Sex Workers Protest in Wuhan

10:23 Aug 1 2010 Wuhan Hubei Province

From the Huffington Post:

A recent crackdown on China's rampant sex industry has prompted a backlash among the country's ring of prostitutes and other sex workers, with many participating in what is being called the country's first rally for legalized prostitution.

A little more than a week after Chinese police banned "shame parades" as a method of punishment for illegal sex workers, a woman in the city of Wuhan was arrested for organizing and participating in the rally, the Associated Press reported.

Ye Haiyan, a sex worker and single mother in Hubei province, was detained Sunday by plain-clothes officers for several days for organizing the group, which carried banners, collected signatures and called for an end to the persecution of sex workers. She is being held at "a resort" for "two to three days of studies."

Having launched the Chinese Women's Rights Workshop -- which distributes condoms and HIV prevention brochures to local brothels -- Ye said legislation would protect sex workers' health and stem trafficking and corruption. "Brothels are not cheap places. Most consumers are quite rich and spend a lot usually. So where is the money coming from? If prostitution was legalized, such income could be more transparent," she told The Guardian .

The World Health Organization estimates that China has around 4 million sex workers, but other sources suggest the figure is higher, with many hotels, hairdressers, massage parlors and karaoke bars known to serve as false fronts for such activity. In June, Chongqing's Hilton Hotel was closed for several days after police raided a basement bar.

Chinese police have been known for humiliating prostitutes in an effort to deter others from entering the sex trade. Until recently, that approach included forcing prostitutes to parade through city streets, a practice which has since been banned by the Ministry of Public Security.

Also, from The Guardian:

A crackdown on China's fast-growing sex industry has prompted a backlash, with sex workers demonstrating for the legalisation of prostitution and an outcry about the treatment of women suspects.

The protest in Wuhan, central Hubei province, is thought to have been the first of its kind in the country. The small group of women asked onlookers to sign a petition calling for an end to discrimination against sex workers and the scrapping of anti-prostitution laws.

"Our society has many problems that are neglected by the public and prostitution is one of them," Ye Haiyan, the activist and sex worker at the forefront of last week's demonstration, said today.

"Since the crackdown has drawn a lot of media attention, I thought it was a good opportunity for a demonstration to gain public attention so people can know more about the lives of prostitutes."

She said police had detained her for a few days for her part in the protest. Prostitution is widespread and blatant in China, despite frequent crackdowns. Many hotels, hairdressers, massage parlours and karaoke bars make little effort to disguise illicit activity. The World Health Organisation has estimated the country has 4 million sex workers, but academics have suggested the figure is higher.

In May, state media said police had arrested 1,100 suspects from "high-end" establishments in Beijing alone. But pink-lit hairdressers and massage facilities appear to be operating unhindered in the capital and elsewhere.

Ye, who tweets and blogs under the name Hooligan Sparrow, said the police campaign was harming the health of workers. She launched the Chinese Women's Rights Workshop, distributing condoms and Aids-prevention pamphlets to brothels in Wuhan. But she said that sex workers were now reluctant to use condoms for fear they would be used as evidence of prostitution.

On her website she said she also decided to speak out after seeing women publicly humiliated following police raids.

She told the Guardian that legalisation would not only help protect the health of sex workers and stem trafficking, but would also help tackle corruption.

"Brothels are not cheap places. Most consumers are quite rich and spend a lot usually. So where is the money coming from? If prostitution was legalised, such income could be more transparent," she said.

Zheng Huang, of Shanghai Leyi – an NGO supporting male sex workers – said the crackdown was the most significant for at least a decade. He believed prostitutes have become more vulnerable because they are moving around to avoid police.

He said: "Sex workers just need to regain the rights they are supposed to have rather than asking for more rights. For example, many prostitutes do not dare to call the police when they get robbed, because they are afraid of being arrested for their job."

Lawyers and academics suggest that, as in many countries, sex workers – rather than those who run the brothels – bear the brunt of anti-prostitution drives.

"Policemen usually impose a fine on the place then leave them in peace. It is like a protection fee," said Li Yinhe, a well-known academic who has campaigned for sexual reforms.This year's campaign has gone further than usual. Chinese police closed the Hilton hotel in Chongqing for several days in June after raiding a basement bar. Hilton Worldwide said the club was independently owned and operated.

There was anger last month when pictures of a raid on a brothel in Guangdong province emerged. The images of women barefoot on the street, handcuffed and tied to a rope, enraged internet users.

Last week the ministry of public security ordered police to stop such practices.

Li said her research showed the public were no longer so judgmental about prostitutes.

Zhu Xiaoding, a lawyer who has been following the anti-prostitution campaign, added: "Now people know prostitutes are mainly from poor areas in the countryside, with no skills and no other choice for making a living."

• This article was amended on 4 August 2010. The original referred to Hebei. This has been corrected.
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