Prostitution Crackdown Adds to the Woes of China's 'Sex Capital'

Police arrest sex workers and clients in Dongguan, China, on Feb. 9 Photograph by AFP via Getty Images

The city of Dongguan in southern China is the focus of a new, high-profile crackdown on the country’s thriving sex industry. According to the Chinese media, police have arrested 500 people for prostitution-related offenses since the latest anti-vice campaign began on Feb. 9.

Like many cities in the Pearl River Delta, Dongguan used to be a showcase of China’s reforms but now is struggling to keep up with a rapidly changing Chinese economy. Attracted by the city’s proximity to Hong Kong and the large pool of workers willing to work for low wages, manufacturing companies from Hong Kong and Taiwan saw it as a premier destination. Throughout most of the Oughts, Dongguan’s factories attracted migrant workers from all over China. But more recently, as the government has mandated higher wages and workers from other provinces no longer need to travel so far to find good factory jobs, cities in other parts of the country have become more popular investment destinations.

To see just how badly Dongguan has suffered, take a look at the official website for the city. According to the government, Dongguan accounted for 3.7 percent of China’s total trade volume last year, with $153 billion worth of imports and exports. That might seem impressive. However, in a sign of just how severe the city’s slump is, that 3.7 percent figure is less than half the total of the previous year: In 2012, 8.3 percent of the country’s imports and exports went through Dongguan.

As manufacturing jobs shift elsewhere, the sex industry has become even more important. Prostitution and related businesses could account for 10 percent of Dongguan’s economy, China Daily reports. The crackdown will force the city “to accelerate restructuring to shake off its image as the ‘sex capital of China,’” the newspaper opines. “If the crackdown continues, local authorities urgently need to find a new growth path to ensure the economic stability of the city.”

The Chinese media are using Dongguan as an example of the ills that come from building an economy around the sex industry. In a China Daily survey of a group of expatriates for their views about the city, someone named “Eric from Britain” says Dongguan “is now a very green city and very clean,” although “prostitution is still rife and there are lots of criminal gangs about.” A Bosnian living in the city says it’s unfair to judge Dongguan for its sex industry, since “the majority of users of those services are not from Dongguan. They are from Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai … and many other cities.”

And then there’s Alberto from Italy. “I am worried about the city,” he says. “What are all the people involved in that business going to do?”

The official Xinhua News Agency is unapologetic. “There has been some criticism of China’s sex trade crackdown,” Xinhua admitted on Wednesday. “However, with the deepening of the campaign and the capture of more corrupt figures, such voices will surely weaken.”

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