From the government waste department: America’s National Institute of Health is in the thick of a five-year, 2.6 million dollar study of Chinese prostitutes. It’s not the waste of money we deplore (a drop in the bucket of misappropriation that is the U.S. federal budget), but the waste of time, for the first phase of the study aims to shed light on why Chinese prostitutes engage in risky sex while drunk. Up next for the NIH, determining why marijuana smokers drive slowly and crave snack food. Up next for you: a brief but honest look at prostitution today in China. Very brief… goodness knows there are tweets to follow, and Facebook profiles to update.
For most of China’s history, prostitution has been either tolerated or institutionalized and regulated. The first age of the PRC eradicated prostitution as effectively as it did opium. Thus the paradox of prostitution in today’s economically-reformed China: an open secret. High-class arm candy and KTV hostesses, pink-lit hair salons and non-blind massage parlors; discreet glances in a hotel lobby and direct phone calls to your room – prostitution in China is an omnipresent reminder of the gritty side of economic empowerment.
Historically, Chinese prostitutes had a hierarchy with attendant grades of status, or lack thereof – concubines, tea-house talent, brothel workers, and street walkers at the bottom. Today, the pattern holds: er nais (second wives), escorts, commercial-front workers; still last and least, street walkers.
Said escorts provide their services under an amazing range of guises. Some companies advertise openly for “PR Officers”, comely under-25s to wine, dine, and not decline important clients. At certain beaches in Hainan, it is possible to procure “swimming partners”.
More and more coeds at even the best Chinese colleges are turning tricks to help with tuition costs, at a rate easily equal to that of their western counterparts. Unsurprising, given that other traditional unskilled labor for females, e.g. waitressing, pays so little in China that a serious student cannot realistically consider such “honest work”.
Economist Yang Fan claims that prostitution accounts for up to eight percent of China’s GDP, with over 20 million women earning an average of 25,000 RMB annually, and spending it on cell phones, clothes, cabs, cosmetics, even bodyguards.
In 1964, the Communist Party declared China a country free of venereal disease, a claim confirmed by British veteran expat doctor Joshua Horn. At the end of 2004, Guangdong Province confirmed 1.26 million cases of STD in a population of 110 million. This May alone, China reported over 32,000 syphilis cases, claiming infection rate growth at thirty percent per year.
The dramatic rise of prostitution in modern China is due far more to economic displacement than moral ambiguity or family disintegration. Most unmarried prostitutes send the lion’s share of their income back to their parents.
Some families in severely underdeveloped regions order their daughters to become sex workers. Dai minority girls, prized for their beauty, frequently leave for Thailand and Malaysia and make their parents rich by rural standards. These villagers live in faux-chateaux with chandeliers, gold-plated family altars, and state-of-the-art entertainment centers.
For every working girl who floats her parents and gains some measure of financial comfort, many more succumb to the spiral of drug abuse, disease, and exploitation by pimps. A survey of the estimated 100,000 san pei (three accompaniments – singing, drinking, and dancing) girls in Northeast China’s city of Shenyang found that all interviewed had been forcibly robbed, over half had been severely beaten by their handlers, and that over ten percent were HIV-positive.