Macau's sex trade dealt a losing hand
A raid on an alleged major prostitution ring is the first thrust by Macau's new security chief to clean up the gambling mecca, although the accused ringleaders are still awaiting formal prosecution behind bars
On December 19 last year, President Xi Jinping arrived in Macau to lead celebrations marking the 15 years that had passed since China resumed sovereignty over the city after almost five centuries of Portuguese colonial rule.
But this was to be no ordinary anniversary party.
The next day, in a speech still reverberating in the city - which in 10 short years had transformed from a casino backwater into the world's biggest gaming destination - the president's message to Macau's leaders and their gaming paymasters was as stark as it was simple: Put your house in order for your own sake and that of the nation.
The president's words sank in among a fresh team of top government officials who had been newly installed by Xi that day, among them a new secretary for security, former Judiciary Police director Wong Sio-chak.
While delivering that clear warning on gaming, Xi may well have pronounced the demise of prostitution activities that are a big side business of the local casino industry.
A little more than three weeks later, on January 10, a suspected prostitution syndicate was dismantled. The ring had allegedly been controlling 100 rooms in Hotel Lisboa since 2013, making a profit of 400 million patacas a year, according to Macau police.
Officers detained 96 suspected prostitutes and arrested six others, including the hotel's executive director Alan Ho, nephew of gambling kingpin Stanley Ho Hung-sun.
Six months on, no charges have been laid. Alan Ho and the other five accused are still sitting in their cells waiting for formal prosecution.
Oddly, there is no official trace of the alleged prostitutes who were detained. According to local media, 20 of them were illegal migrants and 10 had fake documentation. It is not known whether some of them were identified as victims of human trafficking.
The Social Welfare Bureau - which offers shelter and support to human-trafficking victims - said it had not received any referral from this particular case. The prosecution office declined to provide information, claiming the case remained under judicial confidentiality.
Observers say the January raid - the largest operation of its kind since the 1999 handover - is only the tip of the iceberg in a region where prostitution relies on the success of the casinos and where few victims of human trafficking are identified every year.
"I have the impression the government is serious about cracking down on human trafficking. It has done a lot of training for police and other people on the field," said Sister Juliana Devoy, director of the Good Shepherd Centre, which supports women at risk.
"But very few cases have been prosecuted. It's difficult to say the situation has improved."
She said that in other places, most prostitutes were victims of human trafficking, although many would not admit it. "The victims don't identify themselves as victims, because many blame themselves and because they are afraid."
If they were under 18, the police would consider them victims even if they had entered Macau willingly. "But among adults, there are more difficulties unless they identify themselves," she said.
Devoy believed both police and judges must be trained to differentiate human trafficking victims and consenting prostitutes. "Sometimes it's a matter of doing the right questions."
Teresa Vong Sou-kuan, director of the Educational Research Centre at the University of Macau, who conducted a study on human trafficking in Macau in 2013, also urged authorities to become more proactive and reduce their investigation period.
After a ring - like the one allegedly operating in Hotel Lisboa - was busted, the prosecution office takes over the case and conducts further investigation. During that process, "some women have to wait for a long time in shelters, and many give up testifying because their families are being threatened in their countries of origin", Vong said.
"The judicial procedures are still lagging behind, also … we don't have enough prosecutors," she said.
While Alan Ho and the other five accused remain behind bars, the Public Prosecutions Office said in an email response that the case "is still under investigation, thus, in accordance with law (the Macau Criminal Process Code), it is still in the stage of judicial confidentiality".
A source familiar with the process criticised the time authorities had taken to investigate the case. "After almost seven months of [Ho's] arrest, no accusations have been made. It's excessive and it makes no sense."
At the time of the arrests, it was reported the group of six would be charged for criminal organisation and pimping.
Prostitution is not illegal in Macau, but pimping carries up to eight years in jail and human trafficking warrants up to 15 years if minors are involved. Otherwise the maximum sentence is 12 years.
A lawyer based in Macau said efforts to prove a human-trafficking crime "are extremely hard, unless the women decide to talk". The Judiciary Police said at the time the prostitutes detained at the hotel were aged between 20 and 27. Among them, 95 were from mainland China and one was from Vietnam.
However, the alleged prostitution racket appears to have involved many more women. In the group's computer seized during the raid, police found a list of 2,400 women suspected of being involved in prostitution.
Women could supposedly keep the money they earned - something between HK$1,500 and HK$5,000 per day. But they had to pay an annual fee of about HK$190,000, plus a monthly protection fee of about HK$9,000.
In 2013, Macau authorities investigated 35 cases of human trafficking (after investigation, 17 of the cases were considered voluntary prostitution), they identified 38 victims and prosecuted three cases.
The numbers dropped drastically in 2014. Only four sex trafficking cases were investigated, four victims of sex trafficking were identified and assisted. There were no prosecutions.
According to the 2014 Trafficking in Persons report by the US State Department, sex trafficking victims in Macau originate primarily from mainland China, but some were also from Mongolia, Vietnam, Ukraine, and Russia.
"Many trafficking victims fall prey to false advertisements for jobs in casinos and other legitimate employment in Macau, but upon arrival are forced into prostitution," it read. "[They] are sometimes confined in massage parlours and illegal brothels, where they are closely monitored, forced to work long hours, have their identity documents confiscated, and are threatened with violence."
Devoy said most of the victims "are school dropouts and have family problems, their parents are divorced - they are so vulnerable and ignorant that they can be easily seduced".
In Macau, Devoy said authorities have difficulty cracking down on human trafficking, since everything took place "behind the scenes" in legal saunas or other licensed venues.
But she also noted that, in spite of the flaws, there had been some progress over the past few years. On August 30, 2007, the chief executive established the Human Trafficking Deterrent Measures Concern Committee, and the following year Macau approved an anti-trafficking law.
In its report, the US State Department also acknowledged a positive shift. "Macau authorities do not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, they are making significant efforts to do so," it said, referring to 2013.
Devoy said a priority should be to raise awareness of the problem and getting local people involved. Greater efforts from the gambling industry to tackle the issue are essential, she said.
Hotel Lisboa, run by Stanley Ho's companies, has long been known among locals for the presence of prostitution, visible even at the entrance hall and near restaurants. Dozens of women used to hang out, waiting for prospective clients in what was known locally as the "catwalk."
The corridors of the Hotel Lisboa are now almost empty. After the raid, the business seems to have gone.
Such high-profile operations show a new order is in place. "Macau has changed. The new security secretary is from China; he is a communist, very conservative and wants to show his mettle," a Macau lawyer said. "I believe we will see more operations like this one in the future."