A state TV expose on prostitution in China's "sex capital" and an ensuing, much-publicized police crackdown has drawn criticism from the public, who expressed sympathy for the sex workers and suggested that authorities target other kinds of wrongdoing.

Coverage of the weekend raid by 6,500 officers in the southern city of Dongguan — filled with images of handcuffed women with their heads bowed — spurred many people to post comments online that were more critical of the China Central Television broadcaster's reporting and the crackdown than the prostitution it uncovered.

"Dongguan, hang in there" was a top trending topic on Sina Weibo on Monday, with one variation of the phrase having been reposted more than 1.5 million times by Tuesday morning. Another popular phrase was "Don't cry, Dongguan," suggesting a shifting view of prostitution among some members of the Chinese public.

Some online users suggested the women ended up in the sex business because they had sick parents or siblings to support, and called for authorities to offer more care to them during the crackdown. Others said police manpower would be better used rooting out corruption among public officials and other crimes. Some voices called for China's now-entrenched sex trade to be made legal and to end discrimination against sex workers.

"There's no way to eradicate it. Legalization must take place under some narrowly-defined circumstances," such as special zones that are regulated, Wang Yongzhi, 37, who works in IT in Beijing, said Tuesday.

Shanghai-based Gong Bin, 26, who works as a trader in a food company, said he feels sympathy for girls who choose to make money through the sex trade to meet their financial demands, and blamed society and their environment.

"People are changing their minds toward prostitution. I was too embarrassed to watch this kind of report before while now so many people around me are talking about it," he said. "The government could ask some organizations to help with caring for these girls."

In CCTV's report broadcast Sunday, undercover reporters with hidden cameras filmed sex services being offered for sale in hotels in Dongguan. In one, footage showed a string of women lined up, identifying themselves by a number, price and hometown. The prices given ranged from 700 to 2000 yuan ($115-330). A CCTV reporter called police to report that prostitution was happening in two hotels, but police didn't show up.

However, hours after the broadcast on Sunday, Dongguan police launched the crackdown, which was widened to a three-month crackdown on the sex trade across the whole province of Guangdong. As of Monday morning, 12 entertainment venues involved in prostitution had been closed and 67 people investigated.

Some online posting expressed surprise that more venues weren't targeted, and said Dongguan's trade wouldn't have flourished without the support of police and local authorities.

The Ministry of Public Security announced Monday that local police would be investigated for dereliction of duty.

The government officially views prostitution as an "ugly social phenomenon" and the solicitation, sale and purchase of sex in China are illegal. However, despite frequent government crackdowns, prostitution remains rampant in massage parlors, karaoke bars and nightclubs, and sex workers regularly call hotel rooms looking for business.


AP news assistants Zhao Liang in Beijing and Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.