In January China’s most popular search engine Baidu launched a heat map to capture the massive human migration that takes place over the Lunar New Year period as the Chinese head home to see their families.
What the tech company couldn’t have predicted is that it would record another exodus as well – this one of a much less noble kind.
Just as most people were saying goodbye to families and travelling back to the cities in which they work, state broadcaster CCTV aired an undercover report on the sex trade in Dongguan. On the same day the police began a series of raids on massage parlours, karaoke joints and hotels in the city (located about 140km from the border with Hong Kong in Guangdong province).
News spread quickly that Dongguan’s days as the country’s ‘Sin City’ were numbered and people began packing their bags – an outflow so clear and concentrated that Baidu’s heat map was able to capture it.
Baidu only records movement trends, not numbers, so there is no way of knowing just how many people fled Dongguan on February 9. But one thing is sure: that at a time when migrant workers should have been pouring back into this southern manufacturing hub, plenty of others were getting out of town.
Who were they? Here’s where the technology behind the Heat Map gives a clue. The app logs flows of people through location-specific registrations on smartphones using the Baidu Maps service. And netizens were soon concluding that the people most likely to be making a sharp exit were sex tourists, pimps and call girls.
Tellingly, Hong Kong was the most popular destination for those leaving in the hours following the bust, with 28.5% of all Baidu-recorded departures heading there. “Rich Hong Kongers on dirty weekends!” guessed one netizen on Sina Weibo. Another contributor, perhaps offended by trends in anti-mainland sentiment in Hong Kong, wrote: “Typical: we are portrayed as being rough and uncultured but if Hong Kong people want a good time they suddenly don’t seem to mind that.”
In the three-day crackdown that followed, 162 people were arrested, and more than 1900 establishments were “inspected”, local media reported, and the campaign will now be carried out in other cities as part of a wider programme against prostitution.
Somewhat surprisingly, the news wasn’t wholly welcomed. Although few people defended the vice industry, there was a feeling that that it will be the women working in the industry rather than its ringleaders who will end up as the victims of the clean-up. Several womens’ groups also complained that CCTV did not blur out the faces of women filmed in the undercover report. Others were angered at what they perceived as CCTV’s superior tone. As the Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper put it: “People resent the moral superiority of anti-vice groups. CCTV is seen as a symbol of a powerful system, while the lost girls they show, squatting, burying their heads and hiding their faces are seen as the underdogs, humiliated and oppressed. In this confrontation between prostitutes and CCTV, people quickly choose the women’s side.”
Many netizens also rejected the sense of outrage that they felt that CCTV was trying to evoke, responding to news of the crackdown as if it were a natural disaster. “Hang in there, Dongguan!” or “We are all Dongguan tonight,” were popular posts on weibo.
The city’s government then tried to refocus national attention with a publicity campaign playing up the more wholesome side of urban life: a thriving basketball team; a state of the art venue for Chinese opera; and factories that make high-end electronics.
“Cleaning up Dongguan will allow business to flourish,” a spokesperson added.
Perhaps, although another concern is that the crackdown could have a more negative impact on the local economy – to which prostitution was said to contribute Rmb40 billion ($6.57 billion) a year.
Noting the campaign, Hong Kong police have also expressed concerns – in their case that more of the vice trade may cross the border into their own territory.
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