Recently in the city of Dongguan, located in the Guangdong province, 6,000 police forced themselves into private establishments placing the women who had been working as prostitutes and their clients, side by side, on the street while arrests were carried out. The following day, the political machine was put into action and new policies were fired off immediately thus marking the beginning of a three month long anti-prostitution campaign to curb gambling, drug trafficking and prostitution. The numerous photographs of nearly naked women being hauled into the street by the police has naturally caused a surge in media coverage, both domestically within China as well as on the international scene, and it is this exposure that has brought the topic of sex to the table of politics.
The trigger was an expose by CCTV, a state broadcaster, which revealed brothels operating alongside dance clubs in full public view. The raid was out of character for the police of Dongguan who have thus far tolerated the booming sex trade, which suggests that it was merely a demonstration of strength and further measures will possibly follow. The campaign has the unofficial title of “exterminate yellow” (a colour associated with prostitution in China) will actually be pursuing government officials alongside civilians. The President, Xi Jinping, promised to legally pursue “tigers” (powerful leaders) and “flies” (lowly bureaucrats) for signs of corruption and this is not just another empty promised. It is a threat. Of the 900 men and women detained by police following the raid, it was just a handful of ten people who were the real focus of the media coverage since they included senior officials and they received similar treatment as the sex workers and their clients. Significantly, the city’s police chief who also served as the vice mayor, Yan Xiaokang, was relieved of his duties thus sending a strong message to Xi’s government officials that morality would be on the domestic agenda.
Sex and politics is a powerful combination especially when the nature of the relationship is a scandalous one. However, in the case of this raid, it appears the campaign against corruption is a means to cleanse the party of officials who are not adhering to the President’s vision of China rather than any real concern for the people who are working within the rapidly growing yet unregulated sex trade. The largest criticism of the government’s new approach to an old policy was to be found on various types of social media where many sought to voice their concerns that the police are not dealing with criminal activities but rather using the measure as a means of consolidating power and removing political adversaries.
A post written on the topic lamented: “I asked a Dongguan friend what he thought about all of this, and he said: there’s just too much demand from clients – it’s not like guns or drugs, which are scarce resources. Unless you return to the 1950s, [prostitution] will be impossible to eradicate. The crackdown is nothing but a show”. This post was then deleted by censorship.
The Communist Party made prostitution illegal in 1949 and while the attempts to remove the oldest profession from Chinese society has ultimately failed; it has become increasingly more visible as fewer brothels sought to disguise the nature of its business. However, following this general form of tolerance from both the public and the Party, the question remains of whether pragmatic new policies that would be have incredible social and even economic benefits will force the Party to depart from its rigid conservative policies. Dongguan is a city that has been hit hard by faltering exports and therefore, it seems the problem could be part of the solution as demonstrated by the argument for the legalisation of prostitution. Unemployment has been on the rise, which partly explains the transition of some women from factory workers to sex workers. Sexually transmitted diseases are a growing problem where new cases of HIV and AIDS have been on the rise. Another issue with the “yellow campaign” is that the women are persecuted instead of being offered support, which implies more women will be forced into accepting precarious situations in order to work and will be left exposed to abuse.
If the social incentives were not enough then the economic ones ought to be sufficient. Given the absence of any formal laws, an intricate system was created that allowed everyone to profit. A manager from one of the city’s numerous hotels claims, “if the customer pays 800 yuan, the girl gets 300 or 400, and the pimp 50, while the hotel operator gets the rest and 200 yuan is reserved to bribe officials… It’s called the Dongguan-style ISO standard and is well-known among all Chinese pimps” with reference to the International Organisation for Standardisation. Furthermore, prostitution reportedly represents 10 per cent of the city’s income, or in other words, almost 50 billion yuan (HK$63.5 billion) could potentially be lost in revenue should the government permit further raids to follow.
China does have a model of success to follow and just needs to look to the West at the Netherlands. Amsterdam is a city that has the reputation for being a city of vice, much like Dongguan, where illicit activities do not have to remain in the shadows and instead are practised openly. This however, is where the similarities end. The Dutch have a different approach to dealing with the sex trade than the Chinese where it has been, more or less, successfully regulated. In 2000, a licensing system was introduced representing a new and assured source of income that unlike most industries is not in decline. Before the law was passed, prostitution was technically illegal yet it was widely tolerated. Sex workers can also have better access to health services and the government can attempt to prevent exploitation.
But China is not a country renowned for its reasonable logic when facing new policies that could undermine the core values of the regime. Change is therefore not imminent. Zhu Jidong who has the long title of deputy director of the party’s Research Centre for National Culture Security and Ideology Construction claims, “No matter how deep reform gets, or how far marketisation goes, it is unnecessary and impossible to legalise prostitution [in China].” It seems that the politics of sex will get in the way of opening a dialogue on sexual politics. The “tigers” and “flies” remain safe despite the President’s incentives. The men in power will continue to profit from bribes while the prostitutes will continue to work in a growing industry where the law seeks to punish them instead of offering protection.