Prostitution and Employment Opportunities for Women under China’s Economic Reform


Xin Ren

When China was taken over by the Chinese Communists 50 years ago, liberalizing women and providing equal treatment for them were important tasks on the people’s government’s political agenda. Within a short period of time, the people’s government successfully eradicated most vice activities such as prostitution, opium trafficking and use, and gambling. But this did not last, for, when China reopened its doors to the outside world in the early 1980s, the old illicit sex trade, drug trafficking and illegal gambling revived and once again flourished throughout China.

In the past two decades, the sex industry has changed its facet as fast as China’s transformation from the state controlled economic model to the market-orientated model. It is estimated that China has about 4 million prostitutes working as san pei ladies (escorts), in hotels, dance halls, nightclubs and other entertainment centers; as public relation officers or ‘Miss Protocol’ in private and foreign companies; and as street walkers in massage parlors and beauty salons. Customers not only enjoy the sexual services provided by Chinese prostitutes from rural and small towns, but also those well educated and highly paid escort service ladies. Blonde, blue-eyed Russian women, Thai she-males, Burmese and Vietnamese girls are also widely available in many bars, pubs or nightclubs.

Prevalence of Prostitution

According to the police, in 1982 a total of 11,500 arrests were made for crimes relating to prostitution. In the following year, the number of arrests skyrocketed to 46,534, and the number has steadily increased over the past ten years.

The regional origins of the prostitutes clearly reflects that prostitution is an alternative form of employment for many women from populous, impoverished and remote and mountainous regions such as Sichuan, Hunan and Guizhou provinces. The freedom brought by economic reform created a huge influx of workseekers. The government labeled the seasonal, migrant, and transient workseekers “floating population” – human flotsam – amounting to an estimated 80 to 100 million people in China today. For major cities like Beijing, about 25% of the population constitutes a “floating population”, i.e. people who have neither a job nor a home in the city. The greater the floating population, the higher the number of arrests for prostitution. However, prostitution is not only an urban phenomenon. Although rural areas have not been traditionally considered as a popular market for illicit sex service in China, police statistics suggest that about half of annual arrests for prostitution occur in rural areas.

The demographic profile of prostitutes further indicates that changes in the job market drive some women to seek alternative job opportunities such as prostitution. The following results of two surveys sponsored by the Beijing Women Federation in 1991 and 1999 provide some evidence of the changes.

Changes in Age: In the 1991survey of 92 women detained for prostitution, 68% were between 14-25 years of age, the youngest being 14 and the oldest 37. But in the 1999 survey of 1293 women detained for prostitution, 83% of the women were between 14-29. Although the youngest age remains 14, the oldest age was raised from 37 in the 1991 survey, to 54 in the 1999 survey. The change in the upper age limit is indicative of the nature of recent social and economic reforms and the way they have impacted on women of this age group.

Since the 1980s, the central government has mobilized various social resources to reduce school dropout, especially in the poor rural and mountainous regions. The “Project Hope” was launched 10 years ago soliciting funds from domestic and overseas resources to sponsor fellowships, construction projects, and teacher training and hiring of schools in rural areas. Millions of children have benefited from these projects and resumed their education in recent years. In addition, the Juvenile Protection Law enacted in 1992 set the legal age prohibiting child labor from most manufacturing and agricultural industries. The law undoubtedly prevents children and youth from leaving school and entering the labor market.

On the other end of the scale, the increase of older women arrested for prostitution mirrors the problem of massive layoffs in recent years. Due to the dismantling of the state-owned and controlled industries/enterprises that had been inefficient and unproductive for a long time, and the downsizing of governmental agencies, more than 12 million state workers were laid off in 1997, and some 800,000 government employees were put out of work in 1998 and 1999 (Yang, 1998). Women workers, especially those of 35 years of age or older, were often amongst those were dismissed first. The National Women Federation reports that its agencies have helped 990,000 women to be retrained for re-employment in recent years. Despite these efforts, more older women have entered the illicit sex services to earn either a sole or additional income.

Origin of Prostitutes: Before 1985 only about 3% of women arrested for prostitution were from rural areas. This percentage increased to 62% in a 1999 survey. It was a common impression that rural women are far more likely to make it in the city than their male counterparts because of their wide employability in various service industry and domestic help and of their willingness to accept a job with lower pay. The increase in rural women arrested for prostitution coincided with the influx of the labor force into the cities. Between 1980 and 1993, nearly 112 million agricultural labors migrated into the city and urban market, more than a half being women aged 15 – 40. These women are highly vulnerable to exploitation due to their lower educational levels and gender discrimination in the workplace.

Causes of Prostitution

While rural women might seem to have equal opportunity to get a job, they are far more likely to earn less than men are because of occupational discrimination in female dominate occupations. For example, the service-oriented occupations such as hotels, nightclubs, restaurants, bars, and pubs may employ more women than men but also pay them far less than those in male dominated industries. For instance, many san pei ladies working in nightclubs and pubs have no salary and often solely rely on customers’ tips or fees for their services. To earn extra dollars often becomes a life necessity for young women to make living in the cities. Prostitution conveniently offers such supplemental income. Furthermore, dismantling the state run industry and the government downsize not only immediately eliminated millions jobs but also created a vast unemployment army. Women, the essential labor force that “held up a half sky” in the old time, are most dispensable during the radical shakeup of the state run enterprises. It was well acknowledged that over 80% of Chinese women work outside of their home primarily because most Chinese families need two incomes to balance the daily expenses. Sudden loss of one income is devastating and often forces many women to resort to whatever the resources and means available, including selling their bodies, to supplement family income.

The cconomic reform has also created a new category of employer, i.e. private and foreign employers who have mushroomed in China since the 1980s. As a result, new forms of labor-employer relationships have developed, some of which have been exploitative. For women this has included sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape or forced prostitution. Many companies openly advertise in local newspapers soliciting single, beautiful young women under the age of 25. Contracts with female employees may specify no boyfriends, or marriage or family plans. The title ‘PR officer’ is often synonymous with an escort service lady or company-employed prostitute for high-ranking executives, potential clients, and partners of the company.

Many women are reluctant to resist the unwanted sexual advances of bosses or clients for fear of losing their jobs or of possible legal consequences. Unfortunately, China today still has no statute outlawing sexual harassment in the workplace. Even for those victims who complained to local police, they often ended up with being harassed more, intimidated, fired from the job or even arrested, fined and sentenced to jail for defamation.

Sexual Revolution in China: Economic reform in China has brought a profound change in people’s sex lives and their attitudes toward sex and marriage. In Mao’s days, sex outside marriage was deemed a bourgeois transgression; homosexuality was characterized as hooliganism or mental illness; for married couple to have sex more than once a week was regarded as an unhealthy diversion of energy. While people rediscover the joy of sexual freedom under economic reform, so also does the commercial sex industry flourish. Liberalized attitudes toward sex and marriage, and people’s obsession to get rich fast, on the one hand, have lifted traditional stigmas, but they have also encouraged some women to trade their bodies as commodities for money.

Official Intervention

Controlling the booming sex industry in China is proving to be as difficult as eradicating the traditional patriarchal prejudice against women in Chinese society. The official control has undergone three stages: from early elimination; to control; to recent regulation. In the early 1980s, the central government launched a national campaign to eliminate prostitution. Although the campaign resulted in a three-fold increase in the number of arrests for prostitution, illicit sex continues to grow. The government then shifted its priority to controlling through legislation and law enforcement. Later, in the 1990s, the government resorted to regulation to bring the prostitution business under control. For example, many local governments regulate the hotel and other entertainment services through taxation on san pei ladies, business licensing, mandatory medical tests for AIDS or other sexually transmitted disease for employees in certain occupations. Recently, in July 1999, the central government issued a new regulation that outlawed san pei ladies in entertainment industries.

One of the important features of Chinese official strategies against prostitution is its policy toward women prostitutes. Although current criminal law recognizes the crime of prostitution, nevertheless prostitutes are rarely prosecuted for such a crime. Instead, the law enforcement agencies typically round up prostitutes and detain them in so-called “Educational Shelters” for mandatory detention and rehabilitation for periods from three months to three years. Although such detention is mandatory, and incarceration conditions are similar to other jails, the decision is at the sole discretion of the local police. This treatment is consistent with the communist party’s earlier belief that women were victims of sexual exploitation and thus needed to be rehabilitated not punished. What is different in today’s policy is that such rehabilitative detention used to be paid for by the public, and today is paid for by each woman sent to an “Educational Shelter.”

China has recognized that controlling prostitution is a multi-faceted task that requires the participation of the entire community. In addition to the law enforcement agencies and women’s organizations that traditionally work in the field, the public health authorities and medical community have also joined with them to launch public educational campaign against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Not only are condom vending machines available on the streets, but contraceptives have also been offered as part of free courtesy gifts in many hotels. China will perhaps never eradicate prostitution again, but it can at least reduce the number of women who enter the illicit sex service industry. Protecting women’s equal rights in employment and guaranteeing women’s legal protection against sexual exploitation, harassment and violence are critical steps in achieving this goal.

Dr. Xin Ren is Associate Proffesor in Criminal Justice at the California State University, Sacramento, USA. She has researched extensively on the issue of prostitution in China.

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