Delegates from China's People's Liberation Army chat as they leave the Great Hall of the People after attending a meeting ahead of Tuesday's opening session of China's National People's Congress in Beijing, Monday, March 4, 2019. 

© 2019 AP
(New York) – The Chinese government should abolish the Custody and Education system used to detain primarily sex workers for up to two years without trial, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should also abolish all other official and unofficial forms of arbitrary detention.

On March 5, 2019, delegates of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), which is largely controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, will gather to begin discussing political and economic policies and pass legislation at its annual meeting. The agenda is opaque, and it is unclear whether the Custody and Education system will be discussed. But in December 2018, the Legislative Affairs Commission (法制工作委员会) of the NPC Standing Committee recommended abolishing the 27-year-old Custody and Education system. The commission said that its use to “prevent the spread of adverse social mores” has gradually diminished over the years, and that various authorities had reached a consensus that the system should be abolished.

“It is encouraging to see that the call for abolishing Custody and Education is now coming from within the Chinese government,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher. “China’s legislators should listen to their own experts and end a system that has subjected hundreds of thousands of sex workers to horrendous abuse.”

Scholars, lawyers, and activists in China, as well as international organizations including Human Rights Watch, have long advocated closing the Custody and Education centers where inmates, mostly women, are held.

Under Chinese law, all aspects of sex work – including solicitation, sale, and purchase of sex – are illegal. Most offenses related to sex work are administrative rather than criminal offenses under domestic law, and most are punished with fines and short periods of police custody or administrative detention. The law nonetheless allows for sentences of up to two years in Custody and Education centers for those considered repeat offenders.

The Custody and Education system is supposed to provide sex workers and clients with educational support, including literacy and vocational training; health monitoring, with testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases; and work experience. Human Rights Watch research shows that in practice, Custody and Education often entails forced labor, physical and sexual violence, and psychological abuse.

In 2013, the Chinese government made a landmark decision to abolish a similar form of arbitrary detention, Re-education Through Labor, under which police could hold government critics, religious practitioners, petitioners, and others accused of minor crimes for up to four years without trial. However, since Re-education Through Labor’s official abolition, the authorities have used various other formal and informal systems to arbitrarily detain people.

In recent years, the police have placed numerous human rights lawyers and activists under “residential surveillance at a designated location,” a form of criminal detention that allows and enables holding people incommunicado in undisclosed locations for as long as six months. In 2017, after abolishing the abusive shuanggui internal Communist Party disciplinary system, the Chinese government created liuzhi, a new form of secret detention system under which corruption suspects can be held incommunicado – without access to lawyers or families – for up to six months.

Large numbers of Chinese citizens have also been held incommunicado for days or months in secret, unlawful detention facilities whose existences the Chinese government has denied. These “black jails” are housed in hotels, nursing homes, and psychiatric hospitals, among other locations. In a 2009 report, Human Rights Watch documented the severe abuses against detainees in these facilities.

In Xinjiang, authorities have since 2016 stepped up mass arbitrary detention, including in pretrial detention centers and prisons, both of which are formal facilities, and in “political education” camps, which have no basis under Chinese law, as Human Rights watch documented in a 2018 report.

“Nothing more clearly illustrates the insincerity of the Chinese government’s claim to the ‘rule of law’ than its ongoing use of arbitrary detention,” Wang said. “Beijing should abolish all forms of arbitrary detention, ensure fair trials for those accused of criminal behavior, and fully decriminalize sex work.”