With a billion consumers, China is a land where everything can be bought and sold, and sex is no exception. Alongside pirated movies and blue jeans, the exchange of carnal pleasures for money is a pillar of China’s capitalist boom. But its workers toil underground, often in extraordinarily abusive conditions. Now, a lone voice for China’s sex workers is being gagged on the eve of her appearance at the International AIDS Conference in Australia—an echo of the painful silence surrounding China’s hidden human rights crisis.
Ye Haiyan, who goes by the online alias Hooligan Sparrow, is known for raising hell to defend sex workers from exploitation and violence, as well as for her pioneering outreach work on HIV/AIDS. She has been effectively denied permission to attend the AIDS Conference in Melbourne. Evidently the Chinese government has “blacklisted” her from traveling abroad, continuing a growing pattern of suppressing dissidents.
Ye’s planned presentation at the conference focused on the theme of “sex workers as human rights defenders.” Her work takes a harm-reduction approach, emphasizing the public health imperative of engaging sex workers in fighting HIV/AIDS, and the structural oppression fueling the spread of the epidemic globally.
Although sex work has thrived in China since dynastic times, its modern incarnation has become a flashpoint for prickly political and cultural tensions. From stereotypical seedy brothels to the highest circles of Chinese officialdom, there is burgeoning market for sexual services wherever there are people willing to pay. But as in the West, sex workers are systematically disenfranchised as citizens and economic actors. Ye shed a harsh light on these workers’ struggles in 2012 by blogging about her experience living as a sex-worker-for-a-day in the southern city of Wuhan, documenting the hardships and abuse faced by both the workers and the poor farmers and migrant laborers they served.
On her blog (quoted in The Daily Beast), she recalled watching a colleague get swept away by authorities: “I felt useless…. I watched my sisters being plundered by the police and there was nothing I could do to help them.”
According to a 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation on China’s sex workers, sex workers told researchers of “arbitrary fines, of [having their] possession of condoms used as evidence against them, of being detained following sex with undercover police officers, and of having almost no hope of winning remedies for rights violations by clients, bosses, or state agents [a well as] high risks of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.”