Shortly after taking power in 1949, the Communist Party of China embarked upon a series of campaigns that purportedly eradicated prostitution from mainland China by the early 1960s. Since the loosening of government controls over society in the early 1980s, prostitution in mainland China not only has become more visible, but can now be found throughout both urban and rural areas. In spite of government efforts, prostitution has now developed to the extent that it comprises an industry, one that involves a great number of people and produces a considerable economic output. Prostitution has also become associated with a number of problems, including organized crime, government corruption and sexually transmitted diseases. For example, a Communist Party official who was a top provincial campaigner against corruption was removed from his post after he was caught in a hotel room with a prostitute.
Prostitution-related activities in mainland China are characterised by diverse types, venues and prices. Prostitutes themselves come from a broad range of social backgrounds. They are almost all female, though in recent years male prostitutes have also emerged. A large number of Russian women work as prostitutes in China. Venues typically include hotels, karaoke venues and beauty salons.
Officially, prostitution is illegal in mainland China. The government of the People's Republic of China has vacillated, however, in its legal treatment of prostitutes themselves, treating them sometimes as criminals and sometimes as behaving with misconduct. Since the reappearance of prostitution in the 1980s, government authorities have responded by first using the legal system, that is, the daily operations of institutions like courts and police. Second, they have relied on police-led campaigns, clearly delineated periods of intense public activity, as a form of social discipline. Despite lobbying by international NGOs and overseas commentators, there is not much support for legalisation of the sex sector by the public, social organizations or the government of the PRC.
Following the Communist Party of China's victory in 1949, local government authorities were charged with the task of eliminating prostitution. One month after the Communist takeover of Beijing on February 3, 1949, the new municipal government under Ye Jianying announced a policy to control the city's many brothels. On November 21, all 224 of Beijing's establishments were shut down; 1286 prostitutes and 434 owners, procurers, and pimps were arrested in the space of 12 hours by an estimated 2400 cadres. Not surprisingly, the Beijing campaign has been much celebrated in historical accounts.
Due to the enormity of social issues that had to be addressed, and the limited budgets and human resources of local governments, most cities adopted the slower approach of first controlling and then prohibiting brothel-prostitution. This method was used in Tianjin, Shanghai and Wuhan. Typically it involved a system of governmental administration which controlled brothel activities and discouraged male patrons. The combined effect of such measures was to gradually reduce the number of brothels in each city until the point where a "Beijing-style" closure of the remaining brothels was deemed feasible and reeducation could begin. Reeducation programs were undertaken on the largest scale in Shanghai, where the number of sex workers had grown to 100,000 following the Second Sino-Japanese War.
By the early 1960s, such measures had basically wiped out visible forms of prostitution from mainland China. According to the PRC government, venereal diseases were almost completely eliminated from the mainland contemporaneously with the control of prostitution. To mark this victory, all 29 venereal disease research institutes were closed in 1964.
In accordance with Marxist theory, women who sold sex were viewed as being forced into prostitution in order to survive. The eradication of prostitution was thus vaunted as one of the major accomplishments of the Communist government and evidence of the primacy of Chinese Marxism. Prostitution did not exist as a serious object of concern in China for a period of nearly three decades. Recent studies have demonstrated, however, that the disappearance of prostitution under the Maoist regime was far from complete. Pan Suiming, one of China's leading experts on prostitution, argues that "invisible" prostitution — in the form of women providing sexual services to cadres in exchange for certain privileges — became a distinctive feature of Maoist China, particularly towards the end of the Cultural Revolution.
|Prostitution-related arrests during
police campaigns (1983–1999)
The resurgence of prostitution in mainland China has coincided with the introduction of Deng Xiaoping's liberalisation of Chinese economic policy in 1978. According to the incomplete statistics composed on the basis of nationwide crackdowns, the rate of prostitution in China has been rising every year since 1982. Between 1989 and 1990, 243,183 people were apprehended for prostitution-related activities. Zhang Ping estimates that such police figures only account for around 25–30 percent of the total number of people who are actually involved. Prostitution is an increasingly large part of the Chinese economy, employing perhaps 10 million people, with an annual level of consumption of possibly 1 trillion RMB. Following a 2000 police campaign, Chinese economist Yang Fan estimated that the Chinese GDP slumped by 1%, as a result of decreased spending by newly unemployed female prostitutes.
The revival of prostitution was initially associated with China's eastern, coastal cities, but since the early 1990s at least, prostitution practices have also been widespread in the economic hinterlands, incorporating such remote and underdeveloped regions as Guizhou, Yunnan and Tibet. In the 1980s, the typical seller of sex was a poorly educated, young female rural migrant from populous, relatively remote provinces such as Sichuan and Hunan. Over the past decade, there has been a recognition that the majority of women who enter prostitution do so of their own accord. The potential benefits of prostitution as an alternative form of employment include greater disposable income, access to upwardly mobile social circles and lifestyle options. The state-controlled media have focused attention on urban residents engaging in prostitution, especially university-educated women. There also seems to be a growing acceptance of prostitution. In a 1997 study, 46.8% of undergraduates in Beijing admitted to having considered receiving prostitution services. On the demand side, prostitution has been associated with the gender imbalances brought about by the one-child policy.
Prostitution is often directly linked to low-level government corruption. Many local officials believe that encouraging prostitution in recreational business operations will bring economic benefits by developing the tourism and hospitality industries and generating a significant source of tax revenue. On occasion, police have been implicated in the running of high grade hotels where prostitution activities occur, or accepting bribes and demanding sexual favours to ignore the existence of prostitution activities. Government corruption is also involved in a more indirect form — the widespread abuse of public funds to finance consumption of sex services. Pan Suiming contends that China has a specific type of prostitution that entails a bargain between those who use their power and authority in government to obtain sex and those who use sex to obtain privileges.
Apart from incidences of violence directly associated with prostitution, an increasing number of women who sell sex have been physically assaulted, and even murdered, in the course of attempts to steal their money and property. There have also been a growing number of criminal acts, especially incidences of theft and fraud directed at men who buy sex, as well as bribery of public servants. Offenders often capitalise on the unwillingness of participants in the prostitution transaction to report such activities. Organised crime rings are increasingly trafficking women into and out of China for the sex trade, sometimes forcibly and after multiple acts of rape. Mainland China also has a growing number of "heroin hookers", whose drug addictions are often connected to international and domestic crime rackets.
Sexually transmitted diseases also made a resurgence around the same time as prostitution, and have been directly linked to prostitution. There are fears that prostitution may become the main route of HIV transmission as it has in developing countries such as Thailand and India. Some regions have introduced a policy of 100% condom use, inspired by a similar measure in Thailand. Other interventions have been introduced recently at some sites, including STI services, peer education and voluntary counselling and testing for HIV.
North Korean women are increasingly falling victim to sex exploitation in China attempting to escape poverty and harsh conditions in their homeland. About 10,000 women (The Washington Post's Carol Douglas, however, claimed that the number was as high as 100,000) are reported to have escaped from North Korea to China; according to human rights groups, many of them are forced into sexual slavery.
According to a Ji Sun Jeong of A Woman's Voice International, "60 to 70% of North Korean defectors to China are women, and 70 to 80% of whom are victims of human trafficking." Violent abuse starts in apartments near the border, from where the women are then moved to cities further away to work as sex slaves. When Chinese authorities arrest these North Korean slaves, they repatriate them. North Korean authorities keep such repatriates in penal labour colonies (and/or execute them), execute any Chinese-fathered babies of theirs "to protect North Korean pure blood" and force abortions on all pregnant repatriates not executed.
Chinese police categorise prostitution practices according to a descending hierarchy of seven tiers, though this typology does not exhaust the forms of practices that exist. These tiers highlight the heterogeneous nature of prostitution and prostitutes. While they are all classified as prostitutes, the services they offer can be very different. Within some tiers, for example, there is still some revulsion to the acts of anal sex and oral sex. In parallel with the wide range of backgrounds for prostitutes, male buyers of sex also come from a wide range of occupational backgrounds.
The first and second tiers have become the focus of heated public debate because they are explicitly linked to government corruption. Many domestic commentators contend that these practices constitute a concrete expression of "bourgeois rights". The All-China Women's Federation, as one of the major vehicles of feminism in the PRC, as well as women's groups in Hong Kong and Taiwan, have been actively involved in efforts to eradicate this form of "concubinage" as practices that violate the emotional and economic surety of the marriage contract.
The lowest two tiers are characterised by a more straightforward exchange of sex for financial or material recompense. They are neither explicitly linked to government corruption, nor directly mediated through China's new commercial recreational business sector. Women who sell sex in the lowest two tiers usually do so in return for small sums of money, food and shelter.
The PRC rejects the argument that prostitution is an unremarkable transaction between consenting individuals and that prohibition laws constitute a violation of civil liberties. Overall, the PRC's legal response to prostitution is to penalise third party organisers of prostitution. Participants in the prostitution transaction are still usually penalised according to the Chinese system of administrative sanctions, rather than through the criminal code.
Until the 1980s, the subject of prostitution was not viewed as a major concern for the National People's Congress. The PRC's first criminal code, the Criminal Law and the Criminal Procedure Law of 1979 made no explicit reference to the activities of prostitutes and prostitute clients. Legal control of prostitution was effected on the basis of provincial rulings and localised policing initiatives until the introduction of the "Security administration punishment regulations" in 1987. The Regulations makes it an offence to "sell sex" (卖淫) and to "have illicit relations with a prostitute" (嫖宿暗娼).
Prostitution only became a distinct object of statutory classification in the early 1990s. Responding to requests from the Ministry of Public Security and the All-China Women's Federation, the National People's Congress passed legislation that significantly expanded the range and scope of prostitution controls: the 1991 Decision on Strictly Forbidding the Selling and Buying of Sex and the 1991 Decision on the Severe Punishment of Criminals Who Abduct and Traffic in or Kidnap Women and Children. Adding symbolic weight to these enhanced law enforcement controls was the 1992 Law on Protecting the Rights and Interests of Women, which defines prostitution as a social practice that abrogates the inherent rights of women to personhood.
The PRC's revised Criminal Law of 1997 retains its abolitionist focus in that it is primarily concerned with criminalising third-party involvement in prostitution. For the first time the death penalty may be used, but only in exceptional cases of organising prostitution activities, involving additional circumstances such as repeated offences, rape, causing serious bodily injury, etc. The activities of first-party participants continue to be regulated in practice according to administrative law, with the exceptions of anyone who sells or buys prostitutional sex in the full knowledge that they are infected with an STD; and anyone who has prostitutional sex with a child under 14 years of age. Since 2003, male homosexual prostitution has also been prosecuted under the law.
The 1997 criminal code codified provisions in the 1991 Decision, establishing a system of controls over social place, specifically places of leisure and entertainment. The ultimate goal is to stop managers and workers within the predominantly male-run and male-patronised hospitality and service industry from profiting from and/or encouraging the prostitution of others. Government intervention in commercial recreation has found concrete expression in the form of the 1999 "Regulations concerning the management of public places of entertainment". The provisions proscribe a range of commercial practices that characterise the activities of female "hostesses". These laws have been further reinforced via the introduction of localised licensing measures that bear directly on the interior spatial organisation of recreational venues.
As a result of strong calls to curb official corruption, during the mid to late 1990s, a whole host of regulations were also introduced to ban government employees both from running recreational venues and from protecting illegal business operations. The 1997 Communist Party Discipline Regulations, for example, contain specific provisions to the effect that party members will be stripped of their posts for using their position and/or public funds to keep a "second wife", a "hired wife", and to buy sexual services. These measures are being policed via the practice established in 1998 of auditing government officials, and thereby combining the forces of the CPC's disciplinary committees with those of the State Auditing Administration. Following the introduction of these measures, the Chinese media has publicised numerous cases of government officials being convicted and disciplined for abusing their positions for prostitution.
Despite the position of the law, prostitutes are often treated as quasi-criminals by the Ministry of Public Security. Chinese police conduct regular patrols of public spaces, often with the support of mass-line organisations, using a strong presence as a deterrence against prostitution. Because lower tier prostitutes work the streets, they are more likely to be apprehended. Arrests are also more likely to be female sellers of sex than male buyers of sex. The overwhelming majority of men and women who are apprehended are released with a caution and fine.
In response, sellers and buyers of sex have adopted a wide range of tactics designed to avoid apprehension. The spatial mobility which is afforded by modern communications systems, such as mobile phones and pagers, and by modern forms of transportation, such as taxis and private cars, has severely reduced the ability of police to determine exactly who is engaged in acts of solicitation. Prostitutes have also begun using the internet, in particular instant messaging software such as QQ, to attract customers. In 2004, PlayChina, an online prostitution referral service, was shut down by police.
In tandem with the long-term task of developing preventative policing, the much more visible form of policing have been periodic police-led campaigns. Anti-prostitution campaigns have been accompanied by nationwide "media blitzes" to publicise the PRC's laws and regulations. This is typically followed by the announcement of arrest statistics, and then by sober official statements suggesting that the struggle to eliminate prostitution will be a long one. The use of campaigns has been criticised for their reliance on an outdated "ideological" construction and an equally outmoded campaign formula of the 1950s.
The primary target of the PRC's prostitution controls throughout the 1990s has been China's burgeoning hospitality and entertainment industry. These culminated in the "strike hard" campaigns of late 1999 and 2000. Whilst such campaigns may have failed to eradicate prostitution in toto, there is some evidence that regulation of China's recreational venues has helped to create a legitimate female service worker with the right to refuse to engage in practices repugnant to the "valid labour contract", as well as the right to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace.
Chinese police have, however, proven unable to effectively police higher tier prostitution practices. The nature of concubinage and second wife practices makes it more suited as a target of social action campaigns rather than conventional police action. Because of social changes, for example, Chinese police are now professionally constrained not to intrude on people's personal relationships in an overt or coercive manner. Police forces around China also differ as to how they approach the subject. In some areas, "massage parlours" on main streets are known full well to be brothels, but are generally left to function without hindrance, barring occasional raids.
The illegal activities and problems associated with prostitution had led some to believe that there would be benefits if prostitution was legalized.
A number of international NGOs and human rights organisations have criticised the PRC government for failing to comply with the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, accusing PRC of penalising and abusing lower tier prostitutes, many of whom are victims of human trafficking, while exonerating men who buy sex, and ignoring the ongoing problems of governmental complicity and involvement in the sex trade industry. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women reads: Art. 6: States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women. However, it does not advocate a system of legal and regulated prostitution. 
Central guidelines laid down by the CPC do not permit the public advocacy of the legalisation of prostitution. Arguments concerning legalisation are not absent, however, from mainland China. On the contrary, some commentators contend that legally recognising the sex industry, in conjunction with further economic development, will ultimately reduce the number of women in prostitution. Domestic commentators have also been highly critical of the PRC's prostitution controls, with a consistent Marxist-informed focus of complaint being the gender-biased and discriminatory nature of such controls, as well as human rights abuses. Some commentators in China and overseas contend that the PRC's policy of banning prostitution is problematic because it hinders the task of developing measures to prevent the spread of HIV.
While prostitution controls have been relaxed at a local level, there is no impetus for legalisation at the central government level. Importantly, legalisation does not have much public support. Given the underdeveloped nature of the Chinese economy and legal system, there is an argument that legalisation would further complicate the already difficult task of establishing the legal responsibility for third-party involvement in forced prostitution and the traffic in women. Surveys conducted in China suggest that clandestine forms of prostitution will continue to proliferate alongside the establishment of legal prostitution businesses, because of social sanctions against working or patronising a red-light district. Problems associated with female employment also limit the effectiveness of legalisation. These include the lack of independent trade unions, and limited access of individuals to civil redress with regard to occupational health and safety issues.
According to UNAIDS, 1 in 200 Chinese sex workers are infected with HIV. Another source estimates that 5% of low-cost sex workers in the country are infected. In one part of Yunnan province, the infection rate is as high as 7% or 14 in 200. The Chinese government has initiated programs to educate sex workers in HIV/AIDS prevention.
Rising HIV/AIDS rates among Chinese's elderly has been partially attributed to the use of sex workers.
The spread of prostitution practices has introduced a large quantity of slang to the popular vocabulary. Prostitution is a popular subject in the media, especially on the internet. Typically news of police raids, court cases or family tragedies related to prostitution are published in a sensationalised form. A good example is news of an orgy between 400 Japanese clients and 500 Chinese prostitutes in 2003, which partially because of anti-Japanese sentiment, was widely publicised and met with considerable outrage. Another highly publicised case was that of Alex Ho Wai-to, then a Democratic Party candidate for the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, who was given a six-month re-education through labor sentence for hiring a prostitute.
Prostitution has emerged as a subject of art in recent years, particularly in Chinese cinema. Li Shaohong's 1995 film Blush begins in 1949 with the rounding up of prostitutes in Shanghai for "reeducation", and proceeds to tell the story of a love triangle between two prostitutes and one of their former clients. One of the prostitutes, Xiaoe, attempts to hang herself in reeducation. When asked to explain the reason, she says she was born in the brothel and enjoyed her lifestyle there - thereby challenging the government-sanctioned perspective of prostitution. The 1998 film Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl was a dramatic portrayal of "invisible" prostitution in the rural China during the Maoist era. The 2001 independent film Seafood, by Zhu Wen, was an even more frank depiction of prostitution, this time of the complicated relationship between prostitution and law enforcement. In the film, a Beijing prostitute goes to a seaside resort to commit suicide. Her attempt is intervened by a police officer who tries to redeem her, but also inflicts upon her many instances of sexual assault. Both films, whilst being critically acclaimed abroad, performed poorly in mainland China, only partially due to government restrictions on distribution. The depiction of prostitution in fiction, by comparison, has fared slightly better. The most notable author on the subject is the young writer Jiu Dan, whose portrayal of Chinese prostitutes in Singapore in her novel Wuya, was extremely controversial.
In a 2009 poll by Insight China magazine, 7.9% of Chinese respondents said sex workers in the country were "trustworthy", ranking them third after farmers and religious workers.