China: The Plight of Sex Workers

28 May, 2013    ·   3950

Namrata Hasija explores the dire straits that Chinese sex workers live in vis-a-vis the latest Human Rights Watch report

Namrata Hasija
Namrata Hasija
Senior Research Officer

A report released on 14 May, 2013 by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) about sex workers in China has brought the dismal conditions of sex workers in the country into the limelight, and has revived the debate regarding their rights and also the atrocities inflicted on them by higher authorities.
What are the conditions of these sex workers? What atrocities do they face? What is the general profile and reasons that drive them to this trade? Is there any scope for provision of humane living conditions for them?

During the T’ang dynasty, prostitution was legalised in China. In modern times, the concubine culture is a part of the East Asian political and business culture. This includes entertaining clients in karaoke bars and night clubs. In China, after the Communist party took power in 1949, prostitution was declared illegal and it almost disappeared. It figured in the six ‘social evils’ officially recognised by the Chinese government; the others being gambling, superstition, drug trafficking, pornography, and human trafficking. However, after the 1978 reforms and opening up of the country, prostitution again became widespread and currently, four to six million people are engaged in the trade according to an UN report - ranked in four categories: expensive ones at night clubs, second at bath centres, third at massage parlours, with the fourth being the streetwalkers.

The streetwalkers are the lowest and face most of the abuse by clients’ as well as the police. The majority of the sex workers are women who lost their jobs after the public enterprises were laid off during the 1990s. Others are either divorced, migrant workers with no technical or educational skills, and so on. According to the report, most of them stay in hostels in dark street alleys with rooms which are the size of ping-pong tables with no ventilation.

If sex workers are caught and they admit to prostitution, the first time they are detained for 15 days and if they are caught for the second time they are fined 3000 Yuan or sent to re-education camps for a year along with informing their families. The glitch here is that many sex workers are detained without any evidence required by law of providing services in lieu of money. They can be detained and sent to the re-education camp without a proper trial and entitlement to a lawyer. Many times, women are arrested for carrying condoms which deters many sex workers from carrying them, which leads to a rise in sexually contracted diseases. The women arrested by police are often tortured into confessing to prostitution by tying them to trees, throwing cold water on them and beating them up. They are also forcefully checked for HIV and the results are not disclosed to them but to a third party.

Until three years back, sex workers were paraded in the city after being arrested, which was ended by an order of the Ministry of Public Security. Authorities have launched frequent drives to control the sex industry but these raids have resulted in women being rounded up. However, there is little effect on the brothels. Many brothel owners have an arrangement with few officials who give them a tip off regarding the raids and for some time the business is shut. Thus, no effective dent is made in the industry. Sex workers are often abused and sexual services are extorted out of them by the police officials. They are also unable to report client abuses to the police, as they fear being arrested themselves. The report by the HRW gives evidence to such incidents as many firsthand accounts of sex workers are narratives of abuse by officials and clients.

The main problem in this whole process is that mostly offences related to sex work fall under the purview of administrative law and not under criminal law. This leaves power in the hands of committees headed by police officials rather than courts, which makes it difficult to take any measures against officials abusing sex workers. The frequent raids have become a source of regular revenue for the police. The raids have, in fact, spiked abuses against the sex workers. Even activists who are working for the rights of sex workers and demanding legalisation of sex trade are arrested by police and sent to re-education camps.

The condition of sex workers in China is not unique as they face abuse in many countries. However, due to a dearth of legal safeguards, checks on police, and the lack of any NGOs or organisations to support and educate them on their rights, abuses against them have only increased. Countries like Japan and Korea who also had the same culture of client entertainment have also declared prostitution illegal. However, they have strong legal systems that guarantee basic human rights to sex workers.