Bathed in the fluorescent pink light that signaled that she was ready for business, Li Zhengguo rattled off the occupational hazards of working as a prostitute in China: abusive clients, the specter of HIV and the scathing glares of neighbors that tear at her soul.
“My life is so full of anxieties,” she said between customers one recent evening. “Sometimes my heart feels rotten for having given away my body.”
But her greatest fear is a visit from the police. The last time she was hauled into the local station house, Li was dispatched without trial or legal representation to a detention center in neighboring Hebei province, where she spent six months making ornamental paper flowers and reciting the list of regulations that criminalize prostitution.
Her incarceration at the Handan Custody and Education Center ended with a final indignity: She had to reimburse the jail for her stay, about US$60 (NT$1,800) a month.
“The next time the police come to take me away, I’ll slit my wrists,” said Li, 39, a single mother with two sons.
Advocates for legal reform claimed victory in November after the Chinese government announced that it would abolish “re-education through labor,” the system that allows the police to send petty criminals and people who complain too loudly about government malfeasance to work camps for up to four years without trial.
But two parallel mechanisms of extralegal punishment persist: one for drug offenders, and another for prostitutes and their clients.
“The abuses and torture are continuing, just in a different way,” said Corinna-Barbara Francis, a China researcher at Amnesty International.
The murky penal system for prostitutes, “custody and education,” is strikingly similar to re-education through labor. Centers run by the Ministry of Public Security hold women for up to two years and often require them to toil in workshops seven days a week for no pay, producing toys, disposable chopsticks and dog diapers, some of which the women say are packaged for export.
Male clients are also jailed at such centers, but in far smaller numbers, according to a report released in December by the advocacy group Asia Catalyst.
Women who have passed through some of the nation’s 200 custody and education prisons describe onerous fees and violence at the hands of guards.
As with re-education through labor, the police mete out custody and education sentences without trial and with little chance for appeal.
“It’s arbitrary, abusive and disastrous in terms of public health,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, which issued a report last year on the perils faced by women working in China’s booming sex trade. “It’s another rotten branch of the Chinese legal system, and it should be abolished.”
The Asia Catalyst report portrays custody and education as a vast moneymaking enterprise masquerading as a system for rehabilitating wayward women. Established by China’s legislature in 1991, the detention centers are run by local public security bureaus, which have the final say on penalties. Former inmates say police officials sometimes solicit bribes to release detainees.
The government does not publish regular statistics on the program, but experts estimate that 18,000 to 28,000 women are sent to detention centers each year. Inmates are required to pay for food, medical exams, bedding and other essential items like soap and sanitary napkins, with most women spending about US$400 for a six-month stay, the report said.