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RIGHTS-CHINA: Crackdowns Do Little to Address Sex Work

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Dec 31 2010 (IPS) - Authorities in China are lauding a sweeping crackdown on prostitution across the country in recent months. But the sex trade continues to thrive in this booming nation, while services and support for women working in the industry remain inadequate, experts say.

The Ministry of Public Security launched the “Strike Hard” campaign in June, following successful raids of clubs in Beijing and other cities last spring. A total of 557 women were detained in the Beijing raids and four clubs were ordered to suspend business for six months, the harshest penalty handed out in China for operating an escort service, the People’s Public Security News reported.

In May, police in Dongguan city, known for being an area for sex work, investigated 30 entertainment venues and detained over 1,100 suspects. On Jul. 8, authorities in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, investigated 97 clubs and detained 279 suspects.

The nationwide campaign targeted a total of 26 cities over six months. In one night alone in July, 10 supervision teams arrested 370 suspects in eight cities in six provinces, including Jilin, Shanghai and Hainan.

The Ministry said criminal cases involving sex work dropped by 18.4 percent year-over-year in October, and the ‘Beijing Morning Post’ reported in November that 30 percent of sex workers had switched to different industries in the previous six months.

But experts say the crackdown, although larger in scale and more effective than previous campaigns, barely scratches the surface of the vast, underground sex work operating here. They argue that the government needs to combine raids on bath houses and karaoke clubs – notorious in China for being dens of prostitution – with better education and job training for poor women working in the industry.

Some even suggest that the government legalise red light districts in a bid to control an industry that employs potentially millions of young women.

“Prostitution in China has a huge market,” says Sun Wenguang, a professor at Shandong University’s Business Management Institute, who researches sex work in China.

Sun says prostitution in China is rooted in two main factors – poverty and demand. The vast majority of workers are young women from rural areas, who are poorly educated and have difficulty finding decent jobs. The demand comes primarily from migrant workers, who spend months and years separated from their families working long hours in dismal conditions.

Sun says the government launches crackdowns almost every year, but they amount to little more than “face jobs” – token gestures to demonstrate that the government is taking action. The raids “don’t tackle the practical problems. The government doesn’t know the root cause of this problem. They never figure out what these prostitutes can do for a living after they quit or lose their jobs (in sex work).”

While there are some non-governmental organisations working with sex workers, they receive little financial and policy support, Sun says.

Qiao Xinsheng, director of the Centre for Social Development Research at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, says corrupt local governments, deeply intertwined with organised crime, sometimes act as “shields” to the prostitution industry.

“Officials take advantage of their powers for personal gain,” he tells IPS.

(The Ministry of Public Security said in a document released in December that the most recent raids also targeted the “protective umbrellas” that shield the sex trade, including local government officials.)

Qiao says the only way to effectively manage sex work in China is to legalise and monitor red light districts. He says that most local authorities have already realised that prostitution is so prevalent – and the laws against it broken so often – that many have already shifted focus to trying to contain the spread of sexually transmitted diseases instead of trying to eradicate sex work.

Many experts agree that legalisation is the best solution, although few think the government will follow this path.

“There will always be demand for extramarital sex,” Sun tells IPS. “In order to minimise the occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases and sex-related crimes, I think it is a better idea if we make prostitution legal.”

In an interview with ‘Global People Magazine’, Li Yinhe, a sociologies and feminist, said that traditional crackdowns force women in sex work further underground, often operating under control of organised crime. She said the government should open “women’s schools,” where sex workers would learn life skills, while sex work is legalised.

“We should change our attitudes. We can’t just crack down on them. We should help them,” Li told the magazine.

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