Photo: KnowInsiders
Photo: KnowInsiders

Prostitution in China is illegal but practiced openly. Prostitutes work out of five-star hotels, karaokes, entertainment centers, dance halls, boxing clubs, beauty parlors, hairdressers, barbershops, saunas, bathhouses, massage parlors, nightclubs and on the streets.

Prostitutes operate openly in almost every major hotel in China. In one survey, 10 percent of sexually-active men admitted having paid for sex with a prostitute. Single foreign men often receive phone calls from prostitutes in their hotel rooms.

Is prostitution legal in China?

Prostitution is illegal in China and is frequently the target of law enforcement crackdowns. In recent years, the country’s growing emphasis on combating human trafficking has also increased the profile of these anti-prostitution campaigns. This is seen in China’s current anti-trafficking roadmap, which identifies the nationwide eradication of prostitution as an important prong of the country’s anti-trafficking campaign. The two phenomena of prostitution and trafficking in women, or female trafficking, are nevertheless not equivalent.

Estimates of the numbers of prostitutes in China range from 3 million according to officials estimates by the government to 10 million by the U.S. State Department to 20 million by one Chinese economist. By one count there are around 1 million full-time prostitutes in China and perhaps 8 to 10 million more that sometimes accept money and gifts for sex. One marker of the booming sex industry in Shenzhen — both in terms of prostitutes and mistresses — is the high number of children born out-of-wedlock.

Chinese economist Yang Fan has estimated that up to 20 million people are engaged in some form of sex work. They include mistresses in private apartments, “money boys” in high-end clubs and street-based workers. Massage parlors, karaoke clubs, mahjong game rooms, and hair salons all offer sex for money. [Source: Qian Jinghua, Sixth Tone, May 23, 2017]

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Prostitution is common across China, where many hotels offer sex for pay, and hair salons and massage parlors often serve as fronts for brothels. When police officers do round up prostitutes, they might detain them for long periods in systems of extralegal punishment, including one called “custody and education,” in which those held are forced to do labor. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, February 17, 2014 /*/]

Describing an encounter with a prostitute in a Qingdao hotel, a writer in Lonely Plant wrote: "After more than two months of traveling in China, I was never approached by prostitutes — that is until I got to Qingdao. No sooner had I checked into my room at the Beihai Hotel than there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find a miniskirted young woman offering her 'massage' services for sale. I turned down her offer, then headed out to see the sights of the city. Less than an hour later, I was approached by another prostitute."

Where can prostitution be found in China?

Brothels are often disguised as hair salons or operate out of working hair salons. They are common sights in cities and towns of all sizes and operate for the most part without any interference. Describing the commercial sex scene in a typical Chinese town, Lily Kuo wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Down the street is two barbershops with scantily-clad women waiting for customers and looking bored. In the same neighborhood, adult stores don’t bother with euphemisms to conceal what they sell. Their signs read simply, “Sex Shop”...This is not out of the ordinary in Beijing. Brothels and kinky toy shops are mixed into residential neighborhoods everywhere.”

Prostitutes work at all levels of society from the grandest hotels to the poorest neighborhoods and lowliest villages. Prostitutes with beepers and mobile phones openly solicit sex at truck stops on the main highways. Movie houses have girls who charge $12 for petting and more for after-movie entertainment. The beaches on Hainan have "swimming escorts" and the economic free zones near Hong Kong have "concubine villages."

Southern cities like Shenzhen and Dongguan have a reputation for being particularly seedy. Nick Frisch of Danwei.org wrote, “Dongguan's reputation precedes it. Last year in a Shenzhen gym, my buddy’s albino muscle-bound fifty-something workout pal lumbered over. "Yo man, I was in Dongguan last week, it was fucking crazy, they bring out fucking fifty girls and you can fuck whichever ones you want. Fuck, man. Fuck." "I don't normally hang out with that guy," insisted the friend. "But Dongguan is definitely a den of evil. Once, one of my company's field offices there was besieged by Triads. Nothing but factories, gangsters, fat officials, and whores. Fucking Dongguan." He forgot hideous, speculative real-estate developments.

Photo: The Culture Trip
Prostitution grows in China fronted by hair salons, karaoke bars. Photo: The Culture Trip

Leo Lewis wrote in The Times of London, “Rmb460.” or $70, is the special student price for the “full service” on offer in the massage parlor at the five-star Guangxin International Hotel in Wuhan — a price that conveniently includes the hourly hire of a room and a courtesy cab home for the masseuse. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times of London, October 28, 2014]

Nanyang Siang Pau wrote in The Star, a Beijing newspaper "reported that university students were available as mistresses in China for a “fee”. The annual fee is between 20,000 yuan (RM9,341) and 50,000 yuan (RM23,352) depending on which university they are studying at. The service was exposed after Beijing police busted a syndicate believed to be acting as the students' agent. A man identified as a teacher called Chen was arrested in the operation. Initial investigations showed that the syndicate had posted the students' photographs, details and fees online for customers to view and choose." [Source: Nanyang Siang Pau, The Star, May 17, 2011]

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Rise of prostitution and sex industry in China

The sex industry is growing rapidly. Even small cities have their own entertainment districts with prostitutes. In the early 2000s, China had an estimated three million female commercial sex workers, according to a personal communiqué from Hongling Wei, editor of Ren Zhi Chu.

China had roughly 4 million to 6 million sex workers in the late 2000s, according to a 2010 World Health Organization paper, and they could be found in every city, working out of hair salons, karaoke bars, hotels, massage parlors, bars, barbershops and on the street. William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “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. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, May 13, 2013]

Prostitutes used to be found mostly in well-known bars and karaokes in the major cities. Now they are found everywhere: on university campuses, in residential neighborhoods and even at Wal-art stores in almost every town in every province Customers are often secured through cell phone and Internet services. These days there are so many prostitutes that an oversupply has forced prices down. Workers that earned $30 a trick in 2005, could only make $20 in 2006 and were earning only $13 a trick in 2007. There are some prostitutes that are so desperate they service scores of migrant workers for $1 apiece under bridges and overpasses. One 22-year-old prostitute told the Washington Post, “Though the price has gone down, the number of customers is up. I used to receive two visitors before, and now I have to do three to four a day. My income is the same. I just have to work a little harder.”

The rise in prostitution is more a manifestation of a lack of well-paying jobs than a loss of morality. Many prostitutes send a large portion of their income to their families and to their hometowns. One prostitute who worked in a textile factory and as dishwater in a hotel before turning tricks told the Washington Post, “There was a karaoke parlor in the hotel.. .And all the girls didn’t have to work at all. Yet they made big money. I worked all day and made 400 yuan [$53] a month. it’s because of money that I became “bad,” and joined the business.”

How Dongguan Became China’s Sin City

Although prostitution is illegal in China, the world’s oldest profession flourished in correlation with the booming manufacturing industry. In 2012 and 2013, the city was better known for rampant prostitution than manufacturing, and it became a hotbed of vice, even spawning the phrase “Dongguan-style”, a term commonly used in prostitution circles.

In 2014, authorities finally started to crack down on the sex trade, and 6,500 police raided almost 2,000 venues. However, such was the enormity of the sex industry that economists estimated the crackdown would wipe out some 50 billion yuan ($8 billion USD), or one-tenth of the city’s annual revenue, from the economy, which would include slowed transactions for businesses, such as hotels, shops and restaurants.

Rather than disappear, it seems the sex trade was pushed further underground. Many of the estimated 250,000 sex workers who were working before the crackdown are now forced to work underground and are exposed to greater risks.

Penalties for prostitution in China

Photo: Japan Times
Chinese prostitutes 'routinely extorted, abused'. Photo: Japan Times

The penalties for engaging in prostitution are generally pretty light, with those getting caught generally getting a few months in jail and fines at worst. Instead of closing down known brothels officers with the Public Security Bureau prefer to cordon off the neighborhood where prostitutes live and issue fines for people with no residence permits. Most can get off by paying a bribe to a policeman or official.

In Shenyang in Liaoning province and Puian in Fujian province, prostitution is not only tolerated but even encouraged by officials who tax the san Pei girls at a rate of between 100 yuan and 300 yuan a month. One pimp told the New York Times, "The police here are all my friends." He then explained that he is a former policeman himself.

Occasionally the penalties can be quite harsh. In Foshan, a town outside Shenzhen, a man was sentenced to death and his sister was given life in prison for running a prostitution ring, which had only been in operation for three months and had netted only $1,000. It is widely believed the brother and sister received such severe penalties because they were migrants and they presented a threat to local businesses. In Beijing, a madam who was charged with pimping "more than a dozen" prostitutes out of a hotel, bathhouse and restaurant she partly owned was sentenced to death. She appears to have been unluckily picked out to make an example of.

Underage Prostitution Ring in China

There is a demand for paying to take a young girl's virginity. The price has risen since 2005 when prostitutes dressed as schoolgirls became fashionable in China's sex trade. The growing demand has led to related underground sex markets and the coercion of girls into prostitution. [Source: Stephanie Wang, Asia Times, May 23, 2009]

In April 2009 the China Youth Daily reported that 11 girls under 18 years old (three of them as young as 13), had been lured or coerced into a prostitution ring in Xishui county in the southwestern province of Guizhou. More shocking findings were that the perpetrators included, besides some businessmen, an official at the local Judicial Department, a representative of the local People's Congress and a high school teacher. The girls met the clients in one of the residential buildings of the Judicial Department.

The local public prosecutor announced that the accused would be charged with “visiting underage prostitutes” instead of raping underage girls. The local prosecutor's office explained that the perpetrators could be more severely punished with the charge of “visiting underage prostitutes” rather than “rape” as the former involves a minimum penalty of five years imprisonment while rape carries just three years in jail.

Child prostitution laws and light penalties for having sex with underage girls in China

According to China's Criminal Code, rape is punishable by death, while those caught “visiting underage prostitutes” can be sentenced to 15 years at most in prison, or 20 years for repeat offenders. But according to a loophole of the controversial “visiting underage prostitutes” clause included in the 1997 revision of the Criminal Code: “Offenders visiting prostitutes under 14 years old shall be sentenced to five years in prison at a minimum and shall also be fined.” [Source: Stephanie Wang, Asia Times, May 23, 2009]

The clause also states for someone to be convicted of “visiting an underage prostitute” proof have to be provided that the suspect knew beforehand the girl he was to sleep with was under 14. If this cannot be proved, the suspect has a good chance of being acquitted. In a court case in Shanghai in 1998, two men were acquitted of the crime because the 14-year-old prostitute they visited was quite tall and appeared sexually mature. A similar case in Yibin county, Sichuan province, went the same way.

According to child prostitution laws in China: "Promiscuity may result in imprisonment for up to five years or forced labor under the PRC Criminal Law. Those who lure minors into promiscuity will be punished by a heavier penalty. Organizing or compelling others to prostitution may result in fixed-term imprisonment from five years to ten years and a fine. Organizing or compelling girls under the age of fourteen to prostitution, however, may result in fixed-term imprisonment from ten years to life imprisonment or even the death penalty and confiscation of property. Inducing girls under the age of fourteen into prostitution may result in fixed-term imprisonment of five years and a fine. Having sex with girls under the age of fourteen who are acting as prostitutes may result in fixed-term imprisonment of five years and a fine. [Source: Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, 2007 |*|

On December 20, 2008, Lu Yumin, head of the Baihua branch of the local taxation bureau, bought the virginity of a girl student for 6,000 yuan (US$878). Three months later, accompanied by her aunt, the victim reported it to the police. After investigation, the police said Lu had not committed a crime as he was ignorant of the fact that the victim was under 14. The penalty for Lu's “inappropriate behavior” was 15 days detention as an “administrative punishment”, and a 5,000 yuan fine.

Huang Jianxiong, associate professor with Xiamen University's School of Law, said that considering China's ethics and customs, the “visiting underage prostitutes” clause should be abolished and a man visiting a prostitute under 14 should be charged with rape. Kong Weizhao, deputy director of the Committee on the Protection of Minors affiliated to China's Bar Association, said the same. He said that children under 14 turn to prostitution out of deception, the lure of easy money, or simply by coercion, and that the payment for sex does not obscure the fact that it is rape in nature.

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