May 14, 2013


Prostitutes, as we have been calling them, should be termed “waylaid women” from now on…. We ought to show respect to this special group of people.
—Liu Shaowu, head of the Public Order Management Bureau, Public Security Ministry, December 2010
Once when I was soliciting on the street, the police just came and started beating me up…. There were five or six of them, they just beat me to a pulp.
—Xiao Jing, a sex worker interviewed in Beijing, 2011
The Chinese Center for Disease Control tested me last year. But they never told me the results. I hope I don’t have AIDS.
—Interview with Zhangping, a sex worker interviewed in Beijing, 2009

The momentous economic and social change in China in recent decades has been accompanied by a sharp increase in inequality and in the numbers of women in sex work. The United Nations, citing Chinese police sources, estimates that four to six million adult women currently engage in sex work. Although sex work is illegal in China, it is ubiquitous, present not only in large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, but also in smaller cities and towns down to the smallest townships in remote rural areas. Sex workers typically work from karaoke bars, hotels, massage parlors, and hair salons, as well as in public parks and streets.

Under Chinese law, all aspects of sex work—including solicitation, sale, and purchase of sex—are illegal. Chinese law treats most sex work-related offences as administrative violations, punishable by fines and short periods of police custody or administrative detention rather than criminal penalties. Nonetheless, for repeat offenders it allows for administrative detention of up to two years. In line with its prohibitionist public stance, the government periodically carries out vigorous nationwide crackdown campaigns called “saohuang dafei” (literally, “sweep away the yellow” [i.e. prostitution and pornography] and “strike down the illegal” [seize and destroy pornographic materials]).

Women engaging in sex work are victims of a wide range of police abuses; this report documents arbitrary arrests and detentions, physical violence, and other ill-treatment of sex workers in Beijing, and discusses the national legal framework that facilitates these abuses. Women interviewed for this report told Human Rights Watch of arbitrary fines, of possession of condoms used as evidence against them, of being 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. Sex workers also face high risks of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

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 women we spoke with reported abuse by public health agencies, especially local offices of China’s Center for Disease Control (CDC). These 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.

Research for this report included more than 140 interviews with sex workers, clients, police, public health officials, academic specialists, and members of international and domestic nongovernmental organizations 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 between the ages of 20 and 63. 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.

In our interviews, we focused on the women’s interactions with police and public health agencies, two institutions with which they have frequent, direct contact. It does not attempt to analyze the actions of all agencies relevant to regulation of prostitution, such as those providing social services or child protection, those addressing trafficking, and those that run Custody and Education centers for women. Nor does this report attempt to comprehensively analyze China’s response to trafficking in persons.

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Officially considered as one of the “six evils” of society—along with gambling, superstition, drug trafficking, pornography, and trafficking of women and children—prostitution is labeled by the Chinese government as an “ugly social phenomenon” that goes against “socialist spiritual civilization.” Even though in practice Chinese authorities effectively tolerate prostitution and entertainment venues that offer prostitution services, these campaigns mobilize large numbers of law enforcement agents across the country and typically last between several weeks and a few months. In 2012 Beijing authorities initiated two campaigns, one lasting from April 20 to May 30, and another ahead of the 18th Party Congress in October and November. In the course of these campaigns, police repeatedly 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.

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. They also induce some sex workers to engage in higher risk sexual behavior. Many sex workers, for instance, say they avoid 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.

The Chinese government, which in 2003 belatedly but comprehensively began addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis, has focused many of its HIV testing and educational programs on people who engage in sex work; official data suggest that the rate of HIV infection among sex workers nationwide ranges from 3 to 10 percent. Some of these efforts, however, entail coercive testing and violations of privacy rights. The Chinese government justifies these practices in the name of public health, but international experience has demonstrated that for HIV to be successfully curbed, populations such as sex workers must be able to obtain confidential health care without fear of harassment or discrimination.

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 non-discrimination, 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.

The imposition of punitive penalties for voluntary, consensual sexual relations amongst adults violates a number of internationally recognized human rights, including the rights to personal autonomy and privacy. Human Rights Watch takes the position that this also holds true with respect to voluntary adult commercial sex work, and that respecting consenting adults’ autonomy to choose to engage in voluntary sex work is consistent with respect for their human rights. Criminalization of sex work also creates barriers for those engaged in sex work to exercise basic rights such as availing themselves of government protection from violence, access to justice for abuses, access to essential health services as an element of the right to health, and other available services. Failure to uphold the rights of the millions of women who voluntarily engage in sex work leaves them subject to discrimination, abuse, exploitation, and undercuts public health policies.

Human Rights Watch believes the Chinese government should take immediate steps to protect the human rights of all people who engage in sex work. It 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.