Public Shaming of Prostitutes Misfires in China

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 9, 2006

BEIJING, Dec. 8 -- To local officials combating Shenzhen's reputation as a den of vice, it seemed like a good idea, the perfect way to dissuade provincial girls from turning to prostitution in the big city and frighten away the men who patronize their brothels.

So after raiding the karaoke bars, saunas and barbershops where prostitutes often ply their trade, police officers in the southern Chinese boomtown paraded about 100 women and their alleged johns in the street, using loudspeakers to read out their names and the misdeeds they were accused of committing. News photographers snapped away while thousands of residents lined up to take in the show.

The spectacle, which took place Nov. 29 in the Shenzhen district of Futian, was in many ways unremarkable for a nation in which wrongdoers have long been subject to public humiliation. In particular, it recalled the Great Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, when Chinese accused of being intellectuals or reactionaries were routinely paraded in front of jeering crowds that found entertainment in ridiculing them, insulting them and sometimes beating them.

But times have changed, the Futian Public Security Bureau discovered. Instead of being praised for cracking down on vice, the Futian police came under a hail of criticism for violating the right to privacy of those who were paraded about in public.

The swift outcry, in newspaper interviews and on the Internet, provided a dramatic illustration of the distance this vast country has traveled since the Cultural Revolution, when many people embraced such tactics and even those who opposed them were afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.

The reaction helped explain why U.S. and other Western complaints about human rights restrictions in China are sometimes ignored here. Although Chinese and foreign activists can point to many remaining abuses, particularly by police forces such as Futian's, many Chinese view the human rights situation as such an improvement over times past that they would rather emphasize how far they have come than how far they have to go.

"This shows that the public has a stronger sense of human rights and privacy protection," said Kang Xiaoguang, a sociologist with the Rural Development Institute at the People's University of China.

"Twenty years ago, this kind of parade would have been greeted with unanimous applause," he said. "But now it gets more criticism than support because more people realize their rights should be protected. And of course, they have more channels to voice their criticism, like the Internet."

An outraged Shanghai lawyer, Yao Jianguo, started the uproar over Shenzhen's tactics last Friday with an open letter to the National People's Congress, the Chinese legislature. In it, he charged that the Shenzhen parade was illegal under current laws and likely to have a "baneful influence" on the Chinese people and the country's reputation abroad.

"These people were just alleged criminals," Yao complained. "It was not yet determined that they had violated the law. The police publicly humiliated them, which violates the legal process. This brutal form of punishment has long been abandoned by our society with the development of civilization and a legal system."

The All-China Women's Federation also voiced a complaint, deeming the parade an insult to the image of Chinese women, news media reported. "The public parade damages the criminal suspects' self-esteem," a spokeswoman said. "With the development of human civilization, such barbaric punishment has no place in modern society."

The government made no official response. In Shenzhen, the municipal Public Security Bureau told local reporters it had nothing to do with the Futian district's parade. But it declined to say whether the spectacle was illegal or whether any Futian police officers would be disciplined.

Xu Desen, the Futian district Communist Party secretary, endorsed the parade as a good way to discourage prostitution. Speaking to local reporters, he praised police for the crackdown and said it would continue.

In ebbs and flows, Shenzhen and its surrounding suburbs have been waging a campaign against prostitution for several years now. But the sprawling city, ringed by vast expanses of factories staffed by workers away from their families for long periods, has remained the home of a flourishing sex industry.

Moreover, it abuts Hong Kong, where men know they can get a raunchy and comparatively inexpensive night on the town with just a quick train trip across the border. Several of the alleged johns who had been hustled down the street in yellow prison uniforms were from Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post reported.

But many Chinese citizens thought the police went too far this time. Over the past week, they have spoken out -- with relative anonymity -- on the Internet. A few upheld the tactic as effective dissuasion and noted that the prisoners wore surgical masks to shield their identities. But most agreed with Yao.

"Even while carrying out the law, police should well respect human rights," one commentator said. "Is there any article in Chinese law saying that police can parade people in front of the public? If there isn't, then who empowered you to do that?"

Another upset writer accused the Futian police of going back to the bad old days. "Public exposure? That was the kind of thing that happened during the Cultural Revolution," he said. "Those who made prostitutes parade in the street lost face just as much as those who were put on parade."

Focusing on the law, another contributor noted that prostitution is usually considered a violation of the social order and is punished by administrative detention rather than a criminal conviction and formal prison time. "These are legal citizens, enjoying dignity endowed by the constitution," the writer said, "so it is unlawful for the police to parade them in front of the public."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company