One recent afternoon, 10 "working girls" gathered in a northern Chinese city at the offices of a non-governmental organisation, one of the few in the country that has dedicated itself to helping female sex workers. The women, mostly in their middle to late 30s, chatted away as they enjoyed a rare break from their daily grind at massage or beauty parlours. They come mostly from poverty-stricken villages in China's hinterland.
Organised by the NGO, the gathering was to commemorate International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and, more importantly, to share experiences and learn how to deal with the women's biggest problem - the police.
After the Communists took power in 1949, they launched a series of campaigns that succeeded in all but eliminating prostitution in China. However, prostitution has made a spectacular resurgence in the past two decades due to growing wealth and looser social controls, even though it is still illegal. Campaigns of "Sweeping away Yellow" (the colour representing prostitution) come and go in waves.
At the gathering, one woman from Sichuan tearfully described how a client got her drunk before raping her. When she complained to the owner of the massage parlour, the businesswoman blamed her for not having charged the client. "Yong Gan", the head of the NGO and a former prostitute herself, said that violence poses the biggest threat to sex workers. Some clients feel they can do whatever they want to the girls.
The vast majority of prostitutes in China work independently, without a pimp or organisation controlling them. That means there's no protection, either, from clients or the much more common threat - violence at the hands of the police.
One Hubei woman who calls herself Mei told how one night last month, three policemen raided her massage parlour and claimed to have found evidence that she had sold sex that night. Mei was taken to a police station and interrogated, but denied the charge. To force her to confess, she was hit and kicked before being sprayed with a high-pressure water jet.
After two of the policemen left, the third said that he was seeking money, and asked how much she could pay. Mei, knowing that it was common practice to pay a fine or bribe, said she could afford 2,000 yuan (HK$2,500). The policeman then coerced her into having sex before she was released the next morning. Mei thought that was the end of it but, a few days later, the officer turned up and demanded his money.
I've heard many similar stories during my research for a book on the daily life of working girls. One woman in Shenzhen told me how, after she had lost consciousness from a beating, a policeman poured mustard in her nose to wake her up. Another talked about her near-death experience after a plastic bag was placed over her head and her nose was pinched.
Last month, Yong Gan learned that a woman had died of a heart attack at a police station. Her family was convinced she had been tortured. Many such women, particularly those working in low-class establishments, live in constant fear of police raids, arrests and the inevitable acts of humiliation and violence that follow.
"This violence is very common because there is no recourse - the police hold all the power, and the girls, at the lowest rung of the social ladder, have none," according to Richard Burger, author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China. The major problem is the vagueness surrounding the legality of prostitution. In theory, prostitutes should be treated as criminals only if they sell sex while knowingly carrying a venereal disease, or if a minor under the age of 14 is involved - whereas those involved in organising prostitution activities can be severely punished.
As prostitution has expanded, various laws and regulations have been passed since 1987. In 1991, for example, the "Decision on Strictly Forbidding the Buying and Selling of Sex" was introduced, under which those convicted were subject to a jail term of between six months and two years. It followed the Chinese system of shourong jiaoyu - or administrative sanctions - which is similar to the notorious laogai system of forced labour camps, where people are jailed without trial for minor offences.
Then in 2005, a new regulation was brought in to clarify and reduce the penalties: those involved in buying or selling sex would face between 10 and 15 days' detention, with a possible fine of up to 5,000 yuan. For less serious offences, a maximum of five days' detention and a fine of up to 500 yuan was stipulated.
However, in reality, the new law hasn't replaced the older one. In addition, local authorities follow their own provincial rulings. All this, together with the lack of supervision and transparency, leaves plenty of scope for corruption and abuse of power.
International NGOs and human rights organisations have hit out at Beijing for failing to comply with the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. Some have even called for prostitution to be legalised. Yong Gan, however, knows that's unrealistic. "The working girls are not even treated as human beings in China," she said.
Her organisation, founded in 2008 with funding from an international charity, offers free condoms to the women, educates them about safe sex and provides support. Right now, she says, they are also trying to arm the women with knowledge of the law and tactics for avoiding trouble. For the women, the NGO is a place to turn to in times of need. But the NGO stands on a fragile base; it also exists in a grey zone - which is why Yong Gan doesn't even dare reveal the identity of her organisation.
Without the rule of law in China, the elimination of violence against working girls seems a distant dream.
Lijia Zhang is a Beijing-based writer, commentator and author of Socialism is Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China