Prostitution is Key to Reducing Corruption in China
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Prostitution is Key to Reducing Corruption in China

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With Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign in full swing, Forbes reports that sex scandals have triggered almost half of the corruption cases that have been exposed since November of last year.

In one of the latest cases, South China Morning Post reported that several judges and officials from Shanghai’s Higher People’s Court were removed from their official and party posts after they were caught on film with prostitutes at a local nightclub. Business Insider even provides a comprehensive list of the major sex scandals that have emerged in China just this year.

The Chinese government’s most recent crackdown on corruption (especially regarding sex scandals) actually resembles a cyclical pattern in the People’s Republic of China. Rutgers University Professors James Finckenauer and Min Liu explain in a recent study on prostitution in China that the government has launched numerous anti-prostitution campaigns at several points since 1949. The most recent campaign was in 2010.

Results have not been forthcoming; as the authors of the study conclude, “the rate of prostitution has increased every year” since 1982. Indeed, the government has built 183 educational and detention centers since 1987 just to house arrested prostitutes and their clients. Although reliable data is hard to come by, the current number of Chinese women working as prostitutes today is estimated at between 3 and 10 million.

The authors argue that China’s economic reforms and development is one of the major reasons that prostitution has become so widespread. Most notably, urbanization has led many rural Chinese to relocate to the cities. More often than not, however, migrant women cannot earn enough income from legal employment to support themselves and their families through legal means. Many therefore decide to sell their bodies because they can earn a significantly higher income from doing so than they would at a factory job. Thus, scholarly research on the subject often links prostitution in China to structural deficiencies in Chinese society, such as poverty and gender inequality.

Despite implementing multiple crackdown campaigns, the Chinese government has failed to curb China’s prostitution problem. Endemic government corruption and the lack of rule of law in the country is largely to blame.

According to Finckenauer and Liu, “Widespread corruption among law enforcement and government officials is a serious problem in general and a considerable obstacle on the road to containing and eliminating prostitution.” They note that local authorities and officials usually ignore prostitution, and will sometimes even tip off prostitutes and clients when a crackdown or investigation is about to commence. Some police officers and government officials are even on the payroll of places where prostitutes work, or they will fine prostitutes (instead of arresting them) and use those funds to line their pockets.

In fact, a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report notes that China’s Ministry of Public Security says the fines “help supplement the operational costs of local law enforcement.” Even though the Ministry warns local authorities against fining prostitutes instead of arresting them, HRW discloses that “the practice is [still] widespread.”

Most authorities also only focus on detaining prostitutes while letting other parties involved in the sex industry go free. Moreover, when prostitutes are arrested or detained they often are prosecuted without proper judicial review or due process. Finckenauer and Liu note that this is a major problem given that prostitutes are often detained for long periods of time – they can spend 6 months to 2 years in educational detention centers before being sent to labor camps for 1 to 3 years.

Arresting prostitutes perpetuates the notion that the women alone are at fault for their occupation when in reality many of them are forced into the business because of structural socioeconomic factors. The HRW report emphasizes this social stigma problem by recounting how, in some cases, authorities have even forced prostitutes to participate in public “shame parades” to humiliate them. Fortunately, thanks to the rise of grassroots movements in recent years, such shame parades were outlawed in 2010. Still, placing all the blame on the prostitutes themselves continues, and is often used by officials to justify police brutality and other forms of violence against the women.

If the Xi Jinping administration truly wants to address corruption, then China’s prostitution problem needs to be addressed as a part of the anti-graft campaign. In order to address this issue, local law enforcement urgently needs to be reformed. Authorities should not be incentivized to collect fees or fines from prostitutes to cover operational costs. In order to root out violence against the prostitutes, police must be trained in how to handle suspects properly.

Law enforcement resources should also be directed towards higher-profile suspects in the sex industry instead of only targeting prostitutes themselves. Police officers should not only target pimps, but also the larger club owners and operators that offer sexual services to customers. 

Finally, efforts to curb prostitution must focus on the structural problems driving the industry. Instead of prosecuting and even committing violence against prostitutes who are detained by police, the marginalized women should be protected, educated, and assisted in finding legal jobs that can provide for themselves and their families. Other policies—like reforming the Hukou system — would also help to finally start reducing prostitution in China’s cities.

Absent these and other efforts, prostitution will continuing growing. As a result, Xi’s anti-corruption goals will remain unrealized.

Elleka Watts is an editorial assistant for The Diplomat.

The text has been updated from the original version.

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