Police crackdowns in China: The health and human rights of sex workers

Chinese authorities hold periodic sweeps to detain sex workers, drug users, and other ‘social undesirables’ en masse in advance of national holidays and major government conferences. Sex workers, including feminist activist Ye Haiyan (also known as Hooligan Sparrow) are increasingly vocal in raising concerns about the effects of these raids, highlighting the hardships faced by the lowest-paid sex workers.

The following is an analysis of recent police crackdowns against sex workers in China by Sara L.M. Davis, PhD, executive director of Asia Catalyst, a nonprofit that provides management training to grassroots health rights groups in Asia.

In the often-heated international debate about criminal penalties on sex work, we rarely hear the voices of sex workers themselves.  But in China, a new network representing Chinese sex workers says that police crackdowns don’t stop sex work – they only drive sex workers further underground, putting them at higher risk of violence and HIV/AIDS.

It’s bad enough to waste state resources fighting a fight that can’t be won; it’s worse when the fight actually harms those most vulnerable.

My organization, Asia Catalyst, provides technical assistance to grassroots nonprofits in AIDS-affected communities. In 2010, I was walking in a city near China’s border with Vietnam with a former sex worker who founded a nonprofit group, when she pointed out a row of storefronts covered with roll-up metal doors and said, “This is the red light district. At night, all these bars are full of sisters.” Across the street, in an identical storefront, a blue light lit up a police station. An officer sat at his desk filling out a form.

“Don’t the police know?”

“Of course they know!” she said. “The street was empty during the police raids last month, but after that blew over…“Her voice trailed off as we looked at a woman in stilettos rolling up a metal door to open for business.

In China’s booming economy, social and economic forces create powerful incentives for the industry. China has a growing gender gap, in which men increasingly outnumber women, as well as a fast-growing gap between rich and poor. Migrant workers flood into cities from the countryside seeking opportunities, but migrant women are less likely than men to have an education or work skills. Some young women prefer the cash they can make in a brothel to toiling for low pay under abusive factory conditions. As a result, at least 4 million men and women are engaged in sex work in China’s brothels, bars, and on the street.

The growing visibility and audacity of the industry has frustrated Chinese police, and in 2010, China’s Public Security Bureau launched a national “Strike Hard Campaign” against drugs, sex work, and gambling. Police hold these anti-crime campaigns periodically, but the 2010 Strike Hard Campaign was a rare nationally-coordinated initiative.  Beijing police raided high-end brothels around the city, bringing media to document the raids.   Soon after, police in other cities launched similar sweeps. Many sex workers were sent to reeducation-through-labor camps – a form of punishment dating back to the Mao era that doesn’t really educate anyone

At about the same time, the sex workers began to organize. In Wuhan, fourteen small nonprofits met to form a national network. The nonprofit groups, some led by sex workers, provide essential health services such as free medical exams, free condoms, or funeral services for women who die after being cut off from their families.

The network’s first major step was to train members to document the effects of the police crackdown. The women gained unprecedented access to 300 sex workers around the country, including their feedback in a major report, published in December 2011, which found that the police crackdown was a disaster for sex workers.

Despite the closure of brothels during the crackdown, many sex workers report that they continued their work in more remote locations. As a result, HIV outreach workers could no longer find them. Because police use condoms as evidence of prostitution, many sex workers used them less often. “If I was caught with a condom, how would I explain it?” asked one.

Chinese sex workers have told me that when they are beaten or raped on the job, they don’t go to police for fear of being laughed out of the room – or arrested and charged with prostitution. Many who moved to new locations during the crackdown were isolated, without the support of their peers, and more vulnerable to violence.

Many were penalized with heavy fines they couldn’t afford, and as a result, had to take on more clients. A few reported physical abuse during the raids. As one woman put it, “During the crackdown, we didn’t lose any money, but we lost the feeling that we had any future. All we had was terror, nightmares, anxiety.” She spoke of a “sister” haunted by post-traumatic stress.

The crackdown, which aimed to improve morality, may well have fueled the spread of HIV/AIDS and increased the risk of violence among a vulnerable population. Some sex workers in China and elsewhere in Asia are calling for an end to all criminal penalties on sex work. They argue this would allow sex workers to use condoms, to cooperate with HIV/AIDS prevention programs, and to report violent crimes when they happen. It would free up police to tackle serious crimes. It would replace a policy based on rhetoric with one based on reality.

“Stop the crackdowns,” implored one sex worker. It’s time we listened to them.

Sara L.M. Davis, PhD, is executive director of Asia Catalyst.

Photo: HK Arun [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons