Behind the China Sex Raids

What is really behind Beijing’s proclaimed crackdown on vices – sex, gambling and drugs?

It began with an assault on the sex industry in Dongguan, the city wedged between Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Although primarily still a light manufacturing center with a vast number of single and lonely males working in the factories, Dongguan morphed into the commercial sex capital of China. Going beyond the lonely factory workers, it integrated vertically into higher-end brothels with customer satisfaction surveys, performance bonuses and ISO standards for sex services.

Its brazenness was stunning and could stand comparison with such Southeast Asian fleshpots as Pattaya in Thailand – except that most of Dongguan’s clients were Chinese, not the foreign tourists who are the main patrons of the bars, brothels and massage parlors of Siam’s sin centers.

Reportedly, 2,000 “places of entertainment” were raided, which had the ancillary effect of outraging a sizeable segment of the citizenry who accused the Communists of picking on the little people for no reason, since there is a widespread perception that virtually every Communist satrap has at least one mistress and a bottle of Viagra on his bedstand.

Clearly there was a political message following changes in the leadership in Guangdong province. And perhaps Dongguan had become so notorious that its sex industry had to be closed down, or at least made less conspicuous. But now what? Tip-offs ensured that many of the sex suppliers got out of town or closed their premises in advance of the raids. The natural expectation was that the industry would disperse to less notorious locations in the Pearl River delta – where commercial sex is readily available even if the grosser aspects on view in Dongguan were absent.

But now the government in Beijing has said that this is just the opening shot in a wider attack on the three named vices with the Ministry of Public Security calling for local police forces to make determined efforts to close down vice establishments and punish those involved. The demand, however, begs several questions at a time when the government is supposed to be making an anti-corruption drive a major priority – and at a time when pressure on the media to toe the line and not publish stories detrimental to the Communist Party unless approved in advance as part of some campaign.

Of course there is a direct link between corruption and the vice establishments which flourish thanks to police and other official protection. But it is also the case that the existence of these establishments is a natural outcome of the social freedoms which Chinese people have enjoyed in the past 20 years – freedom to do much as they pleased so long as they did not challenge the political order.

So how far will this go and where will it end? Most probably, like the anti-corruption campaign, it will have a short life span, having provided President Xi Jinping with a chance to show how honorable and moral he is and showing that the party is still fit to lead the nation and be the sole fount of authority.

In reality party officials and their friends in the business community have every interest in seeing sex and gambling continue for their own enjoyment if not also for their profit. The most obvious outlets will be exposed and a few individuals punished but little more – because little more is possible given the interests involved.

An additional factor driving sex and gambling is the social disruption arising from rapid urbanization and the access of women to jobs – and for many sex work may be more attractive than repetitive work in factories. Freedom for women, many of whom delay or even disdain marriage, combined with the excess of young men over women – nearly 15 percent in the 15-20 age group – creates the natural conditions for commercial sex to be in high demand, and supply to be available at a price.

It was Deng Xiaoping who acknowledged that opening the windows allowed flies to come in – but that downside was unavoidable if progress was to be made.

There is a worrying comparison too between Xi’s overtly nationalistic stances towards Japan and some of China’s Southeast Asian neighbors.

In short, the emphasis on nationalism and anti-vice campaigns can be seen as reflecting Xi’s underlying fears that his hope of sustaining economic growth through reforms to spur efficiency are destined to fail. Thus the latest campaigns are substitutes for the economic reforms which Xi was expected to drive but which inevitably run up against the interests of a party which wants to control corporate as well as political institutions.

If Beijing were serious about gambling it would start by monitoring activities in Macau, where the high rollers – as often as not party members go to play rather than relatively small scale local gambling. For sure, Macao is an SAR and expected to be an outlet for gambling instincts. But Chinese people know well enough that any serious attack on the links between corruption and gambling would have to include Macao.

For sure, there is the possibility that Xi sees economic reform as linked to cutting down on corruption, improving the image of the party and standards of corporate as well as local governance. But such a broad brush attack on all vices suggests that this campaign, like nationalism, is more substitute for reform than impetus.