At some point in the last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping must have asked himself, "Since when do the Chinese people have more sympathy for prostitutes than for the government?" It's a reasonable question. Nine days ago Chinese authorities dispatched more than 6,000 police officers to raid the more than 3,000 businesses that constitute the notorious, wholly illegal $8 billion sex trade in Dongguan, a southern Chinese manufacturing hub. Illicit sex on that scale cannot exist without official complicity, greased by payoffs. Xi no doubt assumed that Chinese citizens would thus get behind this latest offensive in the broader battle he's launched against official corruption.
Yet in the immediate aftermath of the Dongguan raids and the state-produced television expose that supposedly inspired them, ordinary Chinese have reacted with far less enthusiasm than they have to Xi's clampdown on the banquets and other extravagances enjoyed by China's bureaucrats. That's putting it mildly: The government and CCTV -- the state-owned network that aired the expose -- have in fact been subjected to nine days of abuse, contempt and ridicule by online Chinese.
The most visible outrage has emerged on the Sina Weibo microblogging service, where the hashtag #DongguanHangInThere became the No. 1 trending topic within 24 hours of the raids. The desire to see Dongguan "hang in there," of course, has less to do with supporting the sex trade than with anger at the official hypocrisy behind raids that target working women but not the officials getting rich off the massive industry.
"Does even one of those prostitutes come from a rich family or from parents who are officials? No. They are born to poor families," wrote a Shanghai-based Sina Weibo user on Saturday, invoking a class divide that's emerged as a main criticism of the crackdown. "In a nation where people sell their souls for wealth," she continues. "Can't we bear a little sympathy for those selling their bodies?"
Not only microbloggers expressed sympathy for the Dongguan ladies being exposed on-camera and arrested. In a Feb. 11 editorial unusual for its indirect criticism of state-owned CCTV's coverage, The Beijing News, an influential, state-run newspaper, also expressed discomfort with the focus on sex workers. "In recent years, whenever the media cover a police anti-vice crackdown, the focus turns to prostitutes," the paper wrote. "But the excessive focus on prostitutes only satisfies low-grade curiosity, while distracting from the power-for-money deals, violent crimes and other problems behind the sex trade."
The reasons for the massive crackdown remain murky. No doubt a desire to break up the corruption that allowed the city of Dongguan to become home to 500,000 prostitutes was one of them. Nonetheless, Xi and his advisors can't be pleased that a high-level crackdown on vice -- surely intended to have populist appeal -- is instead being seen as yet another high-handed campaign targeting humble citizens.
On Feb. 11, in the midst of the initial furor over the initial crackdown, China's Central Propaganda even had to send out the following guidelines, as obtained and reported by China Digital Times, an independent website hosted at the University of California at Berkeley:
"To all media: concerning Dongguan, do not oppose CCTV's report, and do not deviate from the spirit of the central government; clearly support CCTV and the government in their crackdown on prostitution."
These guidelines were accompanied by an effort to censor some of the most inflammatory microblogging that had appeared in the wake of the CCTV report. For example, as also reportedby China Digital Times, the following Sina Weibo post was deleted from the site, along with many others:
"[A Few Dissatisfactions with the Dongguan Anti-Prostitution Campaign] 1. Local leaders are dissatisfied, as you've made them lose face; 2. The government is dissatisfied, as you've diluted their tax base; 3. The police are dissatisfied, as you've lessened their protection fees."
The effort to censor and control the response to the crackdown is startling in part because the Chinese government has expended -- some would say successfully -- considerable effort to neuter the once-thriving Sina Weibo of its ability to drive opinion contrary to the Chinese government's will. Thus, the fact that "#DongguanHangInThere" emerged so quickly, and so powerfully, suggests that the government -- or at least its propaganda apparatus -- wasn't prepared for a negative reaction.
Indeed, it wasn't until Feb. 15, and an editorial in People's Daily, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece, that the government went on the offensive, blaming the blowback on "Big Vs," the nickname for some of the Chinese Internet's most followed and influential microbloggers. This is nothing new: Last fall, the Big Vs were subjected to a prolonged Chinese propaganda offensive that culminated in one of them -- U.S. citizen Charles Xue -- being arrested and accused of for cavorting with a prostitute.
Xue's name hasn't specifically been invoked yet, but the message couldn't be much clearer: Those who oppose the Chinese government's sincere initiative to combat prostitution, no matter their reasons, are misguided and depraved. That's likely not a message Xi Jinping thought he'd have to broadcast. But no doubt he agrees heartily with the sentiment.
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