Mainland stock markets may have had their worst performance this year, down 20 per cent and the international community has been nervously watching the European sovereign debt crisis and the plunging euro.
But Beijing's rich and elite have been transfixed by something much more mundane and personal over the past week - the decision by police on May 11 to raid and close the city's top-notch nightclubs for six months. Many a dinner-table conversation is lamenting the sudden loss of venues where the upper crust could wallow in the most decadent luxury, drink the most expensive wine and be surrounded by beautiful, fair-skinned young hostesses. And the participants in those conversations are all wondering why.
It is well known that owners of the clubs, including the Passion Club and No 8 Mansion, are well connected, with a few even close to the mainland's most powerful families. Over the past decade or so, the clubs remained open despite the city's annual campaigns to combat the booming sex industry.
State media have hailed the latest crackdown and in particular heaped praise on Fu Zhenghua, the city's new police chief, who reportedly ordered the shutdown and personally orchestrated the raids. For someone who just took up the new job and should care about his future, shutting the clubs and standing up against powerful families was more like career suicide than a sound decision to make his mark, some observers say.
Perhaps Fu, 55, has the direct backing of the mainland leadership, as some have speculated. However, there is little sign indicating Fu, a career crime-buster, has any direct link to Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party headquarters.
This has naturally stirred up intense speculation that the latest crackdown on the sex industry could escalate to a wider campaign similar in scale to the anti-triad crackdown in Chongqing . In June last year, Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai took advantage of an unsolved murder to launch a citywide crackdown on the so-called mafia elements and their protectors in the judiciary system, resulting in arrests and convictions of hundreds of criminals and judiciary officials.
This culminated in the recent death sentence for Wen Qiang, a former police chief. Although Bo's decision was controversial, he attracted heavy praise from ordinary mainlanders nationwide, with some analysts speculating that his decision may have strengthened his chances of stepping up to become a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012. Indeed, the latest speculation in some parts of the country has been that the crackdown in Beijing could pave the way for Bo, a well-known princeling and a son of former party veteran Bo Yibo, to be transferred soon to Beijing and become its party secretary, replacing Liu Qi .
There is little doubt that the speculation on the implications of the closing of the nightclubs will continue in the coming weeks.
But Beijing's crackdown on the nightclubs appears to be a more straightforward matter than the rumour mill suggests. For instance, there is little indication Bo will become Beijing party secretary any time soon, although there has been constant speculation that Liu, 68 and due for retirement, is to be replaced.
Moreover, there have been strong suggestions that Fu himself appears to be the main driving force behind the crackdown on the sex joints. He appears to have set his crosshairs on the sex industry to make his mark as soon as he was appointed to the current job in February. This is despite the fact the Beijing municipal leadership asked him to focus on anti-terrorism and violent crimes at a time when the matter of how to beef up protection on the city's public transport became a real concern following the killing of about 40 people in suicide bombings in Moscow in late March.
Fu has also earned high praise for acting promptly to beef up security at Beijing schools after the outbreak of knife attacks on primary schools and kindergartens elsewhere in the country. Even so, he is most likely to be remembered for his crackdown on the sex joints. He announced the high-profile crackdown on April 11 and did not take any major action until a month later.
The owners of those nightclubs may now regret not heeding the early warning, but they can't be blamed for being indifferent because they survived the previous crackdowns unscathed. Indeed, those nightclubs are widely known for providing escort services to their rich clients and being a patron has become a kind of status symbol.
The most infamous is the Passion Club, better known as Tianshang Renjian ('paradise'), in the west wing of the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel, one of the earliest five-star joint-venture hotels. It is famed for its decor, beautiful escorts, high prices and the legendary stories about its previous owner, Qin Hui, a flamboyant businessman.
Qin reportedly took it over in 1995 and turned it into a top club for rich mainland and Hong Kong businessmen and high-ranking government and party officials. According to one of the often-repeated legends about Qin, two senior Beijing policemen went to the club in the '90s and refused to pay after running up a tab of tens of thousands of yuan. After scuffling with the club's security guards, the two called in a police Swat team and shut down the club. Qin reportedly drove directly to Zhongnanhai to seek help. The result: one senior police officer was sacked, another demoted and the club reopened.
The Beijing police seem to have the upper hand, but the question on the minds of many mainlanders is what Fu will do after the six-month shutdown is over. Will the clubs be allowed to reopen?