HONG KONG — The southern Chinese city Dongguan came under the spotlight this week after state media ran an expose' about the city's sex trade. Since then, more than 150 people have been arrested and scores of popular entertainment venues have been shut.
This week, Chinese state TV carried images of SWAT teams breaking into rooms using battering rams. Prostitutes and their clients, covering their faces from the cameras, were handcuffed and escorted outside.
The raids began after state television aired an undercover report on Dongguan’s sex trade on Sunday. Soon after, authorities deployed thousands of police in a sweep that officials said will last for three months.
So far, police said, they have made 162 arrests and raided almost 2,000 locations including saunas, karaoke bars and other entertainment venues.
Dongguan is a business hub in southern China, but the city’s flourishing entertainment industry has helped give it a reputation as China's Amsterdam.
Although provincial authorities pledge to fight back against the sex trade, sex rights activists in China have said police crackdowns are not the right approach.
Lan Lan, the founder of Xin Ai Home, a Tianjin-based independent group that runs outreach programs for sex workers, is among those who think a crackdown is counterproductive.
She said that by cracking down on the sex trade, the government is in fact pushing prostitution underground, and making it more difficult for NGOs - like hers - to protect sex workers.
In China, prostitution is illegal.
Sex workers and their clients are subject to administrative sanctions, including detention in so called custody and education centers for up to two years.
Rights activists have long criticized such measures, which they claim do not help offenders re-enter into society.
Lan Lan said that in most cases, sex workers do not learn any new skill while in confinement.
On the contrary, she said, the detention will remain on their police record and make it more difficult for them to face their families or find different jobs once they are out.
According to Asia Catalyst, an independent group that promotes health and human rights in Asia, the educational goals of such centers have been “distorted into a profit making mechanism.”
Detainees are forced to provide free labor and they are required to pay for their lodging as well, making the centers lucrative enterprises for local officials.
Shen Tingting, with Asia Catalyst in Beijing, said the centers are similar in nature and sometimes even worse than the notorious re-education camps, which the government abolished last year.
Authorities did not reveal what will happen to those caught during the crackdown in Dongguan, but online many people expressed sympathy for the city and its sex workers.
Slogans like “Dongguan hang in there,” or “We are all from Dongguan” have become popular memes on Chinese social media.
Shen said that such support for the city is a sign that people's attitude towards sex work is changing, and that although many are still quick to insult, there is more awareness about the need to protect the rights of sex workers.
This week's sting operation was inspired by a investigative report on China's state broadcaster CCTV aired on Sunday.
The news segment showed secretly shot footage of brothels in Dongguan, where scantly dressed women danced on a stage while a pimp asked the journalist to choose among them.
As part of the program, the journalist reported the sex trade he witnessed to the local police, but to no avail.
Following the broadcast, authorities suspended eight police chiefs and pledged to punish all those who provided protection to the illicit trade.