Sex and the City of Dongguan
The city of Dongguan, now dubbed “Sin City”, was caught in a nationwide scandal on February 8 when CCTV broadcast a hidden-camera documentary revealing the illicit activities of several of the city’s adult entertainment venues. A large-scale investigation into the local sex trade was launched. Following these events, Baidu used the geo-databases of smartphones to reveal a flow map of people hastily exiting the city after the police crackdown. This temporary crisis and its spatialization on Baidu’s maps offer some insights into the social reach and significance of the sex industry at the scale of the entire city of Dongguan.
Dongguan, home to 8 million people, is one of the largest manufacturing centers in China and in the world at large – toys, footwear, furniture, cameras, and domestic equipment factories can all be found there. The sex trade has also mushroomed here, now catering to clientele in a variety of new spaces of recreation, including karaoke bars, 5 star hotels, decadent casinos, massage parlors, and even hair salons (more than 2,500 establishments are listed in the official report). According to different sources, this sector is now employing between 300,000 and 800,000 people who make an annual economic contribution of 10% to the city’s GDP, approximately 50 billion yuan annually.
Several factors have contributed to Dongguan’s reputation as China’s “sex capital”. The city is one of the most prosperous on the coast, and has attracted many workers from poor surrounding areas, including many women who, in search of better pay, have turned to prostitution. The strong presence of migrant workers, which include many single or otherwise attached men living far away from their families, has boosted the industry. The geographical proximity of its prosperous neighbors Hong Kong and Macau has also purportedly generated cross-border sex tourism. Baidu’s “Dongguan Heat Map” reveals that, of the swarm of people vacating the city in the first eight hours following initial arrests, one out of four people were returning to Hong Kong. Information website Danwei also adds that the sex industry and services offered in Dongguan are largely standardized; rates, durations and practices all well-defined. The application of “ISO standards” in the sex trade industry has helped attract consumers from across the delta region, many seeing it as a safeguard against common scams. The recent police intervention, which eventually led to the dismissal of the Vice Mayor and the Chief of Public Safety, also revealed that Dongguan’s prostitution has prospered under local official protection.
In Dongguan, sex trade organizations often paid telecommunication companies to mass advertise their services via SMS. This may have inspired new scams that emerged in the wake of the scandal which hoped to take advantage of the general panic to unlawfully solicit money from wealthy Chinese parents. The Weibo account of the Beijing police warned against such SMS hoaxes. Texts to be wary of included those that took the following form: “Dad, I got arrested in Dongguan. Do not try to reach me on the phone: send me money via the bank account of police officer X.”