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BEIJING — Bathed in the fluorescent pink light that signaled she was ready for business, the woman rattled off the occupational hazards of working as a prostitute in China: abusive clients, the specter of H. But her greatest fear is a visit from the police. The last time she was hauled into the local station house, Ms. Li was sent 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 regulations that criminalize prostitution.
Li, 39, a single mother with two sons. But two parallel mechanisms of extralegal punishment persist: one for drug offenders, and another for prostitutes and their clients. 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 last month by the advocacy group Asia Catalyst.
As with re-education through labor, the police mete out custody and education sentences without trial and with little chance for appeal. The Asia Catalyst report portrays custody and education as a vast moneymaking enterprise masquerading as a system for rehabilitating women. 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, to 28, women are sent to detention centers each year.
Those who have studied the system say that local public security bureaus earn a sizable income from what is essentially free labor. After the Communist victory in , Mao Zedong made the rehabilitation of prostitutes, whom the Communists saw as victims of capitalist exploitation, a priority. During his first years in power, he effectively eradicated the trade. But the introduction of market overhauls in the early s led to a resurgence in prostitution, and up to six million women were estimated to be working in the sex industry in recent years, according to a United Nations report.