Criminal Exploitation of Women and Children in China


Gu Minkang*   

                              Robert F.J. Harnischmacher*

Nature and Extent of Criminal Exploitation of Women and Children in China


“Criminal exploitation of women and children” is a broad concept.  It may embrace many types of crime.  A typical example is the prostitution controlled by criminal organizations.  In China, however, the most serious criminal exploitation of women and children is the crime of abducting and trafficking women or children.  In fact, through government effective control and severe punishment, this kind of crime was completely eliminated after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.   However, this kind of crime was emerged again in China later 1970s.  And since 1980s, this kind of crime became a more and more serious.


Criminal exploitation of women and children is popular around the world. It has been reported that there are many women and children who have been abducted and sold to buyers in the United States.  Those victims are forced to be prostitutes or cheap labors.  In November 1999, one CIA’s report revealed that more then 50,000 women and children who were from Asia, Latin America and the Eastern Europe were abducted and trafficked to the United States.  It has been further reported that profit from this kind of crime reached USD 7 billion.[1]


It is true that many women have been abducted and trafficked to jurisdictions outside China, especially to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.  Most of them have been forced to engage in prostitution.[2]  There are various reasons to explain this kind of crime.  However, one should bear in mind that in China, the crime of exploitation of women and children may contribute to its unique social reasons.


Reasons Contribute to this Phenomenon


The reasons of this phenomenon are comprehensive.  It is impossible to explain this kind of crime just by quoting one or two reasons. According to the existing information in China, it is possible to put forward to the following reasons, which may reflect the unique situation in China.


(1)       Ideological Problem


The fundamental reason is contributed to the feudal ideology and poor economic situation in remote countryside, such as villages in Anhui Province or Jiangsu Province. It has been reported that most buyers are from under-developed areas. People there usually have deeply rooted feudal ideology. Thus, it is reasonable to say that the crime of abducting and trafficking women and children usually connects with feudalism, ignorance, under-development and poverty. Thus, a boy is purchased to be expected to support the buyer when his/her is getting older (yang er fang lao), while a wife is purchased because the buyer is usually poor situation and no woman wants to marry him by willingness. However, to get a wife is mainly for someone’s desire to get subsequent generations (chuan zhong jie dai). In China, local cadres are assumed to know laws and are models to enforce government policies. In the said areas, however, the buyers are sometime cadres of the villages because they want to get either a son or a wife. Some cadres go to buyers’ families to drink the happy wine (xi jiu).  This creates a false image that to buy an abducted woman to be ones wife is approved or recognized. Even the local police will close their eyes for such illegal activities because buyers are usually their relatives or good friends. In the extreme case, local police will hinder the rescuing work by releasing important information to buyers, simply by no action at all. As for local authorities that are in charge of birth policy,[3] they will not interfere the birth situation solely because those wives are from other areas and their registered permanent residence are not belong to local areas, thus, their birth situation will not affect the local birth control policy.[4]


(2)       Economic Background


Another important reason is that there are markets for selling swindled or abducted women or children. It is admitted that males in poor and remote countryside are unable to get wives either because women are trying to escape from their poverty by seeking a better life elsewhere, or because women from other rich areas don’t want to go to those poor areas. In this situation, abducted women become the best source for those men to get their wives because those women will be isolated and helpless. It is also admitted that “one-child policy” may affect those who want to have their sons.  Thus, male children will be mostly welcome.

The buyer’s markets are active mainly because money buyers care only for the price paid, but do not care for where those women and children come from. In their eyes, it is reasonable to buy because they have paid the price. Due to the ignorance of relevant laws and regulations, they believe that they are also the victims if their purchased wives and sons are rescued and taken away. In one case, the “husband” was arrested for rapping his 15 year old “wife” who was purchased from a criminal. In the detention house, the “husband” insisted that the police should return RMB 7,000 to him despite he was told that his conduct had violated the provision of the criminal law. In his eye, the police “snatched away” his “wife”.[5] Most probably, the buyers will try their best to hinder the rescuing work. In a worse situation, buyers will use illegal force against law enforcement personnel. In one case, a policeman was beaten to death by a buyer and his relatives.[6]


(3)       Lenient Punishment to Buyers


Even though the criminal law provides punishments to those who purchase women and/or children, it is rare to hear that the buyers have been seriously punished, partly because of an understanding that those buyers are also victims in certain aspects. As the result of this lenient treatment, potential buyers do not have fear of buying women and children.


(4)       Ignorance of Law


As mentioned somewhere, poor and ignorance usually go together.  In one case, criminals used written contracts to sell more than 10 women.  It is surprisingly seen that the contract contains formal languages as such: in accordance the Chinese Civil Law Principles and the Contract Law, the gift giver (seller in fact) and gift receiver (buyer in fact) agrees to formulate this contract. Nobody can modify or cancel this contract unless this has been done in accordance with relevant provisions of these laws. Under this disguised contract, each woman was sold for the price between RMB 150,000 to 180,000 yuan.[7]


(5)       Economic Incentive


It is reported that the crime of abducting and trafficking women and children could be very profitable. In accordance with Karl Marks’ Theory, the more profit the business will generate, the likely the actor will ignore or break the existing law. This is similar to the idea of criminal economy. In other words, the high profit return will stimulate high incentive of committing this kind of crime, or even facing severe punishment. It was reported that the price for selling one child could be ranged from several thousand yuan to more than ten thousand yuan.[8] In one case, a baby girl who is less than one year old was sold for RMB 1,500 yuan to be buyer’s “child wife”. Even though she was rescued by the police, her life was in danger due to lack of care.[9] In another case, abducting and trafficking women and children could generate income, which is equivalent to one year’s income in some poor areas.[10] In addition, because there are high demands from the buyers, criminals have strong incentive to commit this kind of crime again and again.


(6)       The Prosperous of Yellow Industry in China


In China, yellow industry refers to prostitution business. Even though prostitution is strictly prohibited in China, the government does not have sufficient force to eliminate this phenomenon as it did in 1950s. It has been reported that so far, there are more than 6 million prostitutes in China.[11]  Recently in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, there was a sensational case.  16 September 2003, a Japanese company held a party in Zhuhai International Convention Hotel in order to reward the good performance of employees. That night, more than 300 prostitutes were called to serve employees. It was reported that on that night, 185 prostitutes completed their business and the money paid amounted to more than 300,000 yuan. Many Chinese people were shocked by this news and this case brought attention of [12] On 17 December 2003, 14 principal criminals were convicted for organizing prostitution. The same day, the International Police China National Center issued the red orders to search for three Japanese criminals.[13] In this case, one aspect should not be ignored: 300 prostitutes could be organized efficiently on a short notice.


In other words, people can buy sex easily in China despite governmental effort to crack yellow industry down. In order to get sufficient supply, abducted women or children are highly demanded for yellow industry. In the follow example, it is possible to see the real activities of abducting and trafficking women.


This is the true case happened in Jiangsu Province. It was the biggest crime of abducting and trafficking kidnapping and selling young girls in the Jiangsu Province.[14]


Beng, beng, beng!  On 18 January 2001, three criminals, Zhang Hongdeng, Shi Deping and Shi Yanli, were executed death penalty and all other criminals in this largest crime in Jiangsu Province since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China were given severe punishments. However, if we review this case again, we can see the worst nightmare of the victims, the 50 young girls.


Elder Sister Entrapped Younger Sister


In this case, there were 5 principal criminals. Zhang Hongdeng and Shi Yanli were husband and wife.  Shi Yanli, Shi Deping, Shi Deyong and Shi Yanhong were brothers and sisters of the same blood. The Shi family was located in a poor village of the Jiangsu Province. Shi Deping was the eldest son and aged 35; Shi Yanli was the second child and aged 31; Shi Yongde was the third child and aged 29; and Shi Yanhong was the youngest one and aged 25. Among those four brothers and sisters, only Shi Deping had a high school education and the other three had only the education of primary school. In view of local people, these four brothers and sisters were fond of food but averse to work.  They had never taken any serious jobs.


In 1994, the Chinese Spring Festival had just been over. Several creditors asked Shi Yanli to repay the debts.Shi Yanli discussed this matter with her husband, Zhang Hongdeng.  Zhang Hongdeng mentioned that his aunt, Zhang Meiling was engaging in prostitution business in Hainan Province and earned a remarkable amount of money. Shi Yanlin thought this was the best way to make quick money. She asked his husband to take care of their child and went to the Hainan Island.


After one year, Shi Yanli earned a lot of money through her prostitution business. On the second day of the Chinese New Year, Shi Yanli went back to her village to see her mother. Her mother was impressed by her daughter’s expensive dressing up and asked Shi Yanli to bring the youngest daughter, Shi Yanhong, with her to make more money.


Shi Yanli took Shi Yanhong to the Hainan Island. On the first day of arrival, Shi Yanhong was arranged to “work” as a prostitute. After the “work”, Shi Yanhong cried and showed Shi Yanli her underwear, which contained the blood. Shi Yanli told Shi Yanli that she was going to report this rape case to the local police. Shi Yanli, however, was not surprised and tried her best to convince Shi Yanhong that this was the only way to make more money. After Shi Yanli’s “education”, Shi Yanli started to believe that nothing could be lost again since she was no longer the virgin.


Based on this understanding, Shi Yanhong engaged in prostitution actively. In order to recover her lost virgin, Shi Yanhong requested RMB 5,000[15] from her second “client” in the name of “sleeping with a virgin”. She pretended to be virgin again and asked again RMB 5,000 from her third “client”.


Shi Yanhong saw that a virgin could easily make big money and proposed Shi Yanli to get more young girls from hometown. Shi Yanli thought this was a great idea and instructed her husband, Zhang Hongdeng and her brothers, Shi Deping and Shi Deyong to “recruit” young girls. Thus, a recruitment plan was made and implemented.


Kidnapped Young Girls and Forced them to be Prostitutes


First, they decided that their targets were young girls who were aged from 14 to 18. They were from poor family, unable to continue study and had no idea of the outside world. Zhang Hongdeng had rich experience of dealing with people and knew some Chinese Gongfu. He took the role as “controller” and recruit young girls on behalf of not existing factories. All families of those young girls were promised to pay good salary.  In order to cheat the parents, Shi Yanli forced those girls to phone home within a fixed time period and to tell their parents everything was fine. Furthermore, Shi Yanli sent 400 to 500 yuan to each girl’s family per month as the “salary”. One parent was so grateful of the “good treatment” and introduced another 11 young girls to Zhang Hongdeng. In order to make the recruitment real, Zhang Hongdeng pretended to interview those girls and accepted only 8 girls. The other 3 “unqualified” girls were so sad and managed to go “back door”. Zhang Hongdeng refused. This story was spread and became a cheating advertisement.


From 1997 to 1999, this criminal organization had swindled and abducted 50 young girls to the Hainan Island. Once they arrived with a hope to work in a factory, they were forced to be prostitutes. Among those 50 young girls, two were below 14 years old; nine were just 14 years old; twenty-seven were between 15 to 18 years old; and twelve were above 18 years old. Shi and other criminals used force to take those girls’ naked pictures and threatened them to distribute those pictures if they did not “work”. In order to control those young girls, Shi Yanli and Shi Yanhong asked their brother, Shi Deping and Shi Deyong to go to the Hainan Island. The two brothers’ job was to organize the young girls to “work”, especially to work at the haircut shops opened by Shi sisters. Because Shi’s haircut shops had adequate supply and those girls were “fresh”, Shi’s haircut shops became very famous in the Hannan Island and many “clients” came to request sex service. Within two years, about RMB 500,000 profit was made by the criminals.


Miserable Life of the Young Girls


While the criminals were enjoying their life by spending money exploited from those young girls, those young girls were suffering from miserable life. Two girls took the opportunity of using bathroom and escaped with RMB 50 yuan. When they arrived at Haikou, the biggest city of the Hannan Island, they had only RMB 10 yuan. They needed money to buy tickets and decided to sell their blood. They were refused because they did not have ID cards.  They had to call Shi Deyong and naively thought that Shi Deyong might help them to go back home because they were all from the same hometown. As the result, the two girls were caught again by the criminals and taken back to the haircut shop. On the one hand, Shi Yanli ordered them to write to their parents that they were found. On the other hand, 10 men who consumed sexual medicines tortured them in the name of “re-education”. The whole process was videotaped for the purpose of “educating” or threatening other girls. These two girls were severely injured and could not move for several days.


In the Hainan Island, many gamblers and businessmen believed that to have a sex with a virgin and to see the blood after the sex would bring to them good luck. Thus, virgins were highly demanded but the high price should be paid. In order to make more money, Shi sisters forced those young girls to pretended to be virgins, i.e., during the sex, those girls had to break their sex organ so the “clients” could see blood and believe they were virgins. As reported, each girl must pretend to be virgins for three times and would generate additional RMB 8,000 for Shi sisters.


In addition, more than 10 girls were forced to have sex with Zhang Hongdeng, Shi Deping and Shi Deyong. Among them, Zuo Ruolan, Dai Chunyan and Liu Li were convinced and turned from victims to accomplices.


Justice Has Been Done


On 31 August 1999, the police had received a report that several girls were swindled and abducted to the Hainan Island, and forced to be prostitutes. The police started investigation and successfully arrested Zhang Hongdeng, Shi Deping, Shi Yanli, Shi Deyong, Shi Yanhong, Dai Chunyan, Zuo Ruolan. All young girls were rescued and sent back to their hometwons.  On 18 January 2001, the judgement was anounced publicly as follows:


Zhang Hongdeng, Shi Deping and Shi Yanli were given death penalty and executed immediately, their political rights were deprived and their personal properties were forfeited. All other criminals were given severe punishments.


(7)       Lower Educational Background


Despite a few victims are highly educated,[16] most victims don’t have obtained high education, so they are easily cheated to go with strangers. On the other hand, because of their lower educational background, it is difficult for them to find an ideal job. Once they see there is a chance to work for attractive salary, they will go with recruiting men without any hesitation.


Strategies Have Been Adopted by China to Fight Against This Kind of Crime


Both the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the National Government has paid serious attention to this increasing crime. In 1987, both offices of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council issued the Circulation concerning Unremittingly Fight Against the Crime of Kidnapping and Selling Women and Children In Accordance With the Legal Provisions (Guanyu Jianchibuxie di Yifa Daji Guaimai Funu Ertong de Fanzui de Tongzhi). In 1989, the State Council issued the Circulation concerning firmly Creak Down the Crime of Kidnapping and Selling Women and Children (Guanyu Jianjue Daji Guaimai Funu Ertong Fanzui de Tongzhi). Furthermore, in 1991, the National People’s Congress adopted the Decision on Severe Punishment for Criminals Committing the Crime of Kidnapping and Selling Women and Children (Guanyu Yancheng Guaimai Bangjia Funu Ertong de Fanzui Fenzi de Jueding) and subsequently, this decision was amended greatly. In 1997, the Amendment of the Criminal Law was adopted by the 8th National People’s Congree at its 5th Conference. This kind of crime was subject to severe punishment under the Criminal Law:

Article 240[17]   Those abducting and trafficking women or children are to be sentenced to 5 to 10 years in prison plus fine. Those falling into one or more of the following cases are to be sentenced to 10 years of more in prison or to be given life sentences, in addition to fines or confiscation of property. Those committing especially serious crimes are to be sentenced to death in addition to confiscation of property.

(1)       Primary elements of rings engaging in abducting and trafficking women or children;

(2)       Those abducting and trafficking more than three women and/or children;

(3)       Those raping abducted women;

(4)       Those seducing, tricking, or forcing abducted women into prostitution, or those selling abducted women to others who in turn force them into prostitution;

(5)       Those kidnapping women or children using force, coercion, or narcotics, for the purpose of selling them;

(6)       Those stealing or robbing infants or babies for the purpose of selling them;

(7)       Those causing abducted women or children, or their family members, to serious injuries or death, or causing other grave consequences;

(8)       Those selling abducted women or children to outside the country.

Abducting and trafficking women or children refers to abducting, kidnapping, buying, selling, transporting, or transshipping women or children.

Article 241  Those buying abducted women or children are to be sentenced to three years or fewer in prison, or put under criminal detention or surveillance.

Those buying abducted women and forcing them to have sex with them are to be convicted and punished according to stipulations of article 236.

Those buying abducted women or children and illegally depriving them of or restricting their physical freedom, or injuring or insulting them, are to be convicted and punished according to relevant stipulations of this law.

Those buying abducted women or children and committing crimes stipulated in paragraphs two and three of this article are to be punished for committing more than one crime.

Those buying and selling abducted women or children are to be convicted and punished according to article 240 of this law.

Those buying abducted women or children but not obstructing bought women from returning to their original residence in accordance with their wishes, or not abusing bought children and not obstructing efforts to rescue them, may not be investigated for their criminal liability.

Article 242   Those using force or coercion to obstruct workers of state organs from rescuing bought women or children are to be convicted and punished according to article 277 of this law.

Primary elements who lead other people to obstruct workers of state organs from rescuing bought women or children are to be sentenced to five years or fewer in prison or put under criminal detention. Other elements who use force or coercion are to be punished according to paragraph one of this article.


In addition to these laws and regulations, several national campaigns have been organized to fight against this type of crime and many criminals have been subject to severe punishments including death penalty.[18]


However, it is admitted that severe criminal punishments could deter the crime of abducting and trafficking women and children for once, but could not eliminate this kind of crime from the root. It is suggested to crack down the buyer’s markets. If the buyer’s markets have been successfully cracked down, it could effectively stop the increasing tendency. In addition, there is a need to change the poor life and feudal ideology because those changes will effectively eliminate the phenomenon of swindling and selling women and children.


On the other hand, it is admitted that fighting against this kind of crime is not just a task for the police departments. Rather, it is a social problem and need the whole society to cooperate with each other to solve the various problems, such as prevention, cracking down and governance. That is why we call it a comprehensive project, which will involve in police, civil departments, birth control and so on. For example, after those women have been rescued, it is important to help them to re-gain their self-respect, to cure their spirit hurt, and most importantly, to resolve their living problems, otherwise, they might be swindled and sold again.[19]  Furthermore, to fight against this type of crime must be constant, otherwise, potential criminals will engage in this type of crime again.


One of the recommended methods is to make the good use of network. Thank to the high development of computer network, it is now possible to share information among the law enforcement authorities. Furthermore, it is possible to share information internationally, so abducting and trafficking women by crossing the board could be effectively controlled.


In addition, it is advised that a wide range of propaganda should be conducted in order to teach potential victims to be alert to the crime of abducting and trafficking women and children. It is also advised that following methods could effectively avoid this type of crime: (1) don’t look for a job blindly; (2) when looking for a job in other areas, or travel in other areas, don’t trust strangers easily; (3) when going to other places, especially in amusement places don’t eat or drink foods offered by strangers.[20]


Other Issues of Interest from China’s Perspective


Despite large effort has been made by various local governments to crack down prostitution, the phenomenon of prostitution has been seen everywhere.  There is a big demand to get abducted women. Several reasons contribute to this kind of problem. Firstly, the actions against prostitution were taken unevenly and prostitutes move from one place to another place. Secondly, prostitutes are controlled by criminal organizations. Those illegal organizations, brokers and hotels share profits made by prostitutes. Thirdly, actions against prostitutes are connected with economic needs. If law enforcement bodies need more incomes to solve their financial problems, they will try their best to search for prostitutes and their clients. Each caught prostitute or client will be fined for about RMB 5,000 yuan. If such a need is not highly demanded, law enforcement bodies would simply close their eyes for the activities of prostitution. Furthermore, in order to finish the assignment of cracking down prostitutes given by their superior, policemen may abuse their power to detain suspects, including innocent persons sometime.[21]




To fight against the crime of abducting and trafficking women and children is not an easy task. Each country or region should consider its own economic and cultural background to adopt its unique methods to control this type of crime. In China, the prevention of the crime of abducting and trafficking women and children is believed to be a comprehensive project. To eliminate a single cause could not eliminate this kind of crime completely. Thus, various authorities should be called to work together to fight against this type of crime. On the other hand, however, international cooperation and experience sharing will definitely enhance the effectiveness of preventing this kind of crime.

* Assistant Professor, the City University of Hong Kong, Visiting Professor, Shanghai University School of Law, Shanghai, China; Visiting Professor, Hunan Normal University School of Law.  Bachelor of Law and Master of Law, the East China University of Politics and Law, Shanghai, China; Master of European Business Law, Aix-Marseilles University, Aix-en-Provence, France; JD, Willamette University College of Law, Oregon, USA. ;

* Lecturer, Ruhr-University of Bochum (Germany), Faculty of Law, President of the European Society for the Security of the Interior, Consultant in Security and Intelligence Matters

[1] (1 February 2004).

[2] On 26 August 2003, 26 women were swindled and trafficked to Taiwan.  Before the boat arrived in Taiwan, police demanded a temporary check.  In order to cover illegal activity, the captain ordered to push all women into the sea.  As the result of this, 6 were dead and one was seriously injured. (14 February, 2004).

[3] In China, one-child policy is generally enforced in the whole country.

[4] (1 February 2004).

[5] (13 February 2004).

[6], (13 February 2004).

[7] (1 February 2004).

[8] One US dollar equals to about 8 Chinese yuan.

[9] (1 February 2004).

[10] (1 February 2004).

[11] (1 February 2004).

[12] (14 February, 2004).

[13] (14 February, 2004).

[14] (1 February 2004).

[15] According to China’s real situation, RMB 5,000 could one year’s salary for a regular maid.

[16] In one case, a graduated student wanted to find a job as fast as possible.  When she saw an advertisement to recruit workers, she went to interview and was swindled and sold.  For detailed information, see (1 February 2004).

[17] The English version could be seen at (13 February 2004).

[18] In Yunnan Province, for example, the police at various levels cooperated with each other and adopted the methods of cracking down, prevention and rescue concurrently.  As the result of this method, many cases have been uncovered.  From 1995 to May 2000, Yunnan Province uncovered 3,230 cases of abducting and trafficking women and children; 7,752 criminals were arrested and 923 criminal organizations were destroyed; about 6,543 women and children had been rescued successfully.  All criminals involved in this type of crime were given death penalty, life imprisonment and fixed term imprisonment.  See (14 February, 2004).

[19] It should be noted that in some cases, when the rescue was refused by victims because they had already given birth to several babies.  As they are normally from poor areas, they worry that their life will be again miserable if they go back to their hometowns.  In comparison, they prefer to take the status quo and to live with their “husbands” who bought them.  Another reason is that in some cases, people blame those victims and look them down when they go back to their hometowns.

[20] (1 February 2004).

[21] (1 February 2004).