Sex Workers in China Still Endure Forced 'Re-education'

Although the government recently banned the controversial form of punishment, something similar remains in place for the country's prostitutes.
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A prostitute waits for customers at a popular bar district in Shanghai. Many sex workers are still subject to abuse under the "custody and education" system. (Claro Cortes IV/Reuters) 

Last month, China announced the abolition of its notorious “education-through-labor” detainment centers, but the system isn’t disappearing altogether: Female sex workers are still required to do manual labor without pay, undergo forced physical and STD tests, and endure brutal treatment at the hands of security officials—all in the name of rehabilitation.

The country’s prison reforms have prompted questions over whether methods like education through labor might continue under other names. One of those is the innocuously named the “custody and education” (C&E) system, or shourong jiaoyu, where female sex workers and their clients are detained without trial for up to two years for “compulsive education in law and morality and …productive labor in order to rid them of their vice.” As of 2002, there were an estimated 200 of these centers across China, and between 1987 and 2000, more than 300,000 had been detained, according to Asia Catalyst, a group that promotes health among marginalized groups.

Officials haven’t said anything about closing down the C&E system, which is an almost identical system to the re-education through labor centers, according to a new report by the Asia Catalyst. The group interviewed 30 female sex workers between the end of 2012 and July 2013, and found that several were beaten by police to force a confession and held in dehumanizing conditions: The women were not allowed to use the bathroom at night or communicate in their native dialects during phone calls with family members.

Commercial sex, while illegal in China, is prevalent. The rate of prostitution has increased every year since 1982, according a recent study by academics at Rutgers University. One reason may be that authorities aren’t really cracking down on the industry—despite the occasional highly publicized raid. Police use fines as a form of “extra budgetary funds,” which creates an incentive to manage prostitution rather than try to eliminate it outright. All 30 sex workers interviewed at C&E centers returned to the sex trade immediately after their release.

On top of fines of up to 5,000 yuan ($834), the women, most of them from poor, rural areas of China who had resorted to prostitution in cities, had to pay for their own living expenses at the center. While Chinese regulations say detainees should be paid for their labor, none of the 30 women interviewed by the group said they had been compensated. Many were also extorted by police, one for as much as 70,000 yuan in order to avoid being taken in custody.

“I think it’s all for money. Any talk of remolding or ideological education is bogus. It’s just a way of extorting money in the name of the government and the law enforcement organs,” said one detainee.

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Lily Kuo is a reporter at Quartz covering emerging markets.

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