Partial victory for China’s detainees

Author: Emile Dirks, University of Toronto

If reports are true, this year China may abolish its system of extrajudicial detention for sex workers and their clients. This is welcome news. China’s sex workers deserve to live and work in safety and eliminating this system would be a major step towards achieving this end. But if this is a victory, it’s a partial one. Though sex worker detention may soon be abolished, similar systems targeting users of drugs and Xinjiang’s Muslims continue to grow.

Ethnic Uighur women leave a centre where political education lessons are held in Kashgar, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, 6 September 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter).

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The end of sex worker detention marks a turning point in the Chinese government’s approach to the sex trade. In the early years of its rule, the Chinese Communist Party viewed sex work, like foot binding and arranged marriage, as a relic of China’s feudal past. Brothels were closed and sex workers forced into new professions. That some may have wished to continue working in the sex trade was an idea the Party never entertained, and by the early 1950s sex work had disappeared in China.

The hiatus was brief. Post-Mao economic and social reforms led to the re-emergence of sex work and renewed state repression of the trade. Police conducted …continue reading