Officially illegal since the 1949 Communist takeover, prostitution is nonetheless a widespread, mostly underground, industry in China.
Perhaps no other Chinese city is more closely associated with the world’s oldest profession than Dongguan in the Pearl River Delta, located at the vast country’s southeastern corner, near Hong Kong.
According to a report in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, some 300,000 sex workers operate in the streets, massage parlors, karaoke bars, saunas and hotels of Dongguan; and up to 800,000 people -- an extraordinary 10 percent of the city’s population – are involved in the sex trade in one form or another.
Aided and abetted by some municipal officials, the sex trade in Dongguan generates as much as 30 percent of the city’s service industry revenues, the Post estimated.
Although prostitution is rife across China, Dongguan has gained the dubious distinction as the country’s “sex capital.”
"Many wives feel anxious whenever their husbands take business trips to Dongguan," the city's ex-party chief, Liu Zhigeng, said in 2009. "It's disgraceful."
Hundreds of thousands of girls and women end up in Dongguan to sell their bodies for one reason or another.
One 28-year-old prostitute calling herself "Luo" told the Daily Telegraph: "I'm married and have a 22-month-old son. My husband doesn't know I work here, nor do my parents."
Luo claimed she was forced into the sex trade after incurring huge debts gambling in the casinos of nearby Macau.
"I have no other option. I will leave this place [brothel] after I earn 20,000 ($3,250) or 30,000 yuan and I'll probably return to the casino to try and win it back," she added.
Another girl named "Tong" from Jiangxi province claimed that she was “tricked” into working as a bar-girl by a friend.
"I had no idea what business was going on here until I came," she said.
Yet another prostitute, Ling Ling, who came from Guizhou, China's most impoverished province, said she turns tricks because it generates more money than toiling on an assembly line at a toy factory.
"I have no choice. I have to support my family," she said.
Indeed, several factors have conspired to make Donnguan a mecca for prostitution – China’s rapid economic growth has attracted hundreds of thousands of migrants from the poor interior of the country to the affluent cities of the coast, desperate to make a decent living; the gender gap between male and female has created an imbalance leading to an army of men without wives who seek sex partners; while Dongguan’s proximity to wealthy Hong Kong also attracts large numbers of deep-pocketed sex tourists.
Dongguan officials, embarrassed by their city’s sleazy reputation, have periodically staged crackdowns on the sex trade.
Earlier this year, Dongguan municipal authorities sought to clean up the city’s image through a public relations campaign to recast the former factory hub as a place of culture, art and modernity. They even produced a promotional film with help from the Discovery Channel of the U.S.
Police and security officials also embarked on a crackdown on brothels and other places where prostitutes ply their trade.
However, despite the best efforts of city fathers and commercial TV directors, prostitution pervades the city of Dongguan.
A report from new.e23.cn (as translated by eChinacities.com) suggests that Donggan’s smut industry is resilient and also highly organized.
A driver who arranges for visitors to find prostitutes in Donnguan told new.e23.cn: "We are a team of about 20 drivers who have contractual agreements with various hotels in Dongguan. We're responsible for picking up clients from Shenzhen and other nearby areas, and make several trips to and from Dongguan each day. … On the weekends we can get as many as 100 clients."
The Post also reported on a Hong Kong-made comedy movie called "Due West," which chronicles the phenomenon of Hong Kong men journeying to Dongguan for sex.
One extra who appeared in the film explained to the Post why so many men cross the waters to Mainland China.
“[We] can never get that [from Hong Kong women],” he said. “Men are egoistic. We need to be respected, and these venues give us the respect that we need. It’s true that I pay for it. It’s a kind of service. It’s fake. But it’s worth it.”
Another Hong Kong "john" explained: “Men are afraid of being controlled. Many Hong Kong women suffer from the ‘princess syndrome.’ They want to tie their men down, but it never works.”
Of course, it is not a happy existence for the prostitutes themselves.
As an anecdote, China Hush reported on a girl named "Ayan," who arrived in Dongguan in 2005 to work at a toy factory at low pay – less than 900 yuan per month. She quit in the middle of 2007 to look for a job with a higher salary. She said she met an older woman named "Axiang" on the street who offered her a job with high wages.
“I thought she was really sincere, and working out here I also needed friends, so I started to trust her,” Ayan said.
She eventually became a prostitute, with Axiang taking the majority of her earnings.
“My first time, [I was] sold to a 40-some-year-old man, he gave me 4,000 yuan, and 200 yuan for the cab,” she said.
“Ever since then, I had to see two to three customers every day -- each time the price was anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 yuan.”
But soon Axiang and a man seized all of Ayan’s money and sometimes beat her up to keep her under control. Ayan, as afraid of the police as she was of her pimps, eventually returned to her hometown.
In a broader context, a writer for China’s Nanfang blog explained the realities behind China’s huge sex industry.
“With living standards in poor rural areas still well below developed-country standards and wages failing to keep up with inflation, there seems to be a never-ending supply of prostitutes who migrate to China’s larger and wealthier centers looking for money for themselves and their families,” he wrote.
Consequently, the “illegal” trade in human bodies constitutes a significant part of the local economies in many cities.
During a prior government crackdown on Dongguan’s teeming sex industry, local voices expressed skepticism and even outrage over the heavy-handed measures.
“A real crackdown on prostitution would undoubtedly destroy Dongguan's economy amid global recession, and this raises the fear of political distrust of Guangdong [province] authorities by the central government,” economic and political columnist Jin Xinyi said, according to the Post.
“More than 500,000 people could be unemployed if Dongguan clamped down on all brothels, massage parlors, nightclubs, sex hotels, sauna centers and karaoke bars.”
A resident of Changping township in Dongguan told the Post that government crackdowns can never eliminate the city’s prostitution business since some local officials profit from the trade.
“Successful [sex] operators ... have been given important positions at local chambers of commerce and are interviewed in newspapers as public figures,” he alleged.
According to a blog on Lovelove.china.com, China’s enormous prostitution can trace its exponential rise to the economic reforms of leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. It has since developed into a moneymaking industry like any other.
Pan Suiming, a Chinese sexologist and professor at Renmin University, wrote an essay called “Red Light District” in which he equated the prostitution business to legitimate corporations.
“Although the sex industry is still illegal, it already has a formed system and operative mechanism,” he wrote. “Production and distribution of pornography is its advertisement department. The escort services are its exhibition and sales department. The medical treatment of sexually transmitted diseases is its after-sale department. Clients who directly buy sex with money are its core production department.”
Pan has even advocated for the legalization of prostitution.
“China's sweatshops have fostered prostitution because female workers don't have other career opportunities," he told the Post. “Ninety per cent of prostitutes tried to find a factory job before working in the sex industry. Many said they were squeezed by sweatshops. Very few prostitutes said they wanted to return to the assembly lines.”
With money floating around China in magnitudes never seen before – and seemingly available to even the most humble peasant, along with the complicity of some government and police officials – it would appear that prostitution will continue to thrive.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.