China widens its crackdown on drugs and prostitution

A Chinese policeman lits a cauldron filled with illicit drugs during a ceremony to mark the UN's International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, in Hami, farwest China's Xinjiang region.
STR | AFP | Getty Images
A Chinese policeman lits a cauldron filled with illicit drugs during a ceremony to mark the UN's International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, in Hami, farwest China's Xinjiang region.

The Chinese government has widened a crackdown on prostitution, gambling and drug use to major provinces across the country, according to reports on Monday in state-run news organizations.

The crackdown is being overseen by officials in the Ministry of Public Security, which manages most police forces in China. Officials in the ministry had already sent a supervisory group to carry out the first step in the nationwide sweep, which began on February 10 in the southern city of Dongguan, according to a statement on the ministry's website.

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Dongguan, a manufacturing hub teeming with migrant workers, is sometimes known as China's Sin City, and prostitution there had long been tolerated as a significant part of the local economy.

The statement was posted one day after China Central Television broadcast a program on February 9 that purported to expose the prevalence of prostitution in Dongguan. The program prompted criticism online by a range of people, including women's rights advocates, who say the police are unfairly singling out prostitutes.

On Monday, a Chinese newspaper, Beijing News, reported that the Ministry of Public Security had ordered provinces across China to follow the example of Guangdong, the southern province next to Hong Kong that includes Dongguan. The report said 16 cities in nine provinces had begun taking part in the "sweep yellow" campaign, called that because yellow in Chinese can refer to things of an erotic, lewd or sexually illicit nature.

Since the start of the sweep, police units across China had investigated almost 1,500 cases related to prostitution, uncovered 73 criminal gangs, arrested more than 500 people and shut down more than 2,400 sites where sex was for sale, Beijing News reported Tuesday.

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The new crackdown appears intended to send a message similar to the so-called anticorruption campaign promoted by President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leader. Mr. Xi has made it a goal to force recalcitrant elements of the party to fall in line with the central leadership.

"I think it is another step by Xi to tighten control on ideology and society," said Ai Xiaoming, a literature professor at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, and a gender studies scholar. "Xi wants a China that is completely under control and has no such thing as a sex industry. There is no such thing as a sex worker in Xi's China dream."

Li Sipan, a women's rights advocate in Guangzhou, said: "Xi has his own vision for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, which has a very strong moral aspect. The campaign again shows Xi's conservative and purity-based values. It is another step towards Xi-style China."

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"As a women's rights advocate, I'm worried that there might be a lot of abuse of power by the police towards sex workers," Ms. Li added.

News reports in recent days have listed participating provinces, including Gansu, Guangxi, Heilongjiang, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong and Sichuan.

One report, for example, said 6,500 police officers had been involved in a crackdown on prostitution, gambling and drug use in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. The crackdown began on February 10, and 335 people have been arrested on charges related to the three vices, the report said.

In Harbin, the frigid capital of Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, more than 4,800 police officers checked more than 2,700 locations and detained at least 27 people, according to one news report.

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Prostitution is common across China, where many hotels offer sex for pay, and hair salons and massage parlors often serve as fronts for brothels.

When police officers do round up prostitutes, they might detain them for long periods in systems of extralegal punishment, including one called "custody and education," in which those held are forced to do labor.

People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, has been publishing editorials and commentaries supporting the crackdown. One published on Thursday ran under the headline "The boundary of right and wrong should not be blurred." The next day, the newspaper ran a similar opinion piece with the headline "The bottom line of civilization must not be profaned."

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The essay went on to say: "Any healthy society, while having a diverse range of ideas, should have some basic bottom line, some common sense and value. Liberation of thinking doesn't mean having wild ideas, and it also doesn't mean an indulgence of behavior."

During the crackdown, some officials have been dismissed or forced to apologize for their lack of vigilance. On Friday, the official news agency Xinhua reported that Yan Xiaokang, the police chief of Dongguan and a deputy mayor, had been dismissed from his job, and that officials were opening an investigation into his actions.

Other senior police officers have also been dismissed. Party chiefs in four towns in the Dongguan area have issued public apologies.