moral grey zones and economic liberalization

Mary Douglass reminded us that dirt was merely matter out-of-place, and correspondingly that the work of cultural categories was to keep human beings in line. Moreover, these lines are not neutral, but like dirt in the kitchen, have all sorts of practical and moral implications for the organization of human life. In turn, border zones comprise sites of categorical breakdown, where border crossing creativity is possible, and also illicit transgressions.

This morning, I stumbled across The Politics of Cross Border Crime, a book that documents prostitution, smuggling, and gambling along and within the borders of Greater China. According to author, Shiu Hing Lo, patterns of regional cross border crime have been changing. During the 1970s and 1980s, the main types of China-Hong Kong, China-Macau, China-Taiwan crime included illegal immigration, cross border robbery, airline highjacking, and drug trafficking. Since the turn of the millennium, however, crime has become more organized, with kidnapping, human trafficking, money laundering, and transborder triads strengthening their control over these activities.

Shenzhen has been trying to shed its frontier town reputation for shady deals and immoral excess. Nevertheless, the city’s internal borders (urbanized villages, older neighborhoods) and restructured borders with Hong Kong and East Asia provide ambiguous sites, where the unsavory might thrive. The most distressing reports of Shenzhen’s role in cross border crime entail forced prostitution of minors and virginal rape. According to Lo:

Cross-border prostitution is a serious problem in Greater China, where supply and demand are both out of control. On the supply side, many children are smuggled by mainland criminals from poor provinces to Shenzhen, where there were 1,000 child prostitutes in June 2006. On the demand side, many unscrupulous Hong Kong men demanded that prostitution dens provide young virgins for them…The main factors contributing to the grave problem of transborder prostitution in Greater China are a lack of strict enforcement for anticorruption campaigns targeted at Guangdong police, especially in Shenzhen’s infamous villages, and the HKSAR government’s failure to cooperate with the mainland government to severely penalize Hong Kong men who solicit mainland prostitutes, especially children.

Lo concludes that:

Unlike the official rhetoric that underscores the mutual benefits of economic integration, the reality is that economic liberalization along the PRC–Hong Kong–Macao boundaries has generated an increase in criminal activity in the region. As economic relations between Taiwan and mainland China have become closer since the presidential election of Ma Ying-jeou in March 2008, cross-border crime between the two places is destined to increase further.

This kind of report distresses me for two reasons. On the one hand, the prostitutionalization of Shenzhen has been an ongoing theme in reports about the city. Indeed, finding prostitutes, establishing their level of willingness, and complaining about their mercenary tendencies have been common metaphors to describe reform and opening and what it has meant for social mores in the SEZ. A similar rhetoric is used within Shenzhen to describe and undermine urban village neighborhoods. On the other hand, as Lo notes, prostitution and human trafficking have increased because Shenzhen and urbanized villages do offer more spaces for unregulated commerce, which may be either an opportunity or a risk for society. In this sense, there is need for increased vigilance to protect children and vulnerable residents from triad members and traveling businessmen who have more in common than we like to think.


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