China's Sex Workers Face Routine Abuse

The country whose Communist ruler once hailed the eradication of houseflies and prostitutes as a symbol of socialist progress now finds itself in the crosshairs of a report on the widespread mistreatment of the millions of sex workers who have accompanied China's economic boom.

With the myth of Mao Zedong's supposed socialist puritanism a fading memory, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Chinese women who engage in sex work are subject to a wide range of police and other abuses, including arbitrary arrest, beatings, high risk of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS and a wide array of other ill-treatment.

One of the leftovers from the Maoist era is the designation of prostitution as one of the "six evils" of society-along with gambling, superstition, drug trafficking, pornography, and trafficking of women and children. It is labeled by the government as an "ugly social phenomenon" that goes against "socialist spiritual civilization" despite the fact that - at least until the cleanup dictated by incoming President Xi Jinping - petty bureaucrats routinely avail themselves of the services of sex workers.

In the report, released today and titled "Swept Away," Human Rights Watch says the momentous economic and social change going on in China today has produced a sharp increase in the numbers of women engaged in sex work - as many as 4-6 million women.

Although sex work is illegal, it is ubiquitous in large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and ranges down to the smallest townships in rural areas as women work from karaoke bars, hotels, massage parlors, hair salons and public parks and the street.

Most sex work offences are treated as administrative violations, punishable by fines and short periods of police custody or administrative detention rather than criminal penalties although repeat offenders may get administrative detention for up to two years.

Women interviewed for the report said they were subject to arbitrary fines, often as a result of possession of condoms which is used as evidence of their alleged profession. They told Human Rights Watch they were often detained following sex with undercover police officers and of having almost no hope of winning remedies for rights violations by clients, bosses, or state agents.

"While many of these practices violate Chinese law as well as international human rights law, the government is doing far too little to bring an end to the abuses or to ensure that women in sex work have access to health services," the report continues. "The women we spoke with reported abuse by public health agencies, especially local offices of China's Center for Disease Control (CDC)."

Such abuses included forced or coercive HIV testing, privacy infringements, disclosure of HIV test results to third parties, and mistreatment by health officials, all of which violate the right to health as defined under Chinese and international law.

Human Rights Watch researchers conducted more than 140 interviews with sex workers, clients, police, public health officials, academic specialists, and members of international and domestic NGOs between 2008 and 2012.

At the heart of the research were interviews with 75 women sex workers in Beijing, including 20 detailed interviews with women. Because the information about uncorrected abuses in the nation's capital-where in theory law enforcement should be strongest-track with the findings of interviews from other parts of the country, Human Rights Watch believes similar problems exist nationwide, the report noted.

Even though in practice Chinese authorities effectively tolerate prostitution and entertainment venues that offer prostitution services, campaigns, usually kicked off for political reasons, typically mobilize large numbers of law enforcement agents across the country and typically last between several weeks and a few months, then die off again.

Two such campaigns kicked off in 2012 in Beijing, one from April 20 to May 30, and the second major push ahead of the 18th Party Congress in October and November in an effort to show a reformed and polished face to the world.

"In the course of these campaigns, police routinely raided entertainment venues, hair salons, massage parlors, and other places where sex work occurs. They forced some venues to close, and detained large numbers of women suspected of being sex workers, the report notes. "These highly publicized crackdowns generate a climate conducive to increased incidences of police brutality and other abuses of sex workers. Because police crackdowns drive the trade further underground, they effectively increase the vulnerability of women who engage in sex work to police and client abuse."

The crackdowns also induce some sex workers to engage in higher risk behavior, avoiding carrying condoms during campaigns to minimize the risk of arrest. Moreover, activists told Human Rights Watch that women detained in these sweeps are rarely referred by law enforcement officials to services they may need or want, such as social services, health care, or employment or training resources, Although sex work is illegal in China, "people who engage in sex work are entitled to the same rights and freedoms as other people, including the rights to equality and nondiscrimination, privacy, security of person, freedom from arbitrary detention, equality and nondiscrimination, privacy, security of person, freedom from arbitrary detention, equality before the law, due process of law, health, and, importantly, the right to a remedy when the abovementioned rights are violated."

Human Rights Watch demanded that the Chinese government take immediate steps to protect the human rights of all people who engage in sex work, should repeal the host of laws and regulations that are repressive and misused by the police, and end the practice of indiscriminate law enforcement "sweeps."

The government should also lift its sharp restrictions on the ability of civil society organizations - including sex worker organizations-to register and carry out their activities freely within the boundaries of the law. Finally, it should commit to international standards on HIV/AIDS testing, particularly with respect to privacy and informed consent.