Two days after Chinese national television brought the sex industry in Dongguan into the national spotlight, public opinion has been divided in a debate about the legalisation of the industry.
Wu Jiaxiang, a former official who was jailed for three years for his role in supporting Tiananmen Square students, was one of several prominent intellectuals expressing concerns over the crackdown against prostitution in Guangdong province. “I have long advocated the legalisation of the sex trade, now is the time,” he wrote in a microblog post.
Video: CCTV news report on sex trade in Dongguan
Wu echoed a widely shared sentiment that was boosted by the raids on brothels in hotels in the Guangdong city, an hour’s drive north of Hong Kong, over the weekend and the beginning of a three-month long crackdown on sex trade in China’s most populous province.
Shortly after China Central Television’s news broadcast aired a report on the sex industry in Dongguan on Saturday, the city mobilised more than 6,000 policemen to raid almost 2,000 entertainment venues.
Photos of sex workers kneeling and hiding their faces from cameras circulated widely and made Dongguan the most discussed topic on microblogs for days.
Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the CCTV report and the ensuing crackdown had unintended consequences.
“It’s a much more wide-spaced debate about the sex trade than we have seen in the past,” he told the South China Morning Post. “For the first time, there is a debate that includes the possibility of legalising sex work.”
Sex work is an administrative offence in China. Workers and clients can face up to 15 days’ detention and a fine of up to 5,000 yuan (HK$6,350) under current law.
“What triggered the discussion this time was how callous the CCTV report was.” Bequelin said. “Its absolute lack of sympathy or understanding has apparently triggered a lot of outrage and indignation.”
In its Tuesday editorial, the Beijing Times blasted the nation’s media for putting sex workers at the centre of their discussions of the sex trade. “If the focus is not put on higher levels [of the industry], and if those who organise and protect the trade are not exposed, […] then there will be others joining the trade tomorrow,” it read.
Li Yinhe, a renowned sociologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argued in a blog post that the Dongguan crackdown was futile. Even if the city had been emptied of sex workers, customers would go elsewhere, she wrote, adding that the industry could only be brought under control if prostitution was decriminalised.
Others disagreed. The Global Times, an outspoken conservative daily, argued in its editorial on Tuesday that legalisation would not eradicate the sex trade.
Sima Nan, a celebrity writer and television host, argued that legalisation would not end abuse of sex workers. “Indian society has legalised prostitution, but its situation in terms of rape crimes is the world’s most severe,” he wrote in a weibo post.
UNAIDS estimated in 2009 that between 1.8 and 3.7 million sex workers were working in China at the time. About 868,000 sex workers worked in India at the time.