Red lights dim in China's Sin City

Red lights dim in China's Sin City

DONGGUAN, China - It is 12.30am on a Sunday. At a music bar in the town of Changping in Dongguan, a bargirl eyes her surroundings as she pours another round of drinks for customers.

Only two small groups of men are there, drinking and playing dice over the bar's techno beats. Most of the tables are empty. It is another quiet night for business.

Dongguan's nightlife has been like this for the past year, says the bargirl, who goes by the name of Xiaofeng. Petite and fair, the 25-year-old is wearing a sleeveless, short, orange dress and high heels.

"I used to work at a hotel nightclub with 500 girls, but I moved to this bar after the government's sao huang operation," she says. "Life has not been the same for Dongguan since."

Sao huang literally means "sweeping yellow", a colour associated with sex in China.

With about 250,000 sex workers in a city of just seven million people, Dongguan was once a byword for prostitution, which picked up together with the city's manufacturing sector in the 1990s.

Locals tell The Straits Times that nightclubs, hotels and saunas were open fronts for sex workers who flocked here from nearby provinces, making 500 yuan (S$109) to 2,000 yuan per customer.

"Everyone was very open about it. We would entertain clients at dinner, then go to a nightclub or sauna for girls after that," says a factory manager who wanted to be known only as Mr Ma, 40. "This was standard for businessmen here."

But this ended early last year, in what turned out to be China's most sustained and widespread anti-vice crackdown in recent memory.

Shortly after Chinese New Year last year, state broadcaster CCTV aired an expose on Dongguan's sex trade, showing the flagrant parading and hawking of prostitutes.

This triggered a crackdown on China's "sin city", with police raiding massage parlours, saunas, nightclubs and hotels.

More than 3,000 had their operations shut or suspended, 3,000 suspects were nabbed and 200 gangs busted.

More than 30 city police officials, including former deputy mayor and head of the local public security bureau Yan Xiaokang, were sacked or suspended from their duties.

The crackdown took place amid President Xi Jinping's war against corruption and vice.

In May, a high-profile trial opened against Dongguan's "hotel king" Liang Yaohui, 48, who was once listed among China's 500 richest people and was a deputy to the National People's Congress, China's Parliament.

Forty-seven people - all stakeholders or employees at the five-star Dongguan Crown Prince Hotel - were charged with organising or facilitating prostitution, which is illegal in China.

The hotel generated close to 50 million yuan in illicit income in 2013, according to reports. Liang, the hotel's chairman, has denied the charges, as did three others. The rest pleaded guilty.

Liang could face the death penalty if found guilty. A recent visit by The Straits Times found the hotel open for business, but its seven-storey sauna centre was closed, its glass entrance blocked by large potted plants.


More than a year after the crackdown, the effects are still being felt in Dongguan. Employees at nightclubs and massage parlours say the number of customers has plunged by more than half and that the authorities have not let up on checks.

"Why don't you call the police and check with them?" one massage parlour receptionist replies tersely, when asked if sexual services were still offered in Dongguan.

At the Tianerhu red-light district in Changping, bright neon signs with the Chinese characters for "massage" dot the streets, but on a Saturday night there were few people to be seen.

A massage parlour that once employed up to 300 girls has had to let two-thirds go, says an employee.

At one nightclub, three customers were drinking and singing karaoke. "We no longer have any girls on our payroll, so the customers stopped coming," the manager says, adding that businesses have remained wary of the police.

At the height of its boom, it was estimated that Dong guan's sex industry generated 50 billion yuan in business, or about one-tenth of the city's revenue.

The crackdown has hit the city hard, even in sectors that are not directly related to prostitution. Mr Yu Licheng, for instance, had opened a restaurant three months before the crackdown, ploughing 500,000 yuan into the business .

Business was good initially and he could make about 50,000 yuan a month. Once the crackdown started, his earnings "practically dropped to zero".

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