A volunteer at work in the office of the sex workers’ help group, Zi Teng, in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Previously, undercover police operations often centered on one-woman brothels, which are legal in Hong Kong, provided no more than one woman working from them. If an undercover police officer found two women in one apartment, he could make an arrest.
Now, however, police appear to be concentrating on smaller massage parlors that many women from the mainland work. Women working there can be arrested for a variety of offences, including giving a massage without having a license, soliciting and breaching their conditions of stay in Hong Kong.
Because the women are often relative newcomers with poor language skills and little knowledge of the Hong Kong legal system, some officers take advantage of them, Shao claimed.
Complaints from women about having evidence such as condoms “planted” by arresting officers and of verbal insults and sexual and physical assaults by police were on the rise, she said.
“They are frightened and they don’t know what to do,” Shao said. “They are being doubly discriminated against by the police, first as sex workers and secondly as migrants.”
Shao moved to Hong Kong two years ago from Shanghai. She said she was surprised at the way the police in Hong Kong operated.
“The media on the mainland say the police in Hong Kong are very good,” she said. “I thought the law system here would be more mature than on the mainland but in reality it is not.”
Zi Teng would ultimately like to see a change in the law in Hong Kong. Until that happens, however, the group is appealing for police to stop their practice of paying for sex services and to treat sex workers more considerately, Shao said.
“The law in Hong Kong, as it stands, is not very logical and not very appropriate for a modern society,” said Shao. “We would like to see sex work decriminalized and sex workers treated like other workers.”
Shao said the sex workers keep asking the group: “Why don’t the police arrest the thieves and robbers? Why do they always arrest us?”
“Until the law changes, we would like police to follow the law when they arrest sex workers. They shouldn’t give false evidence and they shouldn’t beat the girls or abuse them verbally. Sex workers are human beings and they should be treated with more respect.”
Associate professor Simon Young, director of the University of Hong Kong’s center for comparative and public law, and a long-standing critic of the police policy of allowing officers to pay for sex services, said he found it “surprising and disheartening” to learn the practice was still apparently so widespread.
“It is a moral and ethical issue in terms of how you treat other people,” he said.
People who are involved in sex work also have dignity and shouldn’t be treated in that way, Young said. It isn’t necessary and with no reason.
Young said the practice raised the question of what is expected of a modern police force in the current day and age. “There are certain lines you shouldn’t cross,” he said. “Just because you can do it (by law) doesn’t mean you should do it.
“It puts officers in a dilemma. Some may derive sexual pleasure from it. Some of them say it is abhorrent work, but who knows?”
A customer at a massage parlor in Hong Kong from a collection of pictures of sex workers gathered by Zi Teng.
Putting officers in an environment where they are at close quarters with sex workers and triad gang members was “very risky and dangerous” and made it too easy for officers to “cross the line between what is proper and what is not proper”, Young argued.
As a former prosecutor, Young said he would not ban the practice altogether but would like to see it used only in extreme and exceptional circumstances. In most cases, he argued, evidence from women working inside massage parlors or verbal offers of sex services were adequate to secure a conviction.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what is going on in these establishments when they are set up in a certain way,” he said. “I would like to see the more traditional tactics used.”
Police declined to respond to questions about multiple visits by officers paying for sexual services in massage parlors and declined a request to allow a senior officer to be interviewed by the China Daily about the practice.
Police also declined to provide figures for the number of times permission had been given this year for officers to pay for sexual services. “We do not maintain such statistics,” a spokesman said.
However in a written statement, the spokesman said: “Police have clear and strict guidelines to regulate undercover operations in combating sexual activities.
“The guidelines stipulate that undercover operations are to be monitored by District Deputy Commanders or officers at senior superintendent rank level to ensure that the limited sex services accepted during the operation is genuinely necessary in order to achieve the objective of the operation.
“The guidelines enable police to effectively and rigorously monitor the conduct of undercover operations.”
A key reason for the apparent switch of focus by police from one-women brothels to massage parlors would appear to be the influx of sex workers from the mainland in recent years due to the easing of cross-border travel restrictions.
The number of mainland women arrested for prostitution-related offences has risen 5.7 times from 793 in 1997 to 4,510 in 2010, the police spokesman said. In the first 10 months of 2011, 3,166 mainland visitors and mainland illegal immigrants have been arrested for vice.
The number of mainland visitors over the same period has risen 12.7 times from 1.76 million in 1997 to 22.5 million in 2010.
The spokesman added that a liaison mechanism had been set up since 2008 to enable regular meetings between police and sex workers and concern groups to exchange views and look into any issues or difficulties.
Shao acknowledged that police appeared to take their concerns seriously during the liaison talks.
How police overseas handle sex workers
A display of sex toys at the office of Zi Teng, in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Police officers in Hong Kong are allowed to pay for sex services during undercover operations even though the practice is prohibited by most forces in developed countries overseas.
A study by the Hong Kong force in 2009 found that their counterparts in other jurisdictions did not allow officers to have massages or sex services from suspected prostitutes before making an arrest.
In Montreal, Canada, where prostitution is legal, police officers are ordered to “refrain from physical contact” and to call hire external special agents to patronize sex workers when evidence is needed for a detailed investigation.
In British Columbia, Canada, undercover officers are instructed to “avoid bodily contact with the sex worker”, the study found, although physical contact is understood to be accepted under Canadian case law in certain situations.
South Australia police are banned from any physical contact with sex workers and undercover officers are “strictly prohibited from removing the clothing of sex workers in such operations”, according to the study.
Police in Japan, Korea and Chicago in the US, meanwhile, generally do not mount undercover operations in their investigations into vice activities, the study found, meaning there is no question of officers paying for sex services.
The Security Bureau paper which accompanied the survey findings, however, made it clear that officials believe Hong Kong is different. Tackling the links between vice and organized crime requires an idiosyncratic approach, the report argued, even if it means being out of step with police practices elsewhere.