18 January 2019
Police take away alleged sex workers and clients at an entertainment center in Dongguan late Sunday. Photo: AFP
Police take away alleged sex workers and clients at an entertainment center in Dongguan late Sunday. Photo: AFP

WEEKENDER: Politics, people and the Dongguan sex trade crackdown

China Central Television’s (CCTV) investigative report Sunday on the thriving sex industry in the Guangdong city of Dongguan, known as China’s “sex capital,” has set off political fireworks in the communist-ruled country.

There have been many media reports like this in recent years but the latest revelations on the booming illicit trade in Dongguan led to a massive crackdown by the Guangdong authorities. Hundreds of people were arrested and the fallout has been a blow to the city’s entertainment business. Media reports quoted analysts as saying the crackdown could end up costing city businesses at least 50 billion yuan (US$8.19 billion).

More importantly — and interestingly — the fresh attempt to beat the sex trade has triggered fierce debate on some politically sensitive issues as the country embarks on reform. And that’s on top of the speculation about what it could mean for the political prospects of Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua {胡春華}.

Hu, who was elevated to the Politburo at the 18th national congress in 2012, has been widely seen as a high-flier. Some even tipped him as a successor to Xi Jinping in 2022.

Not surprisingly, the crackdown, which became province-wide, has been seen through the prism of an intraparty power struggle and designed to deal a blow to, or at least embarrass, Hu.

Whether that’s the case is anybody’s guess. But the events that unfolded after the CCTV investigation went to air shed some interesting light on the complex dynamics between the central government and provincial authorities, or Guangdong in this case. These events reflect a society becoming more sophisticated and politics more complex.

Soon after the crackdown, social media was awash with calls for “moral support” for Dongguan. Appeals for “Dongguan, hang in there!” or “Today we are all Dongguan people” were widely circulated online.

The sense was that the sex industry is part and parcel of the city’s character and its flourishing nightlife needed to be defended. Among Dongguan’s supporters was the Guangzhou-based liberal newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily.

But the national media responded by casting the backlash to the crackdown as an affront to the central government. In an article published Friday, People’s Daily said the wave of comments caused by the crackdown against the city’s vice industry deserved concern, as the crackdown did.

It singled out for attack those who justified legalizing prostitution on the grounds that there is “market demand” and that it is a victimless crime. The article said there is also huge market demand for drugs and gambling. “Are we also going to legalize gambling and drug-taking, and turn them into businesses?” it asked.

The article said different views and values are a source of national vitality as the country further opens the door to the world and emancipated ideas. “But there must be some bottom lines, basic consensus and common values even as we embrace pluralistic views … Pluralistic values do not equate to distorted values, a decline in values.”

The article took further issue with what it deemed an online trend of opposition for the sake of opposing “mainstream” views.

The notion of “mainstream” views was the subject of another article on Wednesday by the Global Times, a sister paper of People’s Daily. It lamented the trend of CCTV-bashing on the internet, saying CCTV has, to a great extent, reflected mainstream society. People who took an adversarial stand to CCTV, it said, chose to stand at the periphery of Chinese society.

“Chinese society is not designed in accordance with the political model of ‘ruling party versus opposition party’… In a sense, those who choose to become the ‘opposition’ are different from those opposition forces in Western countries. People who ‘oppose of the sake of opposition’ will do more harm than good,” it said.

A day earlier People’s Daily targeted local officials, accusing them of turning a blind eye to the illicit business because of “wrong thinking” about city development. “[Local officials] seem to believe that illicit businesses such as sex and gambling are no big deal so long as their economy does well… They think something ‘exciting’ helps boost the city’s attraction to foreign investors,” it said.

“It is time for a fundamental rethink of the strategy of city development.”

Chris Yeung is deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. This column appears every Friday.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

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