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GLOBAL | summer 2007

Hong Kong Hustle
Impoverished Chinese women migrate to island city for sex work

THE WORLD’S FASTESTgrowing economy is not without its dark side. Despite efforts toward what China’s President Hu Jintao called “social equality,” the income gap continues to grow between rich and poor, urbanites and farmers, coastal dwellers and inland residents. For some women living in rural China, that income gap has made prostitution seem a path, albeit an uneasy one, toward a better life.

Hong Kong has been a preferred destination for these women. In the 10 years since the transfer of its sovereignty to China, there has been a steady, voluntary migration of mainland Chinese women to Hong Kong—to hustle. While the opening of the border between the mainland and the city was a crucial factor, the true siren call is quick money.

“They come to Hong Kong because they are told they can make money directly from the sex work industry,” says Karen Joe Laidler, a criminologist at the University of Hong Kong. “More money than they make in China.”

Another factor is competition, says Elise Chung from the “sex-worker” rights group Zi Teng. Single mothers and married women are most of those seeking her organization’s help, and most are older. “They don’t go to other cities in China because it’s usually very difficult to find work, especially if you are over a certain age,” Chung explains.

Hong Kong has also become a destination for pregnant women, but in January 2007, the city ruled that pregnant mainland women nearing their due dates would be turned away at the border if they couldn’t prove they had hospital appointments. The number of births by mainland women in Hong Kong nearly doubled in 2005, from 10,128 in 2003 to 19,538, with many coming to evade China’s one-child policy, for better quality health care, or to gain Hong Kong residency rights for their children.

An official census on migrant prostitution workers doesn’t exist, but one way to gauge such numbers is by looking at Hong Kong’s prison population. Laidler, with law professors Carole Petersen from University of Hawaii and Robyn Emerton from University of Hong Kong, has authored a new study: “Bureaucratic Justice: The Incarceration of Mainland Chinese Women Working in Hong Kong’s Sex Industry,” published in a recent issue of the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology.

The report indicates that mainland women suspected of prostitution account for about 75 percent of the women inmates in Hong Kong. The year 2003 was a watershed: Hong Kong introduced the “Individual Visit Scheme,” allowing tourists from selected Chinese cities to visit for seven to 14 days. (Previously, Chinese visitors could enter only with a business visa or on group tours.) Conceived to revitalize a post-SARS epidemic economy, the new tourist visa attracted more than 10 million mainland visitors in 2005 alone, up from 6.8 million in 2002.

The number of mainland women jailed in the city also increased, from a little over 6,000 inmates in 2002 to more than 10,000 sentenced in 2006 for soliciting or violating their condition of stay. In Hong Kong, prostitution in the form of a one-woman brothel is not illegal. But soliciting is, and the offense has become synonymous with prostitution.

In 2005, the number of mainland women arrested dropped to almost 7,000, which was attributed to better law enforcement and immigration control. But Zi Teng’s Chung claims the figure is imprecise, as the women are changing their mode of operation to dodge the law—for instance, using third parties to find them clients. She adds that unreasonable lawenforcement methods and a hasty court process have put many innocent women behind bars.

Either way, the women find themselves increasingly shortchanged. “Most of the women we know want to make whatever they can in a week and return [to China],” Chung says. “But…it’s actually really hard for them to make enough money to leave.”