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HONG KONG (Reuters) - China should remove criminal and administrative penalties against sex workers which often lead to serious police abuses, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Tuesday.
The abuses include torture, beatings, physical assaults, fines and arbitrary detentions of up to two years, as well as a failure to investigate crimes against sex workers by clients, bosses and state agents, according to the report.
Prostitution is not permitted under Chinese law, though the industry has boomed since the country launched economic reforms in 1978.
Human Rights Watch estimates that between four and six million people are engaged in sex work in China, the overwhelming majority of them women.
Sex workers are also subjected to forced HIV testing, privacy infringements and mistreatment by health officials, the report found.
"In practice, sex workers are treated as if they have no rights simply because they are sex workers," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
Police corruption is common in China, where a lack of rule of law sometimes gives them almost unrestricted power.
President Xi Jinping, who oversees the Central Military Commission, has made fighting graft a central theme since assuming the top job in the ruling Communist Party in November.
In January, Xi said anti-corruption efforts should target both low-ranking "flies" and powerful "tigers".
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, asked about the report, declined to comment.
However, the government issued its annual white paper on human rights on Tuesday, repeating China's standard line that it respects and protects human rights and that it considers improving living standards an important measure of this.
"After years of unremitting efforts, China has reached a higher level in terms of people's living standards, democracy, rule of law, cultural development, social security and environmental protection," the white paper said.
China is frequently accused by Western countries and rights groups of having a poor human rights record.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Megha Rajagopalan in BEIJING; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Ron Popeski