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.
Such distrust leaves sex workers vulnerable to violent clients, bosses and gangs, because they are unlikely to report crimes, researchers said. The study included examples of rape victims who refused to report the attacks to avoid police contact.
The harsh government treatment also extends to nonprofit organizations that work with prostitutes, according to the study and activists.
“It’s like they just refuse to look at this group in society or acknowledge their existence,” said Ye Haiyan, one of the few and perhaps the best-known activist on behalf of sex workers.
Last year, in an effort to attract attention to their plight, Ye publicly announced that she herself would work briefly as a prostitute. Shortly after, she recounted, she was attacked by thugs.
More recently, most of her volunteers quit after police visited at their homes and warned them to cease contact with her, Ye said.
“We’re barely functioning anymore,” she said. “The only income we have is from online donations, and all we’re trying to do anymore is give away condoms and paper towels to sex workers.”
Under Chinese law, all aspects of prostitution are illegal, but the sex trade would not exist in most cities without the tacit approval of authorities in return for bribes, activists and experts say,
“The goal of some corrupt police isn’t to wipe out the sale of sex, but to allow sex workers to survive so they can keep imposing fines on them,” said Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “The fines become a kind of corrupt income for the police, and the police become a protective umbrella for certain brothels.”
For many sex workers, fines, bribes and abuse by authorities have become routine parts of the job.
The sex worker from Wuhan said she came to the city like countless other migrant workers looking for employment. But widowed with two children and few opportunities, she began working as a prostitute two years ago.
She makes about $10 a night, she said, more than she would as a low-wage restaurant worker.
“I never think about the future now,” she said, describing a life of constant fear of violent clients and police. “I just live from day to day.”
Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.