By James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Chinese authorities have carried out a rare crackdown on the sex trade in the "sin city" of Dongguan following a candid report by the state broadcaster on the underground industry.
China outlawed prostitution after the Communist revolution in 1949, but it returned with a vengeance following landmark economic reforms three decades ago, and has helped fuel a rise in HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.
While the government carries out periodic crackdowns, it is unusual for state media to cover them in such a high-profile way or for top officials to comment on the problem, underscoring worry about the explosion of the sex trade.
Media said 67 people were arrested and 12 venues were shut down in a sting operation involving thousands of police in the Dongguan region at the heart of China's Pearl River Delta industrial hub in the southern province of Guangdong.
Provincial Communist party boss Hu Chunhua, a rising star who has been tipped for future national leadership, stressed the need "to conduct an extensive trawling-style crackdown on the entire city", according to a report in the Nanfang Daily.
Two city police chiefs had been suspended, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported. The official Xinhua news agency said a total of eight police officers had been suspended for failing to respond to public complaints about prostitution.
China's main state broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV), aired a half-hour report on Sunday chronicling what appeared to be extensive and open prostitution in five towns across Dongguan.
Secretly shot footage showed scantily clad women parading on a stage and managers of venues speaking openly about prostitution services.
The CCTV report was widely watched across China and sparked extensive comment on social media.
The Ministry of Public Security had sent a team to Guangdong to investigate the involvement of any police officials there and crack down on those who provide a "safety umbrella" behind which prostitution can happen, Xinhua said.
The ministry will take "decisive measures" against those who run the sex trade, it added.
"Although no evidence has been provided, it is widely speculated by the public that local police offer protection for Dongguan's rampant prostitution," Xinhua said in a commentary.
While periodic sweeps against vice have been carried out, including during sensitive periods such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, the industry has thrived. Law enforcement often appears to be lax.
The Dongguan region has long been known as a hub for the sex industry.
Authorities there said last month the city had seen a high incidence of HIV/AIDS amid rumors that more than 2,700 sex workers had been infected, according to the Global Times, a Chinese tabloid owned by the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily.
(Additional reporting by Paul Carsten and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Robert Birsel)