China’s high-profile crackdown on prostitution in the country has made sex workers there more vulnerable to abuse by police and even their clients. The Human Rights Watch reported that this abuse included acts of torture and beating while in police custody as well as detention without trial.
The women held in custody were said to be assaulted by the police until they admitted that they were sex workers. One woman for instance was reportedly beaten till she turned blue and black. Yet another woman told the Human Rights Watch group that the police attached the women to trees, made them suffer by throwing freezing cold on them and then beating them repeatedly. These acts of abuse against women in custody are regarded as torture under domestic laws.
Prostitution in the country had almost vanished in the Mao era but re-emerged as China’s economic reforms started. Figures from the United Nations showed that almost 4 to 6 million women in the country were involved in sex trade and these were often found in hotels, karaoke bars and parks. Although there have been many attempted by the relevant authorities in the country to eradicate the sex trade, it is still very much present. There have been many campaigns in place towards this end with many women being rounded up. Nonetheless, brothels continue to exist without many problems.
There have been previous attempts by the government to curb the operations of sex work with the Ministry of Public Security ordering the abolishment of public humiliation of sex workers as well as treating them respectfully. Despite all these, many problems related to abuse still exist. The International watchdog noted that poverty was one of the main reasons for women resorting to working in the sex trade along with lack of education opportunities and employment options. Many women over the age of 40 were said to be driven to this industry because of extensive layoffs from state enterprises in the late 1990s.
In Hong Kong, there is a support group called ZiTeng which offers help to many migrant sex workers who come from Mainland China. This group hopes that the current report from Human Rights Watch would create an increased awareness worldwide about this issue. There have been calls for the Chinese government to instead legitimize sex work so that any future cases of unwarranted abuse can be avoided. To this end, the Human Rights Watch report has recommended that criminal and administrative punishments for consensual sex be abolished especially since this was voluntary. It added that adults deserve the autonomy to choose if they want to engage in voluntary sex work and they should be respected. The report published by the international watchdog which overseas human rights issues was based on over 140 interviews with sex workers, police, activists, clients and so on.