During Mao’s era prostitution was considered a malignant phenomenon unacceptable in socialist society. In her book “Sex, Science and Morality in China” Joanna McMillan describes the attitude towards prostitution in that period:
More ideologically primed commentators hold up the absence of prostitution as a benchmark of political identity. It is constructed as a defining characteristic, a necessary condition for a society to call itself socialist.
They think that you can’t have prostitutes in a socialist country. Socialism is thought to guarantee freedom from prostitution because the redistribution of wealth ensures no woman is forced by poverty to prostitute herself. The socialist woman is under no economic duress to sell sex, and neither would she want to.
Indeed, shortly after coming to power in 1949 CCP succeeded to eradicate the prostitution in China and kept it invisible until the early 1980’s.
But with the beginning of economic reforms and the policy of opening up reality had changed and prostitution was re-introduced in China. Deng Xiaoping said: “To get rich is glorious“. In regards of prostitution this catchphrase can be logically continued with another Chinese saying: “Laugh at the poor, not the prostitutes“.
Of course, it didn’t change the official rhetoric. Prostitution stayed a criminal offense and prostitutes were pursued and prosecuted. This prosecution was often made public as in the case of shame parades - infamous policy exploited by local authorities and only about one year ago banned by the Ministry of Public Security who instructed police to enforce laws in a “rational, calm and civilized manner”.
Such crackdowns become more intensive in the period preceding big international events, such as Beijing Olympic Games or Shanghai World Expo and are always accompanied by reports of high numbers of venues closed down and prostitutes arrested. One can’t help wondering, however, why these reports only focus on prostitutes and don’t expose the corrupted officials and bureaucrats without whose silent approval this underground business would be impossible.
It seems that police has very good and “intimate” knowledge of most prostitution venues but is either unwilling or incapable to take the decisive action without being urged from above.
Red Light Districts in China
About ten years ago Pan Suiming published the paper “Red Light Districts”, sociological research of prostitution in China, in which he explained the state of matters in three different cities. Below is his description of prostitution management in Town A located at the economically developed area of Zhujiang Delta.
[All further quotes starting from here are from Pan Suiming]
There is a “quasi-police” in China. They are not officially hired employees of the government and they cannot arrest citizens. Nevertheless, in most places, the work to entrap female sex workers is supposed to be done by them.
In Town A on the spot escort and massage are not forbidden – so there is no reason for the police to capture the escort girls and massage girls. However the “quasi-policemen” know which girls are involved in prostitution and go to their residences to capture them with clients.
There is another method the “quasi-police” use for capturing the female sex workers. They intercept those who look like prostitutes between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. in the streets and check identification cards and temporary residence cards as an excuse. These hours happen to be when those all-night prostitutes are heading home.
Usually the female sex workers are released after paying a big fine. The prostitutes do not carry that much money with them, so upon being arrested they are allowed to inform others to bring the money.
The “quasi-police” members of Town A were mostly peasants from nearby villages. Their work gives them an income of the local upper-middle class level. This “quasi-police” team has reached such ideal state for few reasons:
- They have achieved good security status as a whole, so no one investigates the fines they collect from female sex workers.
- They actually represent the collective interest of the local people and they mainly deal with outsiders.
- They have built up a well-organized, considerably close and very solid interest community with a clear aim.
- This community group has approval in the local culture environment: the decadence of the officials is but the price that everyone has to pay. There is a popular local saying – “If the head of a town has not gotten one million RMB, his town must be underdeveloped.” Thus, it is impossible for a procuress or female sex worker to threaten the community interest of the “quasi-police” team.
- This community group guards interests of the whole and will readily sacrifice the interests of individual members who adversely affect them.
In fact, they resemble a “party” or private army. They play the social role of a buffer, mediator and arbitrator between upper government and the interest groups of the lower sex industry well and this enables them to become rich.
Town A. had specific reasons that predisposed to formation of the whole red light district in the region:
- influx of foreign investments
- relatively easy disposable income for local men and female sex workers
- migration of more and more girls from other regions
- lack of social pressure for girls who left their hometown
- indirect support from the local government.
But after analyzing the reasons endemic for Town A., Pan Suiming arrived to the following conclusion:
Since we entered into the 1980s, the sex industry has been unavoidable, irreversible and even irresistible everywhere in China.
Why Chinese officials can’t deal with prostitution
Moreover, even if some honest officials sincerely wanted to solve the problem – it would be “mission impossible” because:
- The officials don’t dare to associate foreign investment with the sex industry since introduction of foreign investment is the foundation of the open policy.
- The officials don’t dare to admit the demand of people for prostitution because this admission would mean that the long-term education by government has accomplished nothing.
- The officials must object to people saying that girls are driven to prostitution for the sake of eking out a living, because there are many more people who are really poor and are driven by poverty to do anything.
- The officials must object to “governmental participation theory” or at most admit reluctantly that soliciting of prostitution is only done by several corrupt members of the government.
Prostitution, corruption and double standards
These contradictions are the ground for the existing atmosphere of double standards. Not only the prostitution in China thrives, but it has become a common currency in business operations and symbol of corruption.
Lower officials entertain the higher officials with escort girls directly using the public money to buy their services; corrupt officials take bribes and buy escort services or maintain second wives; capitalizing on their official powers, they offer various benefits to these women in exchange for their sexual service.
Such selling and buying of sex happens among the upper social class. Keeping second wives is more than just a sexual pleasure. It is a symbol of status. Second wives and contracted girls are among the highest tiers of prostitution described in the first part of these series. Formally, they are not even prostitutes and these transactions are not directly punishable.
In the illusion made up by the upper society, it seems that only the women of lower classes who serve for the poorer men are prostitutes. Those VIP club girls, sexual private secretaries and second wives are not prostitutes; they are but VIP’s romantic affairs and sexual scandals only.
Ordinary people require only equality before law and require punishment to the men of upper class who look for wild and extreme sex with prostitutes.
Nevertheless, it is of no consequence because if various VIP’s activities of buying sex are not counted as prostitution, you cannot say they are committing crime at all. No punishment will be enforced on them. They receive only disciplinary action within the Party or administrative disciplinary measure. Only those cadres who are so foolish as to go to society to look for true prostitutes may be handled as solicitors.
Recently I read an article about unusual way in which Swedish authorities try to deal with the sex trade.
They have legalized the right for a sex worker to sell his/her body while maintaining that the buying of those services is a criminal act. An inquiry into the effectiveness of this policy found that since its implementation the number of sex workers in the Swedish street sector fell by half…
I wonder what would happen if a similar approach was taken in China. I would gladly keep few rotten eggs for a shame parade of corrupted officials.
Not corrupted (yet) Crystal Tao