A U.S.-based rights groups has called on the Chinese government to end the arbitrary detention of sex workers, who can currently be held for up to two years without trial under the guise of "re-education."
While the ruling Chinese Communist Party abolished its controversial "re-education through labor" camp-based punishment system at the end of 2013, a similar system remains in place under another name.
The Chinese government should abolish the "Custody and Education" system used to detain primarily sex workers for up to two years without trial, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement ahead of the opening of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), this week.
The statement also called on Beijing to abolish all other official and unofficial forms of arbitrary detention.
It cited a December recommendation from the NPC standing committee's Legislative Affairs Commission, which said the 27-year-old system should go.
Its progress towards its original aim of "preventing the spread of adverse social mores" had diminished over the years, the recommendation said.
The law allows for sentences of up to two years in Custody and Education centers, where offenders are supposed to receive educational support, including vocational training, health checks, and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
"In practice, Custody and Education often entails forced labor, physical and sexual violence, and psychological abuse," HRW said.
Solicitation, and the sale and purchase of sex, are illegal under Chinese law, although most offenses are regarded as administrative rather than criminal.
Most sex workers are punished with fines and short periods of police custody or administrative detention, according to HRW.
China researcher Yaqiu Wang told RFA that the government’s practice of arbitrarily detaining people without trial violates both the Chinese constitution and international human rights law.
"The purpose is to educate people, but actually that's not what this does," Wang said. "Instead, the system puts people into forced labor."
Wang said HRW has received reports of torture and abuse from "Custody and Education" centers in the past.
Beijing-based lawyer Cheng Hai said arbitrary detention, though prevalent in China, is against the law.
"Restrictions on personal freedom can only be stipulated by law, that is, a legal form passed by the NPC," Cheng said. "Other institutions, the State Council, and various ministries have no right to make such a decision."
Cheng said the maximum of two years' detention in "Custody and Education" centers exceeds maximum penalties imposed by China's Criminal Law for minor criminal offenses.
HRW's Wang also called for an end to arbitrary and incommunicado detention, which the Chinese government routinely uses to silence and intimidate its critics.
"Under residential surveillance at a designated location, that is often being used now, someone can be held for up to six months without trial," Wang said.
She said arbitrary detention is also used within China's official disciplinary regime, now known as the National Supervision Commission, where it is called "detention."
"People are imprisoned in black jails," she said, in a reference to unofficial detention centers used to control petitioners, ordinary people who complain about the government. "This is arbitrary detention," she said.
Wang said the mass incarceration of at least one million ethnic minority Uyghurs and other Muslims minorities in "re-education" camps in northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is arbitrary detention on a massive scale.
U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao says the "Custody and Education" process used to target sex workers is very similar to the widespread "legal education" centers used to incarcerate members of religious groups, including the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
"These are actually extrajudicial prisons without any due process," Teng said.
He said the abolition of "custody and education" for sex workers would have a limited impact on China's human rights record, if the other, widespread forms of arbitrary detention remained intact.
Nonetheless, HRW's Wang called in the group's statement for the authorities to pay heed to the experts' recommendation.
"It is encouraging to see that the call for abolishing Custody and Education is now coming from within the Chinese government," Wang said.
"China’s legislators should listen to their own experts and end a system that has subjected hundreds of thousands of sex workers to horrendous abuse," she said.
Since a nationwide crackdown on the legal profession was launched in July 2015, police have used "residential surveillance at a designated location" to target human rights lawyers and activists.
Detainees can be denied access to a lawyer or family visits in cases deemed by the authorities to involve matters of "national security."
Large numbers of Chinese citizens have also been held incommunicado for days or months in secret, unlawful detention facilities whose existence the Chinese government has denied, HRW said.
Detainees can be housed in hotels, nursing homes, and psychiatric hospitals, among other locations, where they are vulnerable to torture and abuse, the group said.
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.