Migrant Lives

In Paris, Chinese Prostitutes Driven Into The Shadows

In the Paris neighborhood of Belleville, home to a thriving Chinatown, prostitutes with no other prospects work to support families here or in China. And now, new dangers loom.

Qiu Lan in La Marcheuse
Qiu Lan in La Marcheuse
Florence Aubenas

PARIS â€" When seeing the crowd on the Boulevard de La Villette in Paris, the women initially thought it was a police operation, which are frequent here. Two of the women hid in a Chinese supermarket, and others hurried down the streets leading to the canal. One of them approached us, discreetly. A movie was being shot that day, in the Asian parts of the Belleville neighborhood; the woman even went as far as to apply for a role. After all, the film was about a Chinese prostitute. Like her, a woman without papers. Like her, or rather, like them all.

Looking back, months later, the woman shakes her head when thinking about her crazy idea, as she imagines her face on a giant screen all over the world, perhaps even back in her hometown in the Manchuria region. Then, people would have found out that she doesn't work as a secretary in Paris.

La Marcheuse ("The Walker"), Naël Marandin's first film, was released in cinemas on Feb. 3, the same day that France's National Assembly considered a controversial prostitution bill. The bill would make it illegal to pay for sex and toughens the penalties for clients.

A few blocks away, some women seek shelter from the rain in a Chinese-style café with dragon-adorned teapots. On the other side of the window, high school girls are laughing in the rain, cheery and well-dressed. The women sitting in the café are between 40 and 60 years old, looking like ladies from the ghetto, dressed in dark overcoats and cheap jeans. There are 300 of them in the area, representing one-third of the Chinese prostitutes in Paris, all gathered in the neighborhood of Belleville.

Usually, their prices range between 20 and 60 euros. These days, some accept 10. It's been a tough winter, and in the cafe the women argue over who will pay for the espressos.

"We had nothing else"

"At first, we could not imagine we would sell our bodies," says a petite blonde. "But at the age of 40, a woman is worth nothing." In Paris, other girls â€" mostly French â€" have dubbed these women the "proletarians." Almost all come from northeastern China. In the late 1990s, a series of governmental reforms were initiated there during which everything closed for months. "We had nothing," the blonde says. In the sock factory where she was working, employees were advised to "take something, sell it on the sidewalk" because they weren't coming back. Meanwhile, at the other end of China, a new economy was built through textiles, electronics and enlisting battalions of rural youth. One working class replaced another.

In the café, a woman with professor-like glasses says she was a saleswoman, artisan, entrepreneur. But after the Chinese reforms she emigrated to the West. There was only one way of doing it: She paid 11,000 euros in cash for a fake temporary visa. After flight transfers in London and Frankfurt, she arrived in Paris. "You understand the reality when you get here," the blonde says. "Emigration for us is like a man who goes to war: We hope to return victorious. For us, that means money," says one woman. She says she has no recollection of her first time with a man here. "How can you forget? My heart has turned cold," the petite blonde retorts.

On the opposite side of the street, Naël Marandin, a 35-year-old film director and a neighborhood resident, sits in a bar. After graduating from the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, he was inspired by one of his professors to turn to movies. As a kid, Marandin enjoyed theater, and played the lead character in Les Allumettes suédoises ("The Safety Matches"), the best-selling Robert Sabatier novel that was adapted for television in 1995. At 19, he left for China seeking adventure. Marandin learned the language, worked as a bartender and TV presenter, was part of an NGO in Tibet and then starred in a play.

A risky business

When he returned almost two years later, he started working for associations engaged in Chinese emigration. The Lotus Bus is one of them, a program in which doctors are working to improve health access for sex workers. One night a week, the Lotus minibus stops in Belleville.

"The project has grown with the influx of highly vulnerable Chinese women, who we saw arrive after the 2003 Sarkozy statutes," says Nathalie Simonnot, one of the pioneers at Lotus Bus. "Before, they were able to find jobs illegally, but the tightened sanctions against employers hiring illegal workers limited their options." At the same time, another law was passed, making passive soliciting an offense. Simonnot characterizes it as "a huge mistake" because "the women now take refuge in more remote places, putting themselves at higher risk."

More than half of these women have experienced physical violence: 38% from rapes and 28% from kidnappings, says Jean-François Corty, director of the French humanitarian group Doctors of the World.

At the cafe, the blonde talks about her daughter, who lives in Manchuria. "She studies design," she says, lowering her eyes to veil her pride. "A parent must give everything to his or her children. Everything, everything, everything. We just do not live for ourselves."

Another girl with curly hair jokes, "I have no children." The blonde asks her, "To do what we do, you need a compelling reason. What is yours?" Everyone grows silent and their faces all turn towards "Curly Hair." She hesitates. Even among each other, they avoid giving details because they value their privacy above all else. They want nothing to be traced back to them.

The blond insists, "So what's your reason?"

The girl looks down and answers, "We live in a mountain village. We own a table, a bed and a little rice. We had to borrow money to look after my father, then we purchased a pig in hopes of paying off the debt faster. The pig died. I was the only chance to save the family honor."

Suddenly, someone screams, "Police! Police!" The Belleville intersection is the junction of four districts, each with its own police station. Sometimes the uniforms make raids â€" eight people were arrested Feb. 1 â€" to harass or to protect. Over a period of 10 years, five Chinese prostitutes have been murdered. The last became an icon. Witnesses saw her leave with a man who was known to be violent. She knew too. But she needed money for her daughter. It was a 30-euro job; she was stabbed 24 times. The daughter stayed in Belleville, preferring to die here as her mother did than tell her family about the circumstances of the murder.

In reaction to these events, a group of women created an organization called Steel Roses in 2015, and its members wear masks for public appearances. Like other associations, they were consulted by parliamentarians when the prostitution law was being drafted. They realized that no one believed them when they said they were "slaves to no one."

"People fail to see that it's possible to perform sex work without a gun to your head,” says Morgane Merteuil, a spokeswoman for the union of sex workers. "Which doesn't mean that there are no big economic constraints, like finding accommodation. It's less spectacular, but not necessarily easier.”

The war of associations

For the first time in France, the new law will offer a "prostitution exit route" with rights, housing, benefits and training, including a temporary residence permit for undocumented people. But how to nurture real integration? In December, French Human Rights Defender Jacques Toubon stressed that the problem isn't the prostitute but the existence of prostitution itself. He said that merely leading these women out of prostitution isn't enough. This is one of many disagreements between associations involved in the issue.

But the question of penalty may be the most contentious. On Feb. 3, the Assembly decided not to remove the famous 2003 "offense of soliciting” law, which criminalizes clients. Does this law better protect prostitutes, as claimed by the movement Le Nid, or does it, on the contrary, entail a secrecy that enhances the dangers for these women, as Amnesty International suggests?

Paris's Belleville neighborhood â€" Photo: Nelson Minar

In general, Qiu Lan avoids Belleville. She came to Paris 15 years ago after falling in love with a French businessman in China. In Paris, she learned French and got into theater. A former dancer with the Peking Opera, and daughter of a renowned composer, Qiu Lan tried "to keep the lowest possible profile" when Naël Marandin took her to Belleville.

La Marcheuse is her first real role, and she was excited to play a prostitute. "It's a challenge, but that's my nature," she says. She recalls that women were ashamed, "especially in front of other Chinese." Southern Chinese immigrants, in particular, know that Parisians don't like them. Well-established Belleville business people who have lived there for generations regularly offer to pay for their return ticket in an effort to "re-establish a good image of the community."

After two years, the other girl has repayed some of her debt to the smuggler. In three more years, the petite blonde will have paid for everything. She could have done as other women have and married a local. A French man did propose to her, but she didn't like him. "Is it really right to do it only for the papers?" She refused.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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