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Emile Dirks
If reports are true, this year China may abolish its system of extrajudicial detention for sex workers and their clients. This is welcome news. China’s sex workers deserve to live and work in safety and eliminating this system would be a major step towards achieving this end. But if this is a victory, it’s a partial one. Though sex worker detention may soon be abolished, similar systems targeting users of drugs and Xinjiang’s Muslims continue to grow.
The end of sex worker detention marks a turning point in the Chinese government’s approach to the sex trade. In the early years of its rule, the Chinese Communist Party viewed sex work, like foot binding and arranged marriage, as a relic of China’s feudal past. Brothels were closed and sex workers forced into new professions. That some may have wished to continue working in the sex trade was an idea the Party never entertained, and by the early 1950s sex work had disappeared in China.
The hiatus was brief. Post-Mao economic and social reforms led to the re-emergence of sex work and renewed state repression of the trade. Police conducted campaigns against sex workers and their clients, parading them in the streets before passing sentence. Some were detained in the country’s first detention centres for sex workers in Shanghai and Wuhan, opened in 1984.
Six years later there were more than 100 of these ‘custody and education’ centres. By 1999, there were 183. And with the State Council’s promulgation of Methods of Custody and Educationin 1993, police gained expanded powers to detain sex workers and their clients for up to two years.
In these centres, detainees quickly learn that ‘custody’ takes precedence over ‘education’. While lectures on sexual health and the law are provided, along with treatment for sexually transmitted infections, the centres are jails in all but name. Detainees work for meagre wages and are forced to cover their living expenses. Abuse by guards is rife. And despite the state’s pledge to eradicate the sex trade, most sex workers return to their profession upon release, where they continue to face harassment and violence at the hands of both clients and the police.
These centres not only fail to eliminate the sex trade. As Deputy Director of China’s National Lawyers Association Zhu Zhengfu argues, they fail to abide by relevant Chinese laws too. Police routinely detain sex workers and clients in holding cells for up to 15 days before transferring them to custody and education centres, effectively punishing them twice for a single offence.
Custody and education also does not appear in the 2006 Public Security Management Punishment Law. According to Zhu, a long-time opponent of custody and education, this violates China’s Legislative Law‘s stipulation that personal freedom can only be restricted in accordance with national laws.
Arguments like Zhu’s have been made for years. Why is custody and education only now poised for abolition? One answer is changes to local police budgets. Under the Public Security Management Punishment Law, local police have the authority to issue fines of up to 5000 RMB (US$741) for prostitution-related offences. During the 1990s, these fines were a coveted source of revenue for cash-strapped police.
But policy changes in 2001 meant local police had to turn fines over to the central government. Lacking a financial incentive to make arrests, prostitution cases dropped precipitously from 239,000 in 2001 to 80,000 in 2017. So too did the detainee population of custody and education centres, which declined from 40,000 in 1999 to 15,000 in 2014.
Crediting budgetary concerns alone for the end of custody and education may be too simple. For other systems of detention, there are no shortage of funds. Today more than 320,000 users of drugs are held in 775 drug detention centres, while in the re-education camps of Xinjiang up to 1 million ethnic minority Muslims are detained. Detainees are held for months, even years, without trial. Forced labour is not uncommon. Those released are subjected to continued police surveillance.
If sex workers were viewed as a threat — like users of drugs and Xinjiang’s Muslims are now — funding for custody and education could no doubt be found. While the Chinese Communist Party still opposes sex work, abolishing the sex trade is no longer a domestic security priority. The same cannot be said of unsanctioned religious practices and a growing illicit drug market, both of which the Party views with alarm. As the Party pursues its harsh campaigns against drugs and ‘religious extremism’, the number of detainees grows apace. What then to make of the end of custody and education? Will it protect human rights and improve the rule of law in China? Some believe it will. But with so many still languishing in drug detention centres and the re-education camps of Xinjiang, this optimism is hard to share.

Emile Dirks is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science, University of Toronto