BEIJING – 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 $60 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.
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 $400 for a six-month stay, the report said.
“Those who couldn’t pay were only given steamed buns to eat,” one woman told Asia Catalyst.
At some centers, visitors are required to pay an entry fee of $33 to see imprisoned relatives.
Those who have studied the system say that local public security bureaus earn a sizable income from what is essentially free labor.
Women describe the camp labor as tolerable but tedious. In an interview, a 41-year-old native of southeast Jiangxi province said she spent her days at one such jail making stuffed animals, sometimes until 11 p.m.
“You’d sew so much, your hand would hurt,” said the woman, who would give only her street name, Xiao Lan, or Little Orchid.
She laughed when asked about the program’s education component – mostly long sessions spent memorizing the rules governing behavior at the jail. “We called the guards teachers and they called us students, but we didn’t learn anything,” she said.
Xiao Lan was released after six months, and she immediately returned to her old trade. “So, too, did all the other girls,” she said.