BEIJING — Bathed in the fluorescent pink light that signaled she was ready for business, the woman rattled off the occupational hazards of working as a prostitute in China: abusive clients, the specter of H.I.V. and the scathing glares of neighbors that tear at her soul.
“My life is so full of anxieties,” said the woman, known as Li Zhengguo, between customers one recent evening. “Sometimes my heart feels rotten for having given away my body.”
But her greatest fear is a visit from the police. The last time she was hauled into the local station house, Ms. Li was sent without trial or legal representation to a detention center in neighboring Hebei Province, where she spent six months making ornamental paper flowers and reciting the regulations that criminalize prostitution. Her incarceration at the Handan Custody and Education Center ended with a final indignity: She had to reimburse the jail for her stay, about $60 a month.
“The next time the police come to take me away, I’ll slit my wrists,” said Ms. Li, 39, a single mother with two sons.
Advocates for legal overhaul claimed victory in November after the Chinese government announced that it would abolish “re-education through labor,” the system that allows the police to send petty criminals and people who complain too loudly about government malfeasance to work camps for up to four years without trial.
But two parallel mechanisms of extralegal punishment persist: one for drug offenders, and another for prostitutes and their clients. “The abuses and torture are continuing, just in a different way,” said Corinna-Barbara Francis, a China researcher at Amnesty International.