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Tens of thousands of sex workers used to practise in the city, servicing people working in its vast sprawl of factories as well as visitors drawn by its sleaze. That began to change early in , when the local government launched an unusually fierce anti-vice campaign. In the first few days alone some 6, police raided 2, saunas, karaoke bars and other such venues. They hauled away many of their staff and patrons.
Four years later punters can still buy sex in Dongguan, as they can across China. He offers an appointment with a woman he knows. Yet city officials have done a far more thorough job of clamping down on the business than most locals expected. A lot of them appear to have left town. The Communist Party has long portrayed prostitution as a form of exploitation and itself as a liberator of women who engage in it with the help of thought reform in labour camps.
After seizing power in , the party used its control of the economy to provide alternative jobs for many prostitutes. Before long it claimed to have wiped out the trade entirely. Prostitution returned in force after China began liberalising its economy in The government encouraged foreign investment and relaxed restrictions on migration from the countryside to cities. Rural women took the opportunity to seek better-paid work. Businesspeople from Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere began piling in to build factories, including in Dongguan.
Many of the migrants found jobs on the new production lines. Some sought work in new red-light districts. Experts reckon there may be millions of sex workers in China, most of them women.
Despite numerous campaigns against the business, prostitution is probably becoming more common. Surveys carried out over 20 years by Pan Suiming and fellow researchers at Renmin University in Beijing found that the proportion of Chinese men who admit to having hired a prostitute doubled to around one in seven in the decade to They believe it might reach more than one in six by Some prefer it to jobs that are commonly done by poor women from the countryside, such as in shops or factories.