SAARBRÜCKEN — If you’re looking for the biggest whorehouse in the state of Saarland, you'll probably end up first at a dog training school. There aren't any signs yet pointing the way to the brothel — or, as it calls itself, the "wellness oasis" — so the GPS will take you right past its unobtrusive access to the neighboring "Saarbrücken Police and Guard Dog Sports Association." It's only when you turn around, that you notice the "VIP Club" sign left over from previous occupants, and you make your way past a discreet parking area to the entrance with its big yellow sign that reads, "Paradise."
The project being developed by Stuttgart investor Jürgen “Brothel King” Rudloff has been described as a "mega-brothel" — and for good reason. It is located in a 4,500 square-meter (48,500 square feet) house, on two floors. With 30 rooms and up to 50 sex workers, it can service 120 clients per day. Paradise Island Entertainment GmbH already has establishments in Stuttgart and Frankfurt, and in Graz and Salzburg (Austria); and now they’re putting 4.5 million euros into this new "Wellness Oasis for Men" scheduled to open in mid-June.
It will be a watershed moment in an ongoing debate about prostitution that has put this small German state in the national spotlight and has earned the state capitol of Saarbrücken — which sits right on the border with France — the label "capital of prostitution."
Demand from France
That moniker developed because of the French customers who stream across the border, as brothels are forbidden in France. They create a demand that is being met by ever more sex workers. Local residents see this cross-border traffic as the crux of the issue and have been fighting back, limiting possibilities for street prostitution — which has virtually disappeared in most of the city, thanks to their efforts. Another potential discouragement is that, by law, condoms must be worn, although compliance goes virtually unmonitored.
But if street prostitution is now in check, nothing has been done about brothels such as Paradise. There it is, in a city that was hoping to cast itself as being anti-prostitution. And it doesn't help matters that Paradise partner and marketing manager Michael Beretin boasts of having told Mayor Charlotte Britz that he'd be glad to help her develop strategies to deal with the problem. "I’m not going to sit down with a brothel keeper to explore possible solutions to the problems of escalating prostitution and the exploitation of women," says Britz, adding that it "would be grotesque."
Beretin is proud of the advanced state of construction at Paradise. “The sauna facilities, hamam and steam bath are all finished” says the 47-year-old, who is tan and wearing shades with a grey suit, flashy belt, gold watch and signet ring.
"Our establishments," he explains, "are all in an oriental style." Along with a restaurant and movie theater, the mega-brothel features a bar and a "Bedouin tent." Clients can access the wellness area for a flat fee of 60 euros, including buffet and non-alcoholic drinks. And that goes for everybody. Along with the entry fee, the ladies pay a flat tax of 25 euros that goes straight to the tax authorities. The system means that Paradise management earns money from both the clients and the sex workers. Beretin says that in return Paradise offers "an informal atmosphere" and top flight hygiene, rooms, security personnel — as well as transparent cooperation with the authorities.
Not the only game in town
If Paradise is the largest brothel in Saarbrücken, it’s not the only one. There are 123 red light establishments in the city — one for every 1,500 inhabitants.
To counter the abundance of brothels, the authorities say that what's needed are stricter federal and or EU-wide legislation because local laws are not up to the fight against prostitution. Until such legislation is passed, cities like Saarbrücken have little realistic choice but to tolerate establishments like Paradise, because even if they threw the whole panoply of local laws (e.g. building use and occupancy laws) at the problem, it's uncertain the cities would win.
Many local residents fear that the brothel issue is only going to worsen with time. Demand is guaranteed to rise, for example, if the French senate approves stricter anti-prostitution legislation in late June. Michael Beretin is also counting very much on a continuing stream of French clients for business, especially if the French start doling out stiff fines of 1,500 euros to men using sex services in France.
So he doesn't need to worry about client acquisition. In fact, he's after something else entirely. He wants establishments like Paradise to be more than just tolerated. In Germany where prostitution is legal, and annual turnover is 14 billion euros, you can't just act like the market doesn't exist, he says. As president of the Federal Association of Erotic Industries, he points out that this business provides jobs and pays taxes: "What we want," he says, "is a little appreciation."
City hall's not impressed
Appreciation is not what's on offer at Saarbrücken Town Hall. Paying taxes is something all businesses have to do, and nothing about that merits appreciation. In fact, there are other reasons for the fight against prostitution. After all, is it really possible for prostitution to be entirely voluntary on the part of sex workers? Can it really be considered a service like any other?
Asked about this, Michael Beretin's jovial business-like tones veer towards stridency. He often gets tackled on the subject of forced prostitution. "We don't recruit," he says. "The women contact us because they want to come work with us." If a woman were afraid, or there were indications that she had a pimp, he would call the police at once, he says. What's more, Paradise is just a platform for transactions: The sex workers set their own prices. And if they don't like a client, they are free to move on to somebody they like better.
But Saarbrücken's commissioner for women, Petra Messinger, finds this an unlikely scenario. "Forced prostitution is not a penal concept, it’s a construct, and the borders between it and being driven to prostitution because of poverty are very fluid," she says. Especially with women from poor countries, there are often indirect reasons that force them into prostitution, such as the need to support her children or her parents. And even if you believed that Beretin could recognize forced prostitution if he saw it, Messinger says, "The money that the sex workers have to cough up to get into Paradise has to be earned somewhere. From my point of view those are hard working conditions for the women."
But Beretin has other worries right now. The furnishings for Paradise haven't arrived yet, and the roof is leaking — which means putting off the official opening yet again. But, he says, "When this party gets started, it'll be pedal to the metal."
Mayor Britz is cordially invited. And Beretin knows he can count on all those Frenchmen.
Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.
BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.
TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.
For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.
No Western equivalent to WeChat
The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.
The flow of innovation is now changing direction.
The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."
Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."
This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.
10,000 new startups per day
There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."
In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.
The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.
Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."
China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.
China's super-app WeChat
The whole market runs on tech
Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."
As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.
Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.
Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.
The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.
Still lagging in some key sectors
There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.
China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.
Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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