Police in Dongguan target sex workers in massive face-saving operation

10 February 2014

Police in Dongguan arrested 67 people yesterday, just a few hours after national broadcaster China Central Television exposed the extent of the sex industry in the city and the lack of any police efforts to control it.

Official media reports said that 12 sauna, massage and entertainment venues in the sprawling southern metropolis had been closed down and that several local police chiefs had been suspended from duty pending investigation.

A total of 6,525 police officers were mobilized to take part in what was clearly a massive face-saving operation for the police, who are widely believed to be complicit in or simply turn a blind eye to the booming sex industry in the city.

This latest police crackdown will change very little and will most likely only end up perpetuating the cycle of abuse and exploitation that sex workers currently have to endure. The vast majority of sex workers in Dongguan are young women from rural areas of China. However, unlike other migrant workers in the city’s factories, shops and offices, sex workers have no legal protection and have next to no recourse when they are cheated or abused by clients, brothel owners and the police.

Sex workers are often demonised in society as immoral and diseased, and as Sophie Richardson, the China Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted: “In China, the police often act as if by engaging in sex work, women had forfeited their rights.”

Women arrested for sex work are sometimes detained by police for a few weeks or months but they are far more likely to be fined.  In some poor city districts in China, fining sex workers is just another way for the local police to make money. However fines can also force sex workers to borrow money from their brothel owner, which in turn forces them into a position of indentured labour.

In order to protect the basic rights and personal safety of sex workers in China, the government needs to formally de-criminalize adult, voluntary and consensual sex work and support the development of civil society organizations that address the needs of sex workers throughout the country.

As Sophie Richardson said at the launch of HRW’s report on sex workers in China last year: “The government must abandon its repressive laws against sex workers, discipline abusive police, and end the suppression of sex workers’ rights advocates.”

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