by Christopher Zoukis
Notwithstanding China’s great economic boom that has created a new class of millionaires and well-to-do urban citizens, the specter of Mao-era re-education camps still looms over China’s poorest citizens, especially the estimated six million women working in its growing sex industry. These women are routinely arrested by police in vice sweeps that some say are simply a means to replenish jailhouse workshops. Moreover, many are even forced to pay for the “privilege” of working in prison sweatshops.
Experts estimate that 18,000 to 28,000 women are sent to such camps each year. Most are charged with prostitution offenses, but others, mostly deemed political nuisances, are also held at the camps.
While China announced in November that it would abolish the Mao-era system of “re-education through labor,” Chinese citizens can still be held for up to four years without trial if accused of prostitution and other offenses. Detention centers established in 1991 allow local public security bureaus to impose “custody and education” for prostitutes in a murky, quasi-legal system. Women arrested for prostitution are often subjected to sexual abuse, being photographed naked, and other humiliations. “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 on China’s booming sex industry. “It’s another rotten branch of the Chinese legal system, and it should be abolished.”
Women detained at the camps can toil seven days a week for no pay, making a variety of items from toys to disposable chopsticks to doggie diapers. While U.S. law prohibits the importation of Chinese prison-labor goods, see 22 U.S.C. §6961 (establishing task force on prohibition of importation of products of “Forced Labor or Prison Labor from the People’s Republic of China”), many reports indicate that some products are packaged for export.
“The way they are treated is such a violation of their dignity,” said Shen Tingting, advocacy director at Asia Catalyst. “The entire system stigmatizes women and sends out a message that sex workers are dirty and need to be reformed.”
The present system of apparent exploitation of China’s prostitutes contradicts Mao Zedong’s initial efforts to rehabilitate prostitutes, whom he felt have been exploited by capitalists. China’s rapid economic growth has rejuvenated an illicit sex trade that had been all but eradicated under Mao.
Ironically, the criminalization of prostitution in the United States has led to untold numbers of poor women to be incarcerated, many of whom also produce prison-made goods that, if imported from China, would be illegal to sell. Nevertheless, these products are sold within the United States to both governmental and private buyers. One such example is the federal government’s UNICOR factory for female federal prisoners at Alderson, West Virginia which produces garments.
(Originally published by Prison Legal News)