Profit Making Disguised as Rehabilitation: The Biopolitics of Homo Sacer in China’s Custody Education Program for Sex Workers

AuthorEileen Yuk-ha Tsang
Published date01 January 2020
Date01 January 2020
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17jyLcBHtKzgyo/input 882291TPJXXX10.1177/0032885519882291The Prison JournalTsang
The Prison Journal
2020, Vol. 100(1) 27 –48
Profit Making Disguised
© 2019 SAGE Publications
Article reuse guidelines:
as Rehabilitation: The
DOI: 10.1177/0032885519882291
Biopolitics of Homo
Sacer in China’s Custody
Education Program for
Sex Workers
Eileen Yuk-ha Tsang1
In China, low- and medium-income sex workers are routinely detained
in custody education centers and subjected to institutional violence and
exploitation. There are disparities between the official intentions of
custody education and its implementation, rendering custody education
more as a moneymaking enterprise than a mechanism for rehabilitation.
Interviews with sex workers who have experienced custody education
confirm this disconnect. The result is that sex workers become homo
sacer, a figure stripped of political status and societal recognition. The
findings suggest needed changes regarding human rights and the criminal
justice system in China.
female sex workers, biopolitics, homo sacer, custody education, police,
1City University of Hong Kong, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Corresponding Author:
Eileen Yuk-ha Tsang, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, City University of Hong
Kong, Tae Chee Avenue, Kowloon, Hong Kong.

The Prison Journal 100(1)
I met Lotus (39) privately at Peach Bar, the bar where I conducted the bulk
of my research on the low-tier sex industry in Dongguan. As I followed Lotus
into a private room, I admired her ability to walk gracefully in her 5-inch
platform heels. A man loitering in the hallway took an interest in seeing two
women enter the same room together, but simply stood and stared. The room
was dark and reeked of moldy cigarettes, mildew, and laundry detergent. As
Lotus shared her life story, she revealed—with teary eyes—that the money
she made from sex work allowed her to support her 16-year-old daughter. I
was not sure how to react. Should I sit a little closer to her and give her a sup-
portive hug, or would that be crossing a line? Instead, I kept still and stayed
silent. She took a step toward me and sat down. In an even voice, she said, “Is
it really difficult to become a sex worker? It’s not like someone made the
choice for me. But I think if I had other options I would not be doing this.” I
tried to console her by lightly patting her shoulder, and she flashed a tight
smile at me. After a brief silence, she remarked, “I am going to tell you what
I experienced in the custody center.” As she began to confide in me and show
her trust, I cemented the deal by asking for a drag of her cigarette. As we
shared the cigarette, Lotus confided her experience of being detained in a
custody education center.
The center is at an undisclosed and isolated location somewhere in
Dongguan. Operating as a cross between a prison and a factory, Lotus faced
an exhausting work schedule and substandard living conditions. Over the
course of her 6-month-long detention, Lotus worked 12 hr daily with no
breaks. She was given tedious tasks to complete for a nearby factory. She
had to stack, wrap, or pack paper towels, Christmas items, disposable chop-
sticks, and cooking utensils. Other shifts, she had to fold paper flowers and
even sew jeans at the sweatshop rate of 140 pair per hour! The laborious
conditions forced Lotus to desperately seek help in creative ways such as
the following:
I once slipped a written note into a jeans pocket. I hoped the foreigner who
might buy the jeans would report this inhumane treatment to the mass media. I
know most of the jeans I was making were shipped to the USA or Europe. I
cannot say one word here in China. People would think I am an idiot, and they
won’t believe me as I was an inmate. The note said [in Chinese]: “Dear customer,
if you buy these jeans and see this note, please help me and spread this message
to the world: I am a sex worker and am now being held in a custody center to do
sewing work. I work 12 hours a day, seven days a week; each hour I have to sew
140 pairs of jeans, I only enjoy one day off per month. I am paid less than US$2
per day! However, our boss—the Chief of Police—receives lucrative profits

from the factory boss. China is the only country in the world running custody
centers as such a lucrative business. It is not only for myself, but for the
thousands of people kept in custody education centers in China who are under
the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government. I thank you for
your help” . . . (Lotus, 39, low-end female sex worker)
Over the course of my research, numerous female sex workers—primarily
streetwalkers and workers from the low- and mid-tier commercial sex indus-
try—provided strikingly similar accounts. They described the exploitation
and, sometimes, violence they experienced in being charged by police for
solicitation and sale of sex work, then subsequently detained in custody cen-
ters. Custody education centers deploy many of the founding ideas that reed-
ucation through labor camps utilized. The centers, unlike the prison system,
were conceptualized and designed to prioritize the rehabilitation process
(Smith, 2012) and target “criminals” who have committed nonviolent crimes.
These “criminals” have typically been compromised due to their economic,
health, and social positionality. This category of criminals includes sex work-
ers, beggars, and drug users (Tsang, 2019a; Tsang, 2019c; Tsang et al., 2019a;
Tsang et al., 2019b).
Unlike prisons, custody education is intended to offer an environment
wherein detainees can develop practical life skills and access services and
education that will allow them to seek a better life after they leave the center
(Asia Catalyst, 2013; Smith, 2012). Custody education employs punishment
guidelines for offenders charged with offenses related to sex work. If the
offense is deemed “minor,” the detention may be 1 week or a fine of 500
yuan or less (Human Rights Watch, 2013). For typical “normal” offenses,
detentions can last anywhere from 10 to 15 days and include fines up to
5,000 yuan (Human Rights Watch, 2013). Repeat offenders under reeduca-
tion through labor camps (RTLC) may have to serve a sentence from 6
months to 2 years; otherwise, offenders with a limited record may serve their
detention under an “educational administrative measure,” which can also
last between 6 months and 2 years (Human Rights Watch, 2013). The normal
maximum sentence in a custody education center is 2 years, although in rare
cases, an offender may be detained longer than this period. Despite the lack
of detailed information, experts estimate that anywhere from 18,000 to
28,000 women are sent to detention centers each year. The number of the
centers grew to 200 by 2005 (Zhang, 2014). Similar to custody education,
the procedural rights of prisoners are also routinely violated and ignored by
the judicial system. In addition to the lack of protections detainees receive in
terms of their options regarding legal proceedings, they also must negotiate
a detention culture riddled with abuse and exploitation between staff and

The Prison Journal 100(1)
offenders (Tsang et al., 2019b; Tsang, 2019b; Tsang, 2019b). The decentral-
ization of custody education means that there is minimal oversight of deten-
tion centers. This has resulted in detainees being given inappropriate forms
of punishment and inadequate protection. Furthermore, these circumstances
and lack of oversight have made detention centers an opportune space to
facilitate corruption.
In the niche body of literature that tackles the commercial sex industry,
there is insufficient attention devoted to the abusive practices directed toward
sex workers detained in custody education centers in Asia or in China, except
some labor and factory regime and gender organization of global service
work in China. There is limited literature published in English that mentions
the operational mismanagement of these custody centers, the exploitative
deals made between law enforcement and commercial factories, and the daily
and systematic violence directed toward vulnerable offenders (Tsang, 2019e).
The dearth of literature on sex workers’ experiences in custody education
center is hardly surprising. It is not that scholars or public health profession-
als lack interest in this subject, but access to custody centers and the Mainland
criminal justice system is so limited, they become relatively invisible.
To understand the ideological and political impact of custody education
centers and their effect on the lived experience of sex workers and their iden-
tities in the public sphere, the notion of homo sacer serves as a generative
conceptual tool. The figure of the homo sacer articulated by Giorgio Agamben
(1998) provides an intriguing explanation as to why sex workers are excluded
from public discourse. Agamben wrestles with the impact of this exclusion
and how such exclusion articulates a moralistic notion of acceptability and a
particular societal imaginary. The full complexity of the homo sacer suggests
violence against them is entirely permissible. The homo sacer is a figure who
has been stripped of political status and has no legitimate standing. These
centers ultimately prioritize financial and personal needs of local law...

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