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BEHIND THE RED CURTAIN

In Dongguan, known as China’s sex capital, a ‘live’ flesh market exists in hotels big and small. Girls are paraded on stage with numbers denoting rates, ranging from 400 to 1,500 yuan for two hours of erotic dancing and sex. They are ordered to bow and sing out a welcome greeting to the customers before starting their lifeless pirouetting. Customers are shown rooms where they can select semi-nude girls dancing behind one-way mirrors.

All this was shown in a sting operation aired on CCTV on a recent Sunday morning. Police don’t bother, one manager told the undercover reporter, who discovered this for himself when he twice called up policemen to report on what he had seen, but no one turned up. Hours after the programme, raids were ordered and by Monday morning, 12 venues had been sealed. But a reporter was told he could get girls in the city for higher rates.

The biggest crackdown on Dongguan’s sex trade in recent years had an interesting fall-out: fake SMSes started being sent saying: “Hi dad, I was caught in the raid; please send money to this card number to bail me out!” So harsh was the reaction against the CCTV exposé that the propaganda department issued a directive to the media not to oppose it, and some internet posts were deleted. Netizens were furious that prostitutes were being exposed while those who run the trade were not. Though the police chief and eight other policemen were removed, even official newspapers had this to say — what about the local officials and criminals without whose protective umbrella the sex trade can’t run?

On sale

For years, Dongguan in Guangdong province has been known as a polluted and crowded manufacturing hub, where migrants make up the majority. However, the 2008 recession saw manufacturing decrease, and gave a boost to the sex industry. In fact, economists were quoted worrying about the adverse impact of the crackdown on the economy! Official figures say there are 300,000 prostitutes in the city. Most customers are visiting businessmen, especially from Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also Shanghai and Shenzhen. After the crackdown, an Italian wrote about how the supplier from whom he had finalized a big purchase had treated him at the karaoke club of the Dongguan Sheraton. When he retired for the night, girls kept knocking on his door, asking him to choose from them, as they had already been paid for. Prostitution is not confined to red-light areas in China; it’s carried out openly on the streets and in karaoke bars and hotels. After the Dongguan crackdown, a legislator repeated her long-standing demand: legalize the profession to protect the girls, for there’s no way to stop it. However, the crackdown is being seen as part of the new president’s anti-corruption campaign.

One of Mao’s first acts was to ban prostitution. The ban remains, and government-owned hotels are some of the biggest violators. Netizens wondered why CCTV didn’t point its camera at party officials with mistresses, choosing instead to expose those who sold their bodies over those who had “sold their souls”. Asked one viewer: “Would they dare to do undercover reporting of [government] halls and buildings... of black brick kilns... of sweatshops? No, they wouldn’t. They only do undercover reporting of saunas and hotels, using no effort at all. This kind of reporter that targets disadvantaged social groups and does news that is of no risk, has nothing but cowardice and wretchedness in their (sic) bones. What is cowardly is that they do not have the courage to report the real news, afraid to face their own cynicism and zombieness. What is wretched is their eyes never leaving the women’s bodies, yet self-righteously pretending to be lawful and conscientious good people.’’