Female dancers, half-naked, perform behind a glass door. Young women with heavy makeup and tags pinned to their tops line up in a karaoke room to be chosen by customers. On a catwalk, women in underwear show off not the latest lingerie fashion but their flesh.
Those are scenes recorded in hotels, saunas and bars in China’s southern city of Dongguan by an undercover reporter from state broadcaster CCTV, which aired the footage to tens of millions of viewers in an unprecedented primetime exposé about the city’s sex trade.
The next day, Dongguan police arrested 67 people and shut 12 venues on charges of being involved in prostitution rackets - a direct response to the CCTV report, according to the broadcaster’s online division CNTV.
The CCTV report and subsequent crackdown in Dongguan - a border city in Guangdong province near Hong Kong that is known to many as “sin city” - has ignited a debate on what has long been a taboo question in China: Should prostitution be legalised?
"The crackdown is to treat the head when the head aches, and to treat the feet when the feet hurt - a piecemeal approach without tackling the fundamental issue,” renowned sexologist Li Yinhe wrote on her blog.
“Sexuality is part of humanity. Unless you could remove a human’s sex organs, or you make everyone content with masturbation, you cannot eradicate the sex trade.”
Nicknamed the “factory of the world”, Dongguan is home to 7 million people, more than 5 million of whom are migrant workers employed in manufacturing, according to a 2009 World Bank publication.
Although prostitution has been illegal nationwide since the 1949 creation of the People's Republic of China, prostitution in Dongguan for decades has been an open secret.
Tom Phillips, a correspondent for Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, reported undercover in Dongguan last year. “Between 500,000 and 800,000 people – some 10 percent of Dongguan's migrant population – are in some way employed in the world's oldest profession,” he wrote, citing figures from the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper.
A Human Rights Watch report last year, “Swept away - Abuses against sex workers in China”, said police frequently detain alleged sex workers with little or no evidence. The fines levied for the women’s release make a substantial contribution to local law enforcement budgets, the report said.
Until now, the government’s hardline approach towards sex work has stifled discussion about whether prostitution should be decriminalised, but last week’s CCTV report triggered a frenzy on social media.
Writing on Tencent Weibo, a popular micro-blogging platform, columnist and journalist Wuyuesanren described sex workers as vulnerable people. Rather than treating them voyeuristically, the media should probe the reasons why so many women and men turn to sex work in the first place, he told his more than 420,000 followers.
Many netizens also mocked an expensive public relations video released by Donggguan’s government communications office in response to the CCTV report, showing a clean-cut image of the city.
“Why didn’t you include scenes from KTVs (karaoke bars), hotels, and sauna baths in the propaganda videos?” asked one Weibo user.
Many poor women are lured into sex work by the promise of higher earnings. The average monthly salary in Guangdong province for a migrant woman not selling sex is 300 to 500 yuan ($45 to 75), Human Rights Watch said. As a sex worker, she might earn ten times that amount - 4,000 yuan ($600).
Gender scholar and filmmaker Ai Xiaoming told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that CCTV categorised sex work as a crime without questioning the flaws in the current law. The report could force sex workers deeper underground, allowing corrupt powers behind the trade to step up their rents - worsening work conditions and further depriving sex workers of their rights.
However, state media and others staunchly back the laws as they stand, as well as the consequences of breaking them.
On Feb. 15, a front-page editorial in China’s Legal Daily criticised those who support the legalisation of prostitution and praised the Dongguan crackdown as the right thing to do, enforcing the law.
The next day, China’s Ministry of Public Security told police to “firmly crackdown” on criminal activities, such as prostitution, gambling and illegal drugs and “firmly punish” the malfeasants, reported China Peace, a portal site sponsored by the Communist Party. The report said that Dongguan’s vice mayor and police chief Yan Xiaokang had been dismissed from his position.