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Double standards on prostitution enrages blogosphere

Prostitution is illegal in China. Officially, at least. Nonetheless, the world's oldest trade takes place in every part of the country. A recent TV report and a large-scale raid on a brothel have sparked a heated debate.

Journalists working for the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV entered a number of brothels with hidden cameras in the "sex metropolis" of Dongguan. The report, aired in mid-February, portrays and criticizes the "moral decay" of the southern Chinese city. It also slams the local police, accusing them of being "unwilling to act." The police's reaction was swift. Some 7,000 police officers conducted a massive raid in the city resulting in the arrest of 67 people.

Harsh punishment

Prostitution is illegal in China. It is, however, ubiquitous. Karaoke bars, high-end hotels and spas can be found catering to protagonists in the sex trade. While there are no official statistics, it is estimated that between four and six million sex workers are currently operating in China.

Female Chinese employees stand in line at a sauna during a campaign to crack down on prostitution in Qingdao city, east Chinas Shandong province, 17 February 2014. Thousands of police officers have raided karaoke bars, nightclubs, hotels and saunas in 16 Chinese cities over recent days, detaining more than 1,000 suspects in the latest attempt to curb the countrys illegal but booming sex industry. More busts are likely now that the Chinas Ministry of Public Security ordered a nationwide crackdown on prostitution, gambling and drugs. Some experts doubt the arrests will solve the problem given the popularity of the service in China. Others say the biggest reason that prostitution remains endemic to China is that police and authorities in cities take bribes to overlook the crime, and so the only thing to do is no longer treat it as a crime. Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says the government must reconsider its laws and approach. Legalizing the industry could reduce corruption and ensure health checks and education of sex workers, who could be offered training for other work, she told Caixin Media. Prostitution is available everywhere in China, from street-side barbershops to high-end hotels. Many of the arrests in the latest sweep are taking place in Dongguan, a southern manufacturing hub long notorious as Chinas sex capital.

Sixty-seven people were arrested in the February raid

The sex business has a long tradition in the Asian nation. Businessmen invite potential partners to karaoke bars - with female "entertainment" - in the hopes of closing a deal. State employees also accept paid sex as a "courtesy." Last summer, five judges were caught with prostitutes in Shanghai and subsequently suspended from work. However, members of the Communist party often get off scott-free.

Yet there is high risk for the prostitutes themselves. Aside from the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, they must also beware of the police. Prostitutes who get caught can face detention at labor camps, where, contrary to other detainees, they are expected to pay for their stay, according to the New York-based rights organization "Asia Catalyst."

Debate over prostitution

The CCTV report has sparked a debate about prostitution in China. "The state broadcaster has denounced prostitution as moral decay," criticized women's rights activist Ai Xiaoming. "But many Chinese officials are on the receiving end. And they even spend public money on it. Everyone knows that."

Prostitution, according to Ai, is less a problem of sexual morals, and more a question of the abuse of power and corruption. Chinese social media sites are abuzz with discussions about the CCTV report. "Drop your pants and take the whores, then do 'em up and take 'em in," users mock police officials, many of whom are believed to be devout customers of the prostitutes.

Many people claim the state is simply using the TV report to harangue viewers. Others suspect an inner-party power struggle behind the program as a number of local party members were suspended right after the show was broadcast.

Legalize it?

Slowly but surely, support for the legalization of prostitution is growing.

A suspected prostitute puts on clothes at a hotel room during a police raid, as part of plans to crackdown on prostitution, in Dongguan, Guangdong province, February 9, 2014. Chinese authorities have carried out a rare crackdown on the sex trade in the sin city of Dongguan following a candid report by the state broadcaster on the underground industry. Picture taken February 9, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

Those who pay for sex tend to go unpunished

"If it is legal to sell a product you make by using your hands or your head, then why should it be illegal to sell sex?," sex researcher Li Yinhe asks on the Chinese news site iFeng.

"While fully legalizing it could be problematic - for example, it could trigger a wave of protest, especially from people who live in areas where there is a lot of prostitution - the first step should be decriminalization," the researcher said.

Women's rights advocate Ai said China needed to find its own approach to the problem. Sweden, for example, punishes customers but not the prostitutes, but this would not be the solution for China, she said, adding that it would be best if everyone got together to find a solution, even the sex workers themselves. Raids like the one in Dongguang would then no longer be necessary, she explained.

It seems, however, the government is taking a different approach. On Monday, February 17, the Ministry of Public Security announced on its website that it would intensify its crackdown on prostitution, gambling and drugs throughout the country.

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