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(Hong Kong) – China’s punitive laws and policing practices against sex workers are leading to serious abuses, Human Rights Watch said in a report published today. These abuses include police violence, arbitrary detention of up to two years in “re-education through labor” and “custody and education” centers, and coercive HIV testing. There are an estimated four to six million sex workers in China, the overwhelming majority of them women.

The 51-page report, “‘Swept Away’: Abuses Against Sex Workers in China,” documents abuses by the police against female sex workers in Beijing, including torture, beatings, physical assaults, arbitrary detentions, and fines, as well as a failure to investigate crimes against sex workers by clients, bosses, and state agents. The report also documents abuses by public health agencies, such as coercive HIV testing, privacy infringements, and mistreatment by health officials.

“In China, the police often act as if by engaging in sex work, women had forfeited their rights,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The government must abandon its repressive laws against sex workers, discipline abusive police, and end the suppression of sex workers rights advocates.”

The Chinese government has allowed the unchecked growth of the sex industry in recent decades, with millions of women turning to sex work as a way of earning a living. Yet the government maintains officially a blanket ban on sex work, viewing it as an “ugly social phenomenon” that goes against “socialist spiritual civilization,” and treating it as a misdemeanor punishable by fines or short-term detention.

During periodic “anti-prostitution drives,” often lasting several weeks and linked to larger “strike hard” campaigns against crime, police repeatedly raid entertainment venues, hair salons, massage parlors, and other spaces where sex work occurs, detaining large numbers of women suspected of being sex workers. Sex workers are most at risk of abuses such as police brutality and arbitrary detention during these drives. Domestic activists working on rights for Chinese sex workers have also denounced these police raids.


Chinese police can also send suspected sex workers, without due process or a trial, for up to two years’ detention in a “re-education through labor” camp or so-called “custody and education” centers. While the government announced in January 2013 that it would “reform” “re-education through labor,” there has been no similar announcement for the estimated 183 “custody and education” centers, holding more than 15,000 inmates, most of whom are women. Both institutions constitute forms of arbitrary detention under international law, Human Rights Watch said, since they allow people to be deprived of their liberty without due process of law.

In December 2012 a coalition of Chinese sex worker organizations published a petition calling for an end to violence against sex workers and denouncing the inaction of the police when sex workers are victims of crime, including rape, physical assaults, and even murder. In recent years a number of grassroots nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and dedicated activists have started to provide small-scale outreach services to sex workers, including condom distribution, promoting health and HIV-prevention awareness, and basic legal education. But the government maintains a chokehold on this community of rights advocates, tightly curtailing their activities and subjecting them to police harassment and intimidation.

Sex workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch described practices that violated their rights to health and privacy – including forced HIV/AIDS testing, which remains legal under Chinese law. Some spoke of having their HIV/AIDS test results disclosed to third parties; others described not being given the results of their own tests. Several spoke of mistreatment by health officials in charge of testing and providing health services to sex workers. In some instances, these abuses drive sex workers away from public health agencies, especially when the agencies work closely with law enforcement.

The imposition of punitive penalties for voluntary, consensual sexual relations among adults violates internationally recognized human rights, including the rights to personal autonomy and privacy. This should also hold true with respect to voluntary adult commercial sex work, said Human Rights Watch. Respect for consenting adults’ agency to choose to engage in voluntary sex work is consistent with respect for their human rights. Penalization of voluntary sex work, including in the form of administrative detention of sex workers, 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, and other available services.

China’s failure to uphold the rights of the millions of women who voluntarily engage in sex work leaves them subject to discrimination, abuse and exploitation, and undercuts public health policies.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Chinese government to enact legislation to remove criminal and administrative sanctions against voluntary, consensual sex work and related offenses such as solicitation. Human Rights Watch also called for an end to the periodic “anti-prostitution” mobilization campaigns that have generated severe abuses against women engaging in sex work.

“Abuses by law-enforcement agencies deter sex workers from seeking help from the police when they are victims of crime, or from public health services when they are in need of assistance,” said Richardson. “This makes them more vulnerable to abuses and exploitation. If China is serious about protecting and promoting women’s rights, it cannot ignore the millions of women who engage in sex work.”


Selected testimonies from “Swept Away”

The names and identifying details of all interviewees have been withheld to protect their safety. All names of sex workers used in the report are pseudonyms.

“I’ve been raped several times. But because I am a sex worker, and selling sex is a violation of the law, I could be arrested. So I have never been willing to report to the police.” – Lijia, Beijing

“Once a client started kicking and beating a girl who worked in our venue. He beat her unconscious. Then, he took her away in his car. We didn’t call the police because we didn’t want to encounter any trouble. I don’t know what happened to her that night.” – Manqing, Beijing

“One local police officer here said that if we had sex with him, he would protect us. Police won’t pay in those cases. If they want sex, they’ll get sex from us. But when we asked for his help once, he didn’t help. The police really don’t care about sex workers.” – Jia Yue, Beijing

“I was beaten until I turned black and blue, because I wouldn’t admit to prostitution.” – Xiao Yue, Beijing

“The police told me it was fine, all I needed to do was sign my name and they would release me after four or five days. They deceived me into signing. Instead, I was locked up in Custody and Education center for six months.” – Zhanghua, Beijing

“When there are crackdowns and police want to earn more money, they arrange to have a client come into our venue and ask for sexual services. Once the services have started, the client calls the police, who arrest us both. They then fine the sex worker, and split the money with the client.” – Jianmei, Beijing

“I don’t go to those clinics anymore. They were really disdainful of me when I went last time. Also, I was scared they would report me to the police.” – Jingying, Beijing

“The Center for Disease Control tested me last year. But they never told me the results. I hope I don’t have AIDS.” – Zhangping, Beijing

“I accompanied several sex workers to get tested. We waited for the results, and when they came, they just put them out on a table for everyone to see. And two of them tested positive.” – An NGO activist working with sex workers, Beijing


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