Linked to prostitution, China’s favorite flirty chat app slammed by state media

Momo app linked to prostitution in China

Workers at a ‘hair salon’ in China. (Photo: Flickr user dcmaster)

This week, China is undertaking an online porn crackdown that state media says is needed in order to “create a healthy cyberspace.” Run by the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications, the clean-up campaign is going through mobile app stores, video streaming sites, ebooks, public photos, and online ads to check for illicit and inappropriate material in otherwise innocuous places. The public is being asked to report such content. Where racy material is found, the web administrators must tidy up their site. Where outright porn is found, the offending websites will be shut down.

As all this goes on, only one particular app in China has been singled out by name for criticism – Momo.

Momo is China’s top chat-and-flirt app, sort of like Skout, for connecting with people in your area. It’s hugely popular, too. Earlier this year Momo reached 100 million registered users.

But China’s state news agency, Xinhua, is not too pleased with some of the shenanigans on Momo. In an editorial yesterday (in Chinese), Xinhua described the “hormone-filled” app as being a hotbed of prostitution. Xinhua’s reporters fired up the app and were shocked – shocked – to find that a number of the nearby women in the app were actually sex workers.

(See: Sex and gaming in China: is it time for gamers to grow up?)

New app for old tricks

While prostitution is illegal in China, it’s commonplace in every city, albeit hidden away in some seedier bars, spas, karaoke halls, motels, hair salons, massage shops, and in many other guises. A recent crackdown on prostitution in the southern Chinese city of Donguan highlighted this. In a sting operation, police rounded up 162 people linked to prostitution at hotels, saunas, and massage parlors across the city. But many of China’s web users criticized the police operation for going after the women rather than hunting down the men, the kingpins, who run the industry – an industry that’s often linked to other illegal activities such as drugs, gambling, and even human trafficking.

China’s flirty Momo app quickly doubles user-base, now chats up 80 million people

Some of these sex workers using Momo (app pictured above) make it clear that they’re offering services, listing their location as a particular spa or karaoke hall where they work. But some, Xinhua found, were luring in men without making it clear what’s going on. In some cases, Momo users working in – or on the edge of – the sex industry are inviting men via the app on a date. Only it’s not really a date.

That’s simply the old ‘honey trap’ trick that’s been going on for decades – if not longer. In the past it only ever happened offline. A pair of women would get talking to a pair of guys that they apparently run into on the street, and suggest that they head to a bar for a drink. But not to any bar or coffee shop – the girls insist on a particular place. That’s because the women are actually being paid by the bar owner to bring in guys to spend money. Once sat comfortably in the honey trap bar, the flirty duo will order pricey drinks and snacks and chat with the guys, But then they’ll abruptly curtail the date, leaving the guys with a huge bill and the realization that they didn’t get lucky – they got stung.

But now Momo is a new part of this old trick.

Tech in Asia contacted the Momo team yesterday but have yet to receive a response. It’s not clear if Momo is removing user profiles actively if a person if found to be overtly or covertly offering sex services.

Of course, the complex problem of prostitution is an issue for governments in every country. In China, there are sex workers inside Momo because there’s a sex industry hidden away in karaoke halls, bars, and massage shops around the country. Momo isn’t creating or encouraging prostitution; it’s simply being used, in some cases, as a free marketing tool by sex workers. The core responsibility lies with authorities who allow the industry – one often based on abuse and exploitation of women – to prosper in the shadows.

(Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user dcmaster)

Editing by Josh Horwitz
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