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WHEN an activist, Ye Haiyan, was attacked by eight men in May near her home in the south-western province of Guangxi, she was not completely surprised. She then described her experiences in minute detail on Weibo, a popular microblog. Chairman Mao abolished overt prostitution after , and it remains illegal in China today.
To avoid repercussions Ms Ye did not charge for sex during her stint in the brothel. But now China has between four and six million sex workers, according to a paper published in by the World Health Organisation. In small towns and large cities across the country, skimpily dressed women sit in the windows of hair salons and loiter in karaoke bars, openly offering sexual services. Ms Ye, who is 37, describes squalid conditions in the hotel-brothel where she volunteered in the city of Yulin in Guangxi province.
There are no showers. Most prostitutes are middle-aged, with scant education and no job prospects or connections. In a society with little welfare or national-health benefits, poverty-stricken women often sell their bodies out of desperation. But plenty of people in what is still a sexually conservative society disagree, and the subject is highly politicised.
Ms Ye has some prominent allies. Chi Susheng, a lawyer, says China should build red-light districts, license sex workers, and standardise regulations to prevent the spread of HIV.
She cites the example of Taiwan, which decriminalised prostitution in designated red-light districts last year, and Sweden, where prostitutes can register to pay taxes. All have failed. Meanwhile, prostitutes in China, as elsewhere in the world, remain socially stigmatised and are often victimised by corrupt police who pocket fines , violent clients and pimps.