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The campaign appears to be the latest element in a broad push by President Xi Jinping, the chief of the Communist Party, to expunge the image of corruption associated with Chinese officials.
The Public Security Ministry in Beijing pledged last month to strike a blow against the “three vices” — prostitution, gambling and drug use — but the focus of the crackdown is obviously on sex for sale.
The nationwide campaign began on Feb. 9, when China Central Television broadcast what it billed as undercover exposé, showing liaisons for pay in Dongguan hotels. The next day, the party chief of Guangdong Province, which includes Dongguan, ordered the city to shut down its entertainment sites for three months. Police officers raided some saunas, nightclubs and karaoke bars, the kinds of places that have a reputation for iniquity across China.
International brand-name hotels have not been spared. The local Sheraton has a foot massage parlor on the fifth floor that has been shut down, and the spa next to the hotel has police seals on its doors. (A manager at the Sheraton said an outside company ran the spa, though a call to the spa’s phone number was answered by the Sheraton’s guest services department.)
The Ministry of Public Security has ordered police departments across China to carry out similar clampdowns. A joke making the rounds goes that to curb a recent surge in bird flu Mr. Xi said “get rid of chickens,” but the order was accidentally sent to the Public Security Ministry instead of the Health Ministry, and police officials thought that meant go after prostitutes.
So far, the biggest political casualty has been the Dongguan police chief, Yan Xiaokang, who has been dismissed and put under investigation. But it is the prostitutes who are facing the harshest consequences.
“This is the most serious campaign so far,” said a friend of Denny’s, a male prostitute with a trucker cap and black painted fingernails. “It’s the same everywhere, so we can’t even go to other cities.”
Before the crackdown, Denny’s friend said, he could make more than $100 on a good night. But he is now wary of contact from potential clients because they may be police officers “fishing” for people to arrest, and the clients have the same fears about making contact.
Early in the campaign, on Feb. 10, the Dongguan police announced that they had inspected nearly 2,000 entertainment sites in the city, had found 39 of them to be “yellow venues” (yellow is a slang term in China for erotic), and had arrested 162 people. In the first six days, according to the Security Ministry’s website, more than 2,400 yellow venues across the country were shut, 73 prostitution rings were broken and more than 500 people were detained.
The sex industry is more developed in Dongguan than in other Chinese cities, according to scholars, prostitutes here and the program on China Central Television, which drew wide criticism for showing prostitutes without obscuring their faces.
Clubs give customers menus of dozens of services, some with names that have typically Chinese poetic flourishes (“phoenix rising from the bath”). Two hours with a woman in an upscale site typically costs 1,000 renminbi, or about $160. A client can hire a prostitute to be an exclusive lover: A help-wanted advertisement posted on streets in the Houjie area said that the worker could earn $1,640 to $4,900 a month. The same ad said a “room princess” — a woman who plies clients with drinks in karaoke clubs — could make $1,300 a month plus tips. The clientele extends beyond the mainland: Businesspeople from Taiwan and other parts of Asia often include a Dongguan stop on their China trips.
“I don’t think Dongguan has the most prostitutes or the most expensive ones, but it definitely has the most advanced and the most mature sex industry,” said Ai Xiaoming, a literature professor and gender studies scholar at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, the provincial capital.
At the clubs along the strip east of downtown known as Bar Street, business is nonexistent. The doors have all been sealed with strips of white paper bearing police stamps dated Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day. One recent afternoon, dozens of young employees of one club, Vee Plus, gathered outside its doors hoping to pick up back pay.
“In Dongguan, two out of five people will lose their jobs if the situation doesn’t return to normal,” said Lin Yadong, a club manager, who wore a blue scarf and stiletto boots. A woman next to her said, “If we don’t reopen, how will we eat?” Others nodded.
Ms. Lin said the club employed more than 70 people, and that customers came to drink, play dice and listen to the D.J., not to pay for sex.
At the Cannes, a rival club, an accountant who gave only his surname, Huang, said the crackdown was “a real pain — no one knows whether to go home or stay, or go somewhere else to look for work.”
“The government is trying to figure out what to do with the industry,” he added. “They’re reshuffling the cards.”
A manager at the BB Club estimated that the shutdown was costing his business about $10,000 a day in expenses and lost revenue. “The government did this for secret reasons,” he said, and then quickly ushered a foreign reporter from the building as officials from the local culture bureau walked in for an inspection.
A private driver said the city’s hotels and clubs would not be viable without the sex industry. “Who goes to a bar if there are no girls?” he said. “You can’t keep the alcohol down if there are no girls to drink with.” The driver, who gave only his surname, Liu, said that he sometimes made $120 a night in commissions from brothels for bringing clients to them. “It’s affected all drivers,” he said of the crackdown. “I’ll just have to be more frugal.”
From beneath the armrest in his car, Mr. Liu produced a pile of fliers with photographs of naked women, phone numbers and lists of services. He said that he knew a man from Singapore who had paid for sex with five women at once. These days, he said, a client would be lucky to get the services of even one woman in Dongguan.Continue reading the main story