The penalties for engaging in prostitution are generally pretty light, with those getting caught generally getting a few months in jail and fines at worst. Instead of closing down known brothels officers with the Public Security Bureau prefer to cordone off the neighborhood where prostitutes live and issue fines for people with no residence permits. Most can get off by paying a bribe to a policeman or official.

In Shenyang in Liaoning province and Puian in Fujian province prostitution is not only tolerated but even encouraged by officials who tax the san pei girls at a rate of between 100 yuan and 300 yuan a month. One pimp told the New York Times, "The police here are all my friends." He then he explained that he is former policemen himself.

Occasionally the penalties can be quite harsh. In Foshan, a town outside Shenzhen, a man was sentenced to death and his sister was given life in prison for running a prostitution ring, which had only been in operation for three months and had netted only $1,000. It is widely believed the brother and sister received such severe penalties because they were migrants and they presented a threat to local businesses. In Beijing, a madam who was charged with pimping "more than a dozen" prostitutes out of a hotel, bath house and restaurant she partly owned was sentenced to death. She appears to have been unluckily picked out to make an example of.

Websites and Sources: USA Today piece ; Sex Incidents in China ; Sex Industry ; Chinese sex toy maker lacyshaki.en ; Books: “Sexual Life of Ancient China”, written by Robert van Gulik in the 1920s; “The Illustrated Handbook of Chinese Sex History” by Professor Liu Dalin and “Sex China Studies in Sexology in Chinese Culture” by Fang-ju Juan, The Sexology Research Institute of China is at People's University in Beijing. Sex History and Literature Ancient Sex Culture ; Chinese Sex Literature ; Sex in Ancient China Book Review Prostitution in China : Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Shanghaiist blog ; Homosexuality in China History of Gay life in China

20080226-122206-china-prostitutes parade of shame in Shenzhen.jpg
Prostitutes parade of shame in Shenzhen

Crackdowns on Prostitution in China

In January 2006, authorities launched a crackdown on massage parlors and discos in Shenzhen as part of a clean up campaign. More than 3,000 people took the streets to protest the action and thousands of armed police were deployed to maintain order.

In November 2006, police publically paraded about 100 women and their alleged johns during a crackdown on prostitution at karaoke bars, saunas and barbershops in the district of Futian in Shenzhen. The offenders, dressed in identical yellow smocks and black pants, were sentenced to 15 days in jail and were forced to walk down the streets as television camera rolled and loud speakers read out their names, their addresses and the misdeeds they had been accused. Newspaper photographers snapped their pictures and thousands of residents looked on.

The action appeared to have been aimed at publically humiliating the offenders and use them as an example. Many Chinese were outraged the police would violate the privacy of the offenders in this way and were particularly incensed because the tactics were like those used in the Cultural Revolution. Internet chatter generally sympathized with accused prostitutes and sharply attacked what the police had done. One person quoted in the New York Times wrote: “Even people who commit crimes deserve dignity. Must we go back to the era of the Cultural Revolution.”

One Shanghai lawyer told the Washington Post, “These people were just alleged criminals. It was not yet determined that they had violated the law. The police publically humiliated them, which violates the legal process. This brutal form of punishments has long been abandoned by our society with the development of civilization and a legal system.”

in 2009, the Chinese government carried out a three-month crackdown on prostitution before the regime’s 60th anniversary celebration with a focus on groups that lure women into prostitution and operate entertainment venues that allow prostitution and anyone who conducts illegal sex-related activities with minors.

Crackdowns on Prostitution in China in the 1980s and Early 1990s

In the late 1980s, even harsher measures were taken in the effort to curtail prostitution, including arrests of foreign citizens. In June 1988, in the Shenzhen Economic Zone, which abuts Hong Kong, there was a mass arrest of 122 prostitutes and 100 customers. In the small town of Deqing, about a hundred miles west of Canton, a man accused of being a pimp was executed. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

The opposition to prostitution also has an ideological basis. In the lexicon of China’s Communist leadership, “prostitution” is a very bad word. Deng Xiaoping, the top leader in China, is particularly strong in his opposition to prostitution and advocates severe penalties because he believes it tarnishes his country’s reputation. According to a formal report, more than 200,000 prostitutes and customers were caught in 1991 alone, and more than 30,000 prostitutes were sent to forced labor camps, 80 percent of them street walkers. =

Some of those arrested in the antiprostitution movement received sentences as severe as the death penalty. In Wenzhou city, Zhenjiang province, a woman and a man were sentenced to death because they had owned several underground brothels, employing fourteen prostitutes. In Beijing a 55-year-old man was given a death sentence because in 1988 he had allowed prostitutes to use the offices in a hospital about twenty times. =

China Campaign Against Vices Under Xi Jinping

In 2014, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security ordered police across China to step up efforts to tackle the "three vices" — prostitution, gambling and drug trafficking — warning officials they would be held accountable for illegal activities. In February 2014, the Chinese government has widened a crackdown on prostitution, gambling and drug use in major Chinese provinces, particularly Guangzhou Province. Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “The crackdown is being overseen by officials in the Ministry of Public Security, which manages most police forces in China. Officials in the ministry had already sent a supervisory group to carry out the first step in the nationwide sweep, which began on Feb. 10 in the southern city of Dongguan, according to a statement on the ministry’s website. Dongguan, a manufacturing hub teeming with migrant workers, is sometimes known as China’s Sin City, and prostitution there had long been tolerated as a significant part of the local economy. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, February 17, 2014 /*/]

“The statement was posted one day after China Central Television broadcast a program on Feb. 9 that purported to expose the prevalence of prostitution in Dongguan. The program prompted criticism online by a range of people, including women’s rights advocates, who say the police are unfairly singling out prostitutes. A Chinese newspaper, Beijing News, reported that the Ministry of Public Security had ordered provinces across China to follow the example of Guangdong, the southern province next to Hong Kong that includes Dongguan. The report said 16 cities in nine provinces had begun taking part in the “sweep yellow” campaign, called that because yellow in Chinese can refer to things of an erotic, lewd or sexually illicit nature. /*/

“Since the start of the sweep, police units across China had investigated almost 1,500 cases related to prostitution, uncovered 73 criminal gangs, arrested more than 500 people and shut down more than 2,400 sites where sex was for sale, Beijing News reported. The new crackdown appears intended to send a message similar to the so-called anticorruption campaign promoted by President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leader. Mr. Xi has made it a goal to force recalcitrant elements of the party to fall in line with the central leadership. /*/

“I think it is another step by Xi to tighten control on ideology and society,” said Ai Xiaoming, a literature professor at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, and a gender studies scholar. “Xi wants a China that is completely under control and has no such thing as a sex industry. There is no such thing as a sex worker in Xi’s China dream.” Li Sipan, a women’s rights advocate in Guangzhou, said: “Xi has his own vision for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, which has a very strong moral aspect. The campaign again shows Xi’s conservative and purity-based values. It is another step towards Xi-style China.” “As a women’s rights advocate, I’m worried that there might be a lot of abuse of power by the police towards sex workers,” Ms. Li added. /*/

News reports in recent days have listed participating provinces, including Gansu, Guangxi, Heilongjiang, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong and Sichuan. One report, for example, said 6,500 police officers had been involved in a crackdown on prostitution, gambling and drug use in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. The crackdown began on Feb. 10, and 335 people have been arrested on charges related to the three vices, the report said. Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story In Harbin, the frigid capital of Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, more than 4,800 police officers checked more than 2,700 locations and detained at least 27 people, according to one news report. /*/

People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, has been publishing editorials and commentaries supporting the crackdown. One published under the headline “The boundary of right and wrong should not be blurred.” The next day, the newspaper ran a similar opinion piece with the headline “The bottom line of civilization must not be profaned.” The essay went on to say: “Any healthy society, while having a diverse range of ideas, should have some basic bottom line, some common sense and value. Liberation of thinking doesn’t mean having wild ideas, and it also doesn’t mean an indulgence of behavior.” /*/

“During the crackdown, some officials have been dismissed or forced to apologize for their lack of vigilance. On Friday, the official news agency Xinhua reported that Yan Xiaokang, the police chief of Dongguan and a deputy mayor, had been dismissed from his job, and that officials were opening an investigation into his actions.Other senior police officers have also been dismissed. Party chiefs in four towns in the Dongguan area have issued public apologies.” /*/

Thousands Detained in Prostitution Crackdown in Guangdong in 2014

In February 2014, a massive crackdown on prostitution in the southern manufacturing city of Dongguan, dubbed "Sin City" for its huge vice industry, raided 2,000 establishments and detained more than 900 people. [Source: Euan McKirdy and Shen Lu, CNN, April 24, 2015]

Associated Press reported: “Police say they have raided more than 18,000 entertainment venues in a southern province in the wake of a high-profile state media expose of China's sex trade in the region. The TV report on prostitution in the Guangdong province city of Dongguan broadcast over the weekend sparked a much-publicized crackdown across the whole of the wealthy coastal province. Guangdong police said in a statement Thursday that they had arrested 920 people allegedly engaged in prostitution. The 18,372 premises raided included including singing and dancing venues, saunas and massage parlors. A total of 38 karaoke bars and 158 saunas and massage parlors were closed as a result of the crackdown. CCTV's report on China's "sex capital" was criticized by many members of the public, who expressed sympathy for the sex workers and suggested Dongguan's entrenched sex industry couldn't have survived without the support of police and local authorities. [Source: Associated Press, February 13, 2014]

In June 2014, Reuters reported: “Prostitution in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong has been "effectively curbed" following a four-month crackdown and the detention of more than 3,000 suspects, Xinhua reported. Guangdong's campaign against vice was launched in February after a report by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) about the sex industry in the notorious "sin city" of Dongguan, a major manufacturing centre close to Hong Kong. The report, which showed secret footage of scantily-clad women and managers openly discussing prostitution services, triggered a long public debate in China and led to the dismissal of several local officials. [Source: Reuters June 12, 2014]

“Police in the province have busted as many as 214 gangs following a series of raids on nightclubs, saunas and other entertainment venues. Xinhua said 269 venues were ordered to close and 3,129 to suspend operations. More than 1,200 illegal websites and 1 million instant messaging accounts were also shut as part of a crackdown on sex sold online, it added. The crackdown will continue until the end of the year, Xinhua cited public security officials as saying.

Human Rights Watch: China’s Prostitutes Routinely Extorted and Abused by Police

William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Police raids on brothels in China have a pattern, sex workers say, often occurring a few days ahead of politically sensitive events or whenever someone in government orders an anti-pornography campaign to please the leadership. It’s during these times, the workers say, that their already miserable jobs grow more perilous with some police officers demanding steep bribes or sex, beating them, or locking them up for as long as two years without trial. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, May 13, 2013 ]

This is the life of prostitutes in modern China — a result of the Communist Party’s long discomfort with sex, widespread corruption among authorities and rigid policies that put an already fragile population at even greater risk, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch. “No one would choose such a life if they had any other choice,” said a 38-year-old prostitute in the southern city of Wuhan, who requested that a reporter not use her name for fear of retribution. “I really don’t want to live my life in such fear.”

“The 51-page study chronicles widespread problems for China’s prostitutes, drawing on interviews with more than 140 sex workers, clients, experts and government officials. The report contends that the government’s practices have worsened the danger and health risks prostitutes face, and that it has done little to reduce the growing sex trade — allegations echoed by experts and sex workers in recent interviews.

“Experts liken the government’s approach to prostitution to an on-off switch, with stretches when it is completely ignored, punctuated by brutal crackdowns during nationwide campaigns. But instead of shrinking prostitution, such crackdowns “drive the trade further underground,” according to the Human Rights Watch report. For example, possession of condoms often is used as evidence of sex workers’ guilt, causing many prostitutes to avoid carrying them and elevating the risk of disease. Abuses by health agencies — such as coerced HIV testing and disclosure of HIV status — also have made women distrustful of health officials, according to the report. Such distrust leaves sex workers vulnerable to violent clients, bosses and gangs, because they are unlikely to report crimes, researchers said. The study included examples of rape victims who refused to report the attacks to avoid police contact.

“The harsh government treatment also extends to nonprofit organizations that work with prostitutes, according to the study and activists. “It’s like they just refuse to look at this group in society or acknowledge their existence,” said Ye Haiyan, one of the few and perhaps the best-known activist on behalf of sex workers. Last year, in an effort to attract attention to their plight, Ye publicly announced that she herself would work briefly as a prostitute. Shortly after, she recounted, she was attacked by thugs. More recently, most of her volunteers quit after police visited at their homes and warned them to cease contact with her, Ye said. “We’re barely functioning anymore,” she said. “The only income we have is from online donations, and all we’re trying to do anymore is give away condoms and paper towels to sex workers.”

“Under Chinese law, all aspects of prostitution are illegal, but the sex trade would not exist in most cities without the tacit approval of authorities in return for bribes, activists and experts say, “The goal of some corrupt police isn’t to wipe out the sale of sex, but to allow sex workers to survive so they can keep imposing fines on them,” said Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “The fines become a kind of corrupt income for the police, and the police become a protective umbrella for certain brothels.” For many sex workers, fines, bribes and abuse by authorities have become routine parts of the job.

“The sex worker from Wuhan said she came to the city like countless other migrant workers looking for employment. But widowed with two children and few opportunities, she began working as a prostitute two years ago. She makes about $10 a night, she said, more than she would as a low-wage restaurant worker. “I never think about the future now,” she said, describing a life of constant fear of violent clients and police. “I just live from day to day.”

Chinese Prostitutes Outside China

Large numbers of Chinese women work as prostitutes in Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan and other places in Asia. Many of these women arrive with tourist visas and are brought in with assistance of organized crime gangs.

By some estimates 10,000 mainland Chinese girls and women are brought to Southeast Asia every year to work in the sex industry. In some cases the sex traffickers recruit girls and young women from ethnic minorities in Yunnan and Guangxi Provinces, near the borders of Vietnam, Burma and Laos and smuggle them through the jungles to work at brothels in Southeast Asia.

Some are promised jobs in factories or restaurants and then forced in the sex trade. Some are outright kidnaped. But many go willingly, attracted by an opportunity to make some money and get out of their villages.

One 17-year-old member of the Akha tribe told AP, the traffickers “inspected us like clothes at the marketplace. They asked up us questions like how old we were, were we virgins.” She worked for six years for a pimp in Malaysia before managing to escape.

Many of the prostitutes who work in Hong Kong are women from the mainland. In some cases they earn more in a day of working the streets in Hong Kong than they can working at legitimate jobs in China for a year. Chinese characters outside blue hotels in Hong Kong advertise "new girls from the north" and "one room, one phoenix" ( a prostitute without a pimp).

Many of the mainland prostitutes in Hong Kong are recruited by gangsters and brought in with Chinese tour groups. Often they only have three weeks until their visa expires, and work under local pimps. Many cruise the streets in working class neighborhoods of Kowloon. Sometimes there are so many of them scuffles break out over customers. The competition has lowered the price from about $65 to $35 per trick and made paid sex more accessible to working class Hong Kong residents and even teenage boys.

Many of the girls are migrants recruited in southern China. In some cases they are cheated out of their money by pimps and gangsters. If they complain the gangster calls the police.

Underage Prostitution Ring in China

There is a demand for paying to take a young girl's virginity. The price has risen since 2005, when prostitutes dressed as schoolgirls became fashionable in China's sex trade. The growing demand has led to related underground sex markets and the coercion of girls into prostitution. [Source: Stephanie Wang, Asia Times, May 23, 2009]

In April 2009 the China Youth Daily reported that 11 girls under 18 years old (three of them as young as 13), had been lured or coerced into a prostitution ring in Xishui county in southwestern province of Guizhou. More shocking findings were that the perpetrators included, besides some businessmen, an official at the local Judicial Department, a representative of the local People's Congress and a high school teacher. The girls met the clients in one of the residential buildings of the Judicial Department.

The local public prosecutor announced that the accused would be charged with “visiting underage prostitutes” instead of raping underage girls. The local prosecutor's office explained that the perpetrators could be more severely punished with the charge of “visiting underage prostitutes” rather than “rape” as the former involves a minimum penalty of five years imprisonment while rape carries just three years in jail.

Child Prostitution Laws and Light Penalties for Having Sex with Underage Girls in China

According to China's Criminal Code, rape is punishable by death, while those caught “visiting underage prostitutes” can be sentenced to 15 years at most in prison, or 20 years for repeat offenders. But according to a loopholes of the controversial “visiting underage prostitutes” clause included in the 1997 revision of the Criminal Code: “Offenders visiting prostitutes under 14 years old shall be sentenced to five years in prison at minimum and shall also be fined.” [Source: Stephanie Wang, Asia Times, May 23, 2009]

The clause also states for someone to be convicted of “visiting an underage prostitute” proof have to be provided that the suspect knew beforehand the girl he was to sleep with was under 14. If this cannot be proved, the suspect has a good chance of being acquitted. In a court case in Shanghai in 1998, two men were acquitted of the crime because the 14-year-old prostitute they visited was quite tall and appeared sexually mature. A similar case in Yibin county, Sichuan province, went the same way.

According to child prostitution waws in China: "Promiscuity may result in imprisonment for up to five years or forced labor under the PRC Criminal Law. Those who lure minors into promiscuity will be punished by a heavier penalty. Organizing or compelling others to prostitution may result in fixed-term imprisonment from five years to ten years and a fine. Organizing or compelling girls under the age of fourteen to prostitution, however, may result in a fixed-term imprisonment from ten years to life imprisonment or even the death penalty and confiscation of property. Inducing girls under the age of fourteen into prostitution may result in fixed-term imprisonment of five years and fine. Having sex with girls under the age of fourteen who are acting as prostitutes may result in a fixed-term imprisonment of five years and fine. [Source: Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, 2007 |*|

On December 20, 2008, Lu Yumin, head of Baihua branch of the local taxation bureau, bought the virginity of a girl student for 6,000 yuan (US$878). Three months later, accompanied by her aunt, the victim reported it to the police. After investigation, the police said Lu had not committed a crime as he was ignorant of the fact that the victim was under 14. The penalty for Lu's “inappropriate behavior” was 15 days detention as an “administrative punishment”, and a 5,000 yuan fine.

Huang Jianxiong, associate professor with Xiamen University's School of Law, said that considering China's ethics and customs, the “visiting underage prostitutes” clause should be abolished and a man visiting a prostitute under 14 should be charged with rape. Kong Weizhao, deputy director of the Committee on the Protection of Minors affiliated to China's Bar Association, said the same. He said that children under 14 turn to prostitution out of deception, the lure of easy money, or simply by coercion, and that the payment for sex does not obscure the fact that it is rape in nature.

Image Sources: 1) AFP; 2) New York magazine; 3) NPR Rob Gifford; 4) Parade of shame, AP

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.