China’s prostitutes routinely extorted, abused by police, report says

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES - A woman awaits customers from the doorway of a neon-lit barber shop in Beijing. Sex workers ply their trade with virtual impunity in bars, massage spas, karaoke parlours and the “barber shops” that are found in many Beijing back alleys.

BEIJING — Police raids on brothels in China have a pattern, sex workers say, often occurring a few days ahead of politically sensitive events or whenever someone in government orders an anti-pornography campaign to please the leadership. 

It’s during these times, the workers say, that their already miserable jobs grow more perilous with some police officers demanding steep bribes or sex, beating them, or locking them up for as long as two years without trial. 

This is the life of prostitutes in modern China — a result of the Communist Party’s long discomfort with sex, widespread corruption among authorities and rigid policies that put an already fragile population at even greater risk, according to a report slated to be released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch. 

“No one would choose such a life if they had any other choice,” said a 38-year-old prostitute in the southern city of Wuhan, who requested that a reporter not use her name for fear of retribution. “I really don’t want to live my life in such fear.” 

The 51-page study chronicles widespread problems for China’s prostitutes, drawing on interviews with more than 140 sex workers, clients, experts and government officials. The report contends that the government’s practices have worsened the danger and health risks prostitutes face, and that it has done little to reduce the growing sex trade — allegations echoed by experts and sex workers in recent interviews. 

For decades after the Communist Party took control in 1949, prostitution was virtually nonexistent, banned by leader Mao Zedong and stamped out as a symptom of capitalism unfit for the new utopian proletarian state. 

But during the past three decades of breakneck economic growth, prostitution has reemerged as part of the dark and little-discussed flip side of China’s economic miracle. 

As millions of rural men moved to China’s cities for work, prostitution became commonplace in the crowded shantytowns where they lived, experts say. Demand also has been driven by a gender imbalance, with the strict one-child policy resulting in higher numbers of men than women. In addition, gender inequality, which limits education and economic opportunities for women, has pushed more of them into the sex trade, the study says. 

China has roughly 4 million to 6 million sex workers, according to a 2010 World Health Organization paper, and they can be found in every city, working out of hair salons, karaoke bars, hotels, massage parlors and on the street. 

Experts liken the government’s approach to prostitution to an on-off switch, with stretches when it is completely ignored, punctuated by brutal crackdowns during nationwide campaigns. But instead of shrinking prostitution, such crackdowns “drive the trade further underground,” according to the Human Rights Watch report. 

For example, possession of condoms often is used as evidence of sex workers’ guilt, causing many prostitutes to avoid carrying them and elevating the risk of disease. Abuses by health agencies — such as coerced HIV testing and disclosure of HIV status — also have made women distrustful of health officials, according to the report.

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