have been wary of the intense scrutiny the case had prompted, with many Chinese siding with Ma and objecting to an overreaching "nanny state."
An online survey conducted after the verdict by Sohu.com showed that 60 percent of roughly 20,000 respondents thought the verdict was "unreasonable" because the swingers were all adults and participating voluntarily; about 20 percent of respondents thought the sentence was too light.
Li Yinhe, one of China's most prominent sexologists with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that while China has become more open and tolerant when it comes to sexual matters, deep conservatism remains among the population -- particularly among older Chinese.
Li noted that she had petitioned the National People's Congress, the country's legislature, in March to eliminate the broad group-licentiousness law. The legislature did not act, but Li said she was surprised that many callers to a local radio program sharply criticized her efforts.
Chinese authorities often appeal to the public's desire for prudence. Online censorship, for instance, is cast as a campaign to filter out Internet pornography and protect young people.
At the same time, however, sexual freedom has exploded in China as the country has become more prosperous and less insular. Homosexuality is now more widely tolerated, sodomy was decriminalized more than a decade ago, divorce is common, new radio talk shows regularly allow listeners to call in and discuss their most intimate sexual problems, prostitution is widespread, and wife-swapping groups and fetish clubs have proliferated thanks to the Internet.
Ma, the professor, said in interviews that he had become interested in group sex after two failed marriages and as a way to combat his depression. He and his cohorts would meet through chat rooms, and then arrange their get-togethers either in private homes or in hotel rooms.
The police, who had apparently been tracking the group's activities online, raided one of those gatherings in a hotel room, and the participants then led the police to Ma.
In an interview before his sentencing, Ma said he had no regrets. "Why should I feel regretful for this?" he said. "It's totally their fault for bringing my privacy in bed out into the public. I didn't know about this crime before."
Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.