China's state-owned TV aired an expose of prostitution in a city known as "Sex City." Authorities professed to be shocked. Raids ensued. People got arrested — only 67 out of as many as 800,000 working in the city's sex trade, but enough for bragging rights, enough for government to pat itself on the back.
But then a funny thing happened. On social media, the response was very different. On social media, it was the TV report that was reprehensible, not the prostitution. Posters objected that the hubba-hubba video was exploiting the women the same as any pimp.
"Don't cry, Dongguan" — the "Sin City" — wrote one on China's answer to Twitter. "CCTV is ruthless, but the world is full of love. Hang in there!"
Did that online dissent just slip through some imperfect Chinese state regulation of social media? Does it fall under the threshold of permissible dissent — let people bicker online in some phantom version of free speech and they think they have the real thing?
China can mobilize millions against anything it chooses. In the late 1950s, it was sparrows. Sparrows were bad, the reasoning went; they ate grain. Therefore, let's kill all the sparrows. And so they did, by the billions.
Except sparrows ate mostly insects, not grain, and only after they were massacred did the communist government realize it. And in the absence of sparrows, the insects flourished, locusts in particular. The bugs ate the grain and millions of Chinese starved.
So maybe the fact that current-day China, a country that practices capitalism without democracy, hasn't waged the equivalent crusade to wipe out prostitution as it did under Chairman Mao suggests a cold-blooded assessment of prostitution as a business too valuable to wipe out, however devastating its human toll.
And just maybe, the online sentiments sympathizing with the women ensnared in the sex trade serve the government's purpose; I can't imagine that authorities are staying their hands out of any sympathy or solidarity with these women, but the online sentiments can certainly give them some cover for not waging a massive crackdown on these unfortunate women, as they once went after sparrows.