HONG KONG - China's anti-corruption campaign - spearheaded by an increasingly assertive President Xi Jinping - appears poised to net some historically big fish: retired People's Liberation Army general Xu Caihou and, even more significantly, former security tsar and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang are both under investigation for graft, which in China signals preordained trials and convictions are forthcoming.
That's big news. In the past, retired officials of such high stature
have been given a pass in China's highly selective, largely-for-show corruption probes, no matter their crimes and excesses.
Tellingly - although the comparison may bring discomfort to the Chinese leadership - much the same can be said for the country's prostitutes. Selective, high-profile busts have given the superficial impression that the trade in flesh is being quashed while by and large it has continued to flourish - until last month, that is, when Xi's government launched a nationwide anti-vice campaign that was prompted by a massive raid on prostitutes working in hotels, saunas and massage parlors in China's sex capital, the city of Dongguan in southern Guangdong province.
The campaign is now being touted as an integral part of Xi's much-ballyhooed effort to eradicate all people and things corrupt, but don't be fooled by any of this.
Xu and Zhou may be tainted, but their bigger crime was to ally themselves with Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing party boss now languishing in prison after being convicted of corruption and abuse of power but whose truly unpardonable, albeit unspoken, crime was to challenge former president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao in an overreaching attempt to vault himself into a top leadership position. Bo lost his gamble - and so have his once-powerful friends.
Politics is a dirty and dangerous game in China, and the losers have to pay; it's hard to work up much sympathy for erstwhile generals and high officials who have exploited their positions to accumulate massive personal wealth, even if it's true that countless others are getting off scot-free because they have landed on the right side of the leadership battle.
The same, however, cannot be said for the prostitutes now being targeted by a suddenly righteous central government. The anti-vice campaign, like the larger presidential declaration of war on corruption, is little more than a well-orchestrated (not to mention titillating) distraction from the far more pressing problems confronting the country: impending economic decline and an inherently rotten one-party political structure stubbornly resisting real reform.
Moreover, so far the campaign has made a point of punishing and humiliating primarily the most vulnerable members of the vice trade - the sex workers themselves - while their pimps and the corrupt officials who allow the trade to flourish remain free, except for a few scapegoats sacrificed to a media wallowing in a rare officially sanctioned story about sex.
After all, nothing focuses the attention like front-page photographs and Internet video of scores of scantily clad young women abjectly submitting to arrest by upright officers of the law. Officials may be hoping those images of vigorous law enforcement will convince the public that vice is under serious assault in China, but the crackdown cannot erase the memory that, for years, the same police force ignored, if not facilitated, Dongguan's expanding, well-known and popular sex trade.
It is an open secret that, since 2009, when exports started to decline in Dongguan, once China's manufacturing hub, sex became big business in the city - and that business has thrived while Dongguan's coffers filled.
Before last month's police action, it was estimated that more than 200,000 sex workers plied their trade in a city of 8.2 million people. Everybody from the taxi drivers who advised and transported randy tourists through the maze of entertainment venues, hotels, saunas and massage parlors where sex was on offer to the property developers who profited from the sex industry's rapid growth became part of the boom. And, of course, many official palms in the city's government and police department were handsomely greased along the way.
Dongguan's image as the "sex capital of China" was even celebrated in a 2012 film called Due West: My Sex Journey, which depicted the erotic adventures of a young Hong Kong man who frequented the city's sex parlors.
So why did the tables turn so abruptly on Dongguan's sex workers, whose brazen presence in the city has now been seized upon to launch a nationwide campaign against the "three vices" of prostitution, gambling and drug trafficking?
You can rest assured that the war on sex was not a local decision as the crackdown, if it continues, will cost the city as much as 100 billion yuan (US$16.5 billion) in lost revenue generated by related economic activity, according to senior economist Guan Qingyou for Minsheng Securities, who wrote to investors: "The sex industry relates directly or indirectly to many industries, including hotels, restaurants, cosmetics, daily necessities, travel and so on."
Politely, the analyst failed to mention the huge payouts to local officials and police that made the city's sex trade possible; much of that money too makes its way back into the local economy and, until this month - unsavory as it may sound - also played a role in the city's economic turnaround since the loss of its status as "the world's factory."
Dongguan the manufacturing hub was reborn as Dongguan the sex hub, and it appeared that no one seemed to care until last month, when China Central Television (CCTV), the state broadcaster, aired a lengthy investigative report on the city's sex trade by undercover journalists - although the so-called "expos" hardly exposed anything that was not already widely known. The report featured extensive and provocative photographic and video evidence of widespread, unabashed prostitution in Dongguan, including footage taken at luxurious hotels.
Hours after the CCTV broadcast on February 9, some 6,000 police officers descended upon 2,000 hotels, saunas, massage parlors and karaoke lounges as authorities announced a three-month war on prostitution. The net result, however, considering the scale of the police action, was a relatively paltry 162 arrests, mostly unfortunate women caught in compromising positions, and the dismissal of police chief Yan Xiaokang.
Ten additional police officers have also been either demoted or fired as a result of the raids, but the head count in this "purge" is hardly inspiring in a city where prostitution has become big business with the obvious approval of local officials across the board.
When China's Ministry of Security, citing the Dongguan shakedown, then announced a nationwide campaign against the sex trade and its related "evils" of gambling and drug trafficking, a local farce expanded to include the whole country.
This campaign may well lead to more showcase arrests of luckless prostitutes paraded before the media; prostitution, however - along with gambling and drug trafficking - will continue to thrive in China. It is a simple matter of supply and demand - although, of course, it could be far better contained by a government and police force that was not so inclined to corruption.
In the end, Dongguan may become a sexy symbol for the difficult challenges China's leadership faces today.
It's not only Dongguan that has lost its magic as an export mecca. For years, the whole country has been overly dependent on cheap exports to maintain economic growth. Since former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping opened the nation's economic door to the West in 1978, that has been the formula for China's phenomenal rise from communist backwater to the second-largest economy in the world.
But the formula doesn't work anymore.
As life - and wages - in China improve and manufacturing costs rise, manufacturers have started moving their operations to cheaper, less-developed nations in Southeast Asia and, more recently, to Africa.
Meanwhile, China's domestic consumption continues to be anemic because most of its nearly 1.4 billion people - especially the 47% living in rural areas - have no access to a viable pensions or medical schemes, so they save for the future rather than spend. Thus the government's ambitious plan, unveiled earlier this month, to move 100 million people from the countryside to cities in the next six years. This will mean dismantling the current hukou registration system that allows migrant workers access to social services and public education for their children in their native towns but not in the cities to which they migrate for work.
Accomplishing this grand migration will be a challenge, and the Communist Party's track record for speed and efficiency hardly inspires confidence. The party, hopelessly corrupt, is arguably the country's biggest problem right now.
Unfortunately, as officials dream up ways to reverse that image, Dongguan's lowly sex workers - some of whom no doubt lost their jobs in manufacturing before turning to the sex trade - have to pay the price.
So, too, do former big shots like Bo, Xu and Zhou, who in the end have been eaten by the same monster they so dutifully nourished - but there can be no pity for them.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1.