Dongguan vice crackdown just the start

Sonny Lo says local governments should brace themselves for a protracted crackdown on vice and corruption directed by Beijing, in a big-picture effort to clean up the country's image

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 February, 2014, 12:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 February, 2014, 3:37am

The high-profile anti-prostitution campaign and arrest of sex workers in Dongguan has highlighted the intertwined relationship between the central and local governments in crime control while illustrating how Beijing is tackling the proliferation of vice establishments.

First and foremost, once CCTV aired a programme on Sunday that uncovered the seriousness of the prostitution problem in Dongguan, the provincial leadership in Guangdong came under tremendous pressure from the top to act. Some said Guangdong party secretary Hu Chunhua was pressured to immediately deal with the prostitution industry. Another explanation was that he had to show some consistency in dealing with crime, given the recent crackdown on drugs in Lufeng.

Whatever one's interpretation of Hu's reaction, it is clear that Beijing used its official mouthpiece, CCTV, to highlight the vice industry in Dongguan and push provincial leaders to clean up the mess.

We should also examine the media criticism that targeted the "protective umbrella" in Dongguan, implying that local police were responsible for the situation. Notably, the media also reported on the involvement of a member of the National People's Congress, as the owner of a five-star hotel accused of offering sex services.

This anti-prostitution campaign clearly originated from the central government.

Some internet users complained on mainland blogs that the campaign was unfair to the sex workers, whose faces were not covered in the CCTV coverage and reports. They contended that sex workers should also have rights - an interesting argument that is rarely talked about in the mainstream mainland media. The complaints also revealed netizens' cynicism about how the prostitutes were portrayed by official media.

Of course, in Dongguan, the importance of the tourism industry has led to local tolerance of vice establishments, thus creating a vicious cycle that perpetuates the prostitution business. Fierce competition among Dongguan's hotels, including five-star establishments, has led many to set up saunas, massage parlours and nightclubs to attract customers.

To some extent, local economic prosperity depended on these vice establishments; as its textile and manufacturing sectors have shrunk, the city has failed to diversify its economy in any meaningful way. Without a long-term economic plan, the effect of the anti-vice campaign is likely to be short-lived. The prostitution business will return once the heat has died down, albeit in a more subtle manner.

The anti-prostitution campaign also reflects the governing mentality of Xi Jinping's leadership. He has said that, for too long, reforms have focused on the easier issues, and that the more difficult matters would have to be tackled. That being the case, it was only a matter of time before the traditional Chinese attitude of tolerating prostitution, gambling and drugs would become unacceptable.

Increasingly, these vices are being targeted in clean-up campaigns. Last year, officials took a zero-tolerance approach to Macau-style open gambling in hotel casinos in Hainan province. While underground casinos may be allowed in some parts of the country, as long as they keep a low profile and are protected by corrupt local authorities, any high-profile gambling is destined to be eliminated.

Provincial and local authorities must now understand what will and will not be tolerated under Xi's strong leadership. Policies to crack down on corruption, vice, illegal drugs, gambling and other crimes have to be enforced as China maintains its state-led economic modernisation. And the message is that any illegal and undesirable activities, such as prostitution, that have sprung up as a result of economic reforms have to be curbed.

Beijing needs to show the world that China, a rising great world power, will not tolerate local-level criminal activities and corruption, and will do all in its power to control them.

In short, the Dongguan campaign against prostitution is part of the bigger picture showing how Beijing is mapping out its economic modernisation strategy in the coming years. Although vice establishments might have contributed to local economic prosperity, they cannot be allowed to proliferate and operate openly in a way that could undermine the positive image of the central government.

Under these circumstances, it is likely that such anti-prostitution, anti-drugs, anti-gambling and anti-corruption policy winds will persist in the coming years. Local officials who form "protective umbrellas" with triads and vice establishments are likely to be purged, offered up as examples to other local cadres of what to avoid if they wish to advance their careers.

It is also worth highlighting the prominent use by the central authorities of official media to exert pressure on provincial governments as a way to tackle excessive local autonomy. Clearly, provincial-level officials in Guangdong, and elsewhere in China, will have to be far more sensitive to central-level sentiment than ever before.

Sonny Lo is professor and head of the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education