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The Trafficking of Women and Girls for Prostitution and Brides in China

Matthew B. Conaway
PLS 693-01 Human Rights in China
Final Draft
3 June 2010

[T]rafficking [of women and children] causes a

series of social problems, seriously affecting social
harmony and stability.
China National Plan of Action on Combating
Trafficking in Women and Children (2008)
Human trafficking, what the sociologist Kevin Bales calls modern day slavery, is the
second largest and fastest growing illicit activity in the world. Women and girls are
disproportionately affected by trafficking, as criminal syndicates exploit women and girls in
marginalized socioeconomic conditions, coercing women and girls into sexual slavery and/or
forced labor. When women and girls are trafficked for the purpose of sexual slavery and
prostitution, it is called sex trafficking. This phenomenon has not been absent in China.
According to a 2008 U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), over
ten thousand to twenty thousand victims are trafficked internally each year (U.S. Department of
State 2008, TIP Report 91). Even more concerning is the fact that over 90 percent of human
trafficking victims in China are women and children, mostly from poor, rural provinces, who are
trafficked to wealthier urban and coastal provinces primarily for sexual exploitation; women are
also trafficked into rural areas to be sold as brides to unwed men (Tiefenbrun 2008, 254).
Trafficking in persons is the most profitable illicit activity in China, which generates more than
seven billion dollars annually, surpassing the revenues of drug and arms trafficking. There are
also regional and international elements to sex trafficking in China, as Chinese women and girls
are trafficked regionally to Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan and upon their arrival are
forced into prostitution. Internationally, trafficked Chinese women and girls have been found as
far as Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and North America in horrendous
conditions of sexual slavery (Tiefenbrun 2008, 254).

Unfortunately, the illicit activity of sex trafficking in China does not seem to be on the
decline. There are a plethora of reasons this is so, including a patriarchal Chinese culture,
government corruption, domestic and international demand for sex workers, and flawed
government policy, among many other reasons. Thus, I will argue that sex trafficking in women
and girls in China will continue to persist due to: (1) domestic, regional, and international
demand for women as sex workers and brides; (2) the One Child Policy (OCP) and a patriarchal
Chinese tradition of boy preference that skews sex ratios; (3) government corruption that limits
state capacity to combat sex trafficking; (4) the influence of economic liberalization, which
prevents womens socioeconomic equality; and (5) a failed government policy that punishes the
victims of trafficking (i.e., the supply-side) rather than men who purchase sexual services (i.e.,
the demand-side) from trafficked women and children.
Unless the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) takes measures to reverse the socioeconomic
and political trends that permit the sex trafficking of women and girls in China, the illicit activity
of sex trafficking will continue and bring huge profits to criminal syndicates while the human
rights of Chinese women and girls are violated. As China reemerges as a global economic and
political power, it will have to ensure that half of its population is able to contribute to the
sustainable development of Chinas political, social, and economic spheres. The human rights of
Chinese women and children have been violated by acts of sex trafficking, and its occurrence has
created a culture of fear that limits the actions of women and children and prevents gender
equality (Tiefenbrun 2008, 269). Xin Ren also argues that the social impact of prostitution is
disastrous, bringing an increase in AIDS and sexually transmitted infections, a rise in organized
crime, and drug trafficking and use (Ren 1999, 1421-4). It is imperative that the PRC prevent
acts of sex trafficking in order to secure the human rights of women and children and promote

social harmony and stability. The trafficking of women and children in China is what the U.S.
Department of State TIP Report names as one of the most significant problems in China (U.S.
Department of State 2008, TIP Report 91).
Definition of Sex Trafficking
The U.S. Department of State defines sex trafficking as: the recruitment, harboring,
transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.1 In
China, there are two major types of sex trafficking. First, women and children are often
trafficked into the commercial sex industry, where they serve as prostitutes and san pei ladies
(i.e., call girls) (Ren 1999, 1427). Second and most predominately, women and girls are
trafficked into the countryside, where they are purchased as brides by peasant men, often in
villages with large gender imbalances (Tiefenbrun 2008, 254-5). Although there are many other
forms of trafficking in persons that occur in China, the Southeast Asian region, and
internationally, I limit this work to the two sub-types presented above for conceptual clarity and
to maintain brevity.
Why Sex Trafficking in China Will Persist
Unless the PRC government bureaucracy and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership
take adequate measures to address the following five problems that cause and perpetuate sex
trafficking, the sex trafficking of women and girls within, into, and out of China will persist.
National, Regional, and International Demand
The male-driven demand for women and girls within China, both as sex workers and brides,
has been increasing drastically within the last thirty years. In rural areas of China, the majority of
women and girls are trafficked into these regions as potential brides for unmarried men. This is

U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Definitions, available at: [accessed 10 May 2010].

because of a large gender imbalancein some areas of China it is as high as 120 males to every
100 femalescreated by the OCP and the expense of traditional weddings and dowry gifts,
which can be ten times more expensive than purchasing a trafficked woman as a bride
(Tiefenbrun 2008, 254-5). Also, there have been cases of rural, peasant families that raise their
children in order to sell as brides to local men in their villages, allowing them to pay off debts or
have a male child (Biddulph and Cook 1999, 1441). In urban areas of China, the demand is
higher for women in sex industries, especially as prostitutes and san pei ladies. As these cities
experience increasing economic growth, government and business employees often seek the
sexual services of prostitutes and san pei ladies. Corporations are even known to entertain
international business clients by hiring san pei ladies or sexually exploiting female employees
from within their offices (Ren 1999, 1426).
Throughout the Southeast Asian region, there has been a proliferating demand for women in
the sex industry, which leads to many Chinese women being trafficked out of China into
neighboring Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan. Many women are promised legitimate and
lucrative jobs in neighboring countries, but upon arrival these women and girls are forced into
sexual slavery (Tiefenbrum 2008, 255). Women and girls in the southern provinces of China are
often trafficked into northern Thailand, Malaysia, and Hong Kong due to demand from
international businessmen and foreign tourists. Citizens of and tourists in these neighboring
states demand younger girls for sexual services because of the myth of having sex with a young
virgin can restore their youth and because of the fear of HIV (Matsui 1999, 22).
International sex trafficking of Chinese women and girls to Africa, Europe, Latin America,
the Middle East and North America is also on the rise. These women are often promised
lucrative, legitimate jobs in Asia that fail to materialize and are subsequently enslaved and

trafficked by international organized crime to various destinations around the globe; once
trafficked into the destination country, they are forced into prostitution (Liu and Finckenauer
2010, 97). For example, the high demand for ethnic Chinese women in sex work causes a large
number of Chinese girls to be trafficked from China to Netherlands and Germany, with 4,835
and 10,000 girls, respectively, enslaved in the sex industry (Hughes 2005, 55). Sex trafficking is
an illicit criminal enterprise that provides women (i.e., the supply) to male customers (i.e., the
demand). Thus, the national, regional, and international demand for Chinese women in sex
industries ultimately contributes to and perpetuates the violation of Chinese womens human
rights through acts of sex trafficking.
One Child Policy and Patriarchal Influence
In China, it can be argued that the PRCs OCP and the Chinese cultural preference for
boys has contributed to a rise in sex trafficking. Most experts argue that the OCP increases the
national demand explained in the above section. The Chinese cultural preference for boys
compounds this effect by increasing gender imbalances between boys and girls, which can be as
high as 130 males to 100 females in some provinces, with a ratio of 117 males to 100 females
nationally (Hughes 2005, 59). It is appropriate to consider the influence of both phenomena as
contributing to an increase of sex trafficking into and within China to compensate for these
gender imbalances.
The CCP implemented the OCP in 1979 to curb its population growth because the CCP
believed such growth would lead to political instability and social unrest. Under this policy,
couples are forbidden to have more than one child, although the policy was revised in 2004,
allowing one in urban areas, two in rural areas, and three in ethnic regions (although
contingencies exist to have more than one child) (Tiefenbrum 2008, 258, 266). Despite the recent

changes, the CCP promotes the sacrifice of only having one child as obedience to duty and an
expression of the love of ones country (Tiefenbrum 2008, 259). This is similar to early
discussions of human rights during the early 1900s in the last years of the Qing Dynasty that
included women within their discourse. Women were seen as individuals who could participate
in the liberation of the Chinese nation from Manchu rule and imperial occupation during the rise
of Nationalist Party. However, womens equality was subsequently subsumed under the
nationalist movement for Chinese liberation from the Manchu rule. This is comparable to current
CCP rhetoric, which champions womens rights in theory while at the same time permits the
human rights violations of women under the OCP and nationalist goals in practice (Hershatter
2007, 82-4; Svensson 2002, 105-6). Women who illegally have more than one child face a
variety of coercion measures by the government. Upon discovering women who are secretly
pregnant, the PRCs All China Womens Federation (ACWF) will force Chinese women to
undergo abortions and subsequently sterilize deviant women without written consent (Amnesty
International, Forced Sterilization, 22 April 2010). The PRC, however, also offers economic
incentives for families to have only one child. Parents who comply with the OCP have been
offered government signing bonuses, subsidized healthcare payments until the child is
fourteen, milk subsidies for young children, childcare subsidies, and free government education
and healthcare (Hughes 2005, 55-6). Through both carrots and sticks, the OCP encourages
families to have only one child.
The Chinese cultural preference for boys, influenced by a patriarchal culture, exacerbates
the effects of the OCP, causing skewed gender ratios which contribute to an increase in domestic
and regional sex trafficking of women and girls. Addressing patriarchy in China, a Chinese
feminist scholar, Jin Yihong, asserts that there is a social structure of power relationships in

China that permit men to dominate women in familial units and the broader society. Moreover,
women are blamed for the violence that is committed against them by Chinese men. These
patriarchal concepts in Chinese culture permit male domination and female subordination, which
have an impact on how sex trafficking and prostitution are viewed by a majority of Chinese
citizens (Yuan 2005, 94). In China, it is common for trafficked women to be disowned by their
families upon their safe return home. Relatives view the daughters trafficking as a loss of face
to the family and treat the incident of sex trafficking as the fault of the victim. This is a
widespread attitude toward sex trafficking victims in China (Tiefenbrun 2008, 258). Womens
inferiority is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and is reflected in the Confucian Five Classics,
which explicitly states womens inferiority vis--vis men (Tiefenbrum 2008, 249). For example
in the Confucian Antalects, one passage asserts that women and servants are comparable:
The Master said, Of all people, girls and servants are the most difficult to behave to. If
you are familiar with them, they lose their humility. If you maintain a reserve towards
them, they are discontented (Cited in Koh 2008, 350).
The cultural legitimizing of womens inequality and boy preference in Confucian culture in part
perpetuates a patriarchal Chinese society.
Besides China having a patriarchal society, the preference for boys is rooted in traditional
Chinese culture and practices. This is because boys are able to pass on the family name and are
needed for labor in the rural agrarian context. In Chinese culture, young adults in rural villages
cannot choose whom they marry. Often, parents save money to purchase a wife for their son,
which Lijun Yuan argues makes women objectscommodities evento be purchased (Yuan
2005, 92). Daughters are married off and take care of their husbands parents in their old age;
sons not only take care of their own parents in old age, but carry on the family name and legacy
(Wiseman 2002). This has skewed the gender ratios in China because of boy preference, and it is

estimated that by 2020 there will be over fifteen percent of men30 to 40 millionwithout a
female partner (Hughes 2005, 60). The OCP, coupled with the Chinese tradition of boy
preference and a patriarchal society, contributes in part to the rise in sex trafficking of women
and girls in China.
Chinese Communist Party Corruption
The CCP has been ineffective in combating and even complicit in acts of sex trafficking
in China, which in part has contributed to the proliferation of this illicit activity. Underfunded
anti-trafficking units, local government corruption, and the institutionalization of prostitution
have drastically impacted how the PRC combats sex trafficking in women and girls. Jack
Donnelly argues that the denial of civil and political rights causes unbridled corruption in
authoritarian states, as the electorate is unable to challenge the economic policies and rampant
corruption of the ruling party (Donnelly 1999, 73). In China, unbridled government corruption
(due to little electoral pressure for transparency and accountability with government finances)
prevents government officials from adequately addressing the sex trafficking of women and
The PRC contributes few resourceshuman, financial, or technical assistanceto
government anti-trafficking units. It even hinders anti-trafficking operations. The Chinese central
government has been known to prevent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and
international organizations from providing material and technical supports to victims of sex
trafficking (U.S. Department of State 2009, TIP Report China). Often, under-funded NGOs are
responsible for identifying victims of sex trafficking, as local PRC offices are unable to mobilize
the resources to effectively identify sex trafficking victims from domestic sex workers (Lagon
2007, Trafficking in China). Women who are identified as trafficking victims along Chinese

borders are routinely cited for immigration violations, fined, and deported back to their country
of originthe UN High Commission for Refugees cites this as a violation of humane treatment
to refugees under international law (U.S. Department of State 2009, TIP Report China).
Overwhelmed by combating other illicit activities, state attention and policy priority are diverted
to combating drug trafficking and use, organized crime, corruption, and violent crime rather than
mobilizing resources for combating the sex trafficking of women and girls (Biddulph and Cook
1999, 1453).
Throughout China, the problem of corrupt, local government officials allows illicit sex
trafficking syndicates to operate unabated. Ren argues that the Chinese tradition of guanxi (i.e.,
interpersonal relationship or connections) results in civil servants and law enforcement personnel
subverting an already weak rule of law (Ren 1999, 1429). Thus, many public officials not only
ignore the existence of prostitution and sex trafficking in some areas, but warn organized crime
of law enforcement investigations in traffickers areas of operation (Ren 1999, 1430). Local
government officials have also been known to hire prostitutes and san pei ladies for sexual
services, which is often paid for through public finances (Ibid.). In some cases, local government
officials even participate within sex trafficking syndicates, tipping off crime bosses of possible
routes to avoid detection. As a result, these local officials drastically increase their personal
wealth while concurrently perpetuating the sex trafficking industry (Tiefenbrun 2008, 256).
There has been a recent policy shift in the PRC to institutionalize and thus regulate the
Chinese sex work industry, which has in part contributed to an increase of sex trafficking to
these government-institutionalized sex work sectors. Currently, there are regulations of hotels
and bars, taxation on san pei ladies and other sex workers, and mandatory AIDS tests for sex
workers. There have even been high-level government advisors that have called for the complete


legalization of prostitution and other sex work industries (Ren 1999, 1431). Ineffective antitrafficking units, government corruption, and the institutionalization of sex work industries have
in part exacerbated the trafficking of women and girls for prostitution in urban areas and as
brides in rural areas of China.
Economic Liberalization
The impact of economic liberalization in China affects many aspects of womens lives,
and increases the sex trafficking of Chinese women and girls. Economic liberalization has eroded
the iron rice bowl, increased costs of living and reduced wages, and caused a mass migration
of Chinese citizens from the countryside to urban centers, all of which contribute to the
proliferation of sex trafficking in women and girls in China.
The shift from the iron rice bowli.e., a state-guaranteed jobto economic
liberalization beginning in 1978 onward has profoundly impacted the status of women and girls
in China (Ren 1999, 1425). Ghai attributes this phenomenon to a lack of political pressure to
reach a compromise between capitalism and socialism that is usually found in European social
democracies. Due to the authoritarian nature of the CCP, economic liberalization occurred at a
breakneck pace, stripping away the infrastructure of the iron rice bowl (Ghai 1999, 257-8).
Unemployment is now a reality due to the erosion of state welfare and employment and women
were the first to be fired when market forces cause layoffs to become necessary in state-owned
enterprises (Ren 1999, 1425). Although women are able to find various types of employment in
urban areas of China, they are systematically discriminated against in industrial occupations
types of employment that pay livable wages and most often go to men. Typical employment is
found in manufacturing work and domestic help; thus, Chinese women are paid much less than
men in urban areas of China. Low wages and unemployment interact to economically


marginalize many Chinese women in urban areas (Ren 1999, 1425).There has been a massive
migration of rural migrants who seek better employment opportunities within Chinese urban
centers. These migrants are often without documents because they are unable to legally migrate
within Chinathis leaves many unidentifiable women and girls vulnerable to sex trafficking
(Liu and Fickenauer 2010, 97). These three economic developments in part allow sex trafficking
to flourish in China.
The erosion of state employment, unequal wages, and internal migration has seriously
harmed the economic well-being of many Chinese women and girls. This leaves families,
women, and girls in desperate situations. Rural families have been known to sell their daughters
to trafficking syndicates to pay off familial debt or even buy luxury goods (Tiefenbrun 2008,
255). Young women are lured in by traffickers with promises of legitimate jobs that do not
materialize. Once women are trafficked to the destination country, they are enslaved, raped, and
forced to engage in prostitution to pay off incurred debts that traffickers label transportation
costs (Liu and Finckenauer 2010, 97). This leaves women enslaved for years at a time, until
these victims escape, are found by law enforcement authorities, contract HIV or other sexuallytransmitted infections, or die due to deplorable conditions for trafficked women and girls.
Finally, sex trafficking in women and girls has drastically increased in China because it is a
relatively risk-free enterprise that produces enormous profits for the criminals involved.
Economic liberalization and the job losses that followed ultimately contributed to a large surge in
sex trafficking as another source of income for unemployed men (Ren 1999, 1423). Ghai also
believes that economic liberalization, which brought new technologies such as the internet,
allowed sex trafficking to become a truly global enterprise. Sex traffickers exploit the technology
to contact customers as far away as North America (Ghai 1999, 242).


Failures of PRC Supply-Side Policies

The PRCs policies to combat sex trafficking in women and girls are beset with legal
loopholes and soft penalties. Combined with corrupt local law enforcement, the policies of the
PRC remain ineffective and one-sidedonly the supply side of sex trafficking (prostitutes and
traffickers) is culpable under the Chinese regime.
In the 1950s through 1990, the CCP issued a statutory mandate that claimed women
prostitutes were victims of male exploitation and such women should not be punished, but rather
treated and rehabilitated. The early Criminal Law in Sections 139, 140, and 169 only punished
individuals who exploited women through prostitution or prevented the detection of prostitution
rings (Ren 1999, 1417). Responding to the health threats and social ills that prostitution created
in Chinese society in 1991, the Standing Committee of the 7th National Peoples Congress (NPC)
passed the Decision on the Standing Committee of the NPC on the Prohibition of Prostitution
and Visiting Prostitutes. The Decision criminalized prostitution and carried heavy penalties for
women who were found to be engaging in the now-illicit activity (Ren 1999, Ibid.). Thus, this
legal development has caused thousands of trafficked women and girls to be labeled visiting
prostitutes by the regime, which results in huge fines and eventual deportation (U.S.
Department of State 2009, TIP Report China). If trafficked women and girls escape from their
captors, they are often reluctant to go to the police for the fear of being labeled a prostitute and
deported to their country of origin. This gives trafficked women and girls few options to regain
their freedom when trafficked into and within China (Emerton, Laidler, and Petersen 2007, 74).
Laws that punish trafficked women and girls for prostitution ultimately shield traffickers from
punishment and perpetuate the trafficking of women and girls.


Compounding the problem further is the fact that few male customers are punished for
the purchase of sexual favors from prostitutes and other sex workers in the Chinese legal system.
As a result of the rarity of punishment for purchasing prostitutes services or a bride, Chinese
men are rarely concerned about legal sanctions for their actions (Minkang 2008, 57). When men
are caught purchasing a bride, the authorities often overlook the offense or the surrounding
community views the man as a victim of theft for his wife being confiscated by the authorities.
Although the purchase of a trafficked woman for a bride is a criminal offense in China, the man
purchasing a bride must have known prior to the purchase that the women or girl was
traffickedthis legal loophole allows most men apprehended by law enforcement to escape
punishment (Biddulph and Cook 1999, 1460). The lack of punishment for the demand-side of
sex trafficking fuels the proliferation of trafficking in women and girls and prevents its
The Sex trafficking of women and girls is the largest illicit enterprise within China. It is
the role of the CCP to address the increase of the trafficking of women and girls for sexual
slavery but to date the Chinese government has failed to ameliorate the rates of sex trafficking
within, into, and out of the mainland. Sex trafficking in women and girls will continue in China
because of the male-driven national, regional, and international demand for trafficked women,
the OCP and Chinese tradition of boy preference, widespread local governmental corruption, the
marginalizing impact of economic liberalization for women and girls, and the supply-side
prohibition policies of illegal immigration and prostitution. It will only be when the CCP
addresses these issues in concert that we will begin to see a decline in the levels of trafficking in
women and girls for prostitution and brides in China. Alas, for now, the human rights of Chinese


women and girls are being violated throughout China and the globe as sex trafficking continues
without a proper response from the CCP.


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