Parade of shame

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2006, 12:00am

When it comes to grabbing public attention, Shenzhen police have got the knack. They managed to stir up a nationwide debate last month and get themselves into newspaper headlines around the world. Police in the Futian district raised eyebrows on November 29 when they dressed 100 arrested prostitutes and their clients in bright yellow and paraded them in the streets. They used loudhailers to read out their personal details and the misdeeds they were accused of committing.

The spectacle attracted thousands of watchers and was widely reported by the mass media, including the BBC and The Washington Post. It also triggered a nationwide debate and heavy criticism. Many people wrote to newspapers and internet sites, attacking the practice as 'illegal and barbaric'. The Ministry of Public Security ordered an investigation into the incident.

Lawyers and academics noted that using public humiliation as a form of punishment has been banned by the People's Supreme Court since 1988. They questioned the legitimacy of the police action and denounced it as a brazen violation of privacy and human rights.

Shenzhen authorities so far have refused to bow to the criticism, insisting that the shame tactic was 'highly effective' in stopping the rampant, illegal sex trade. One Futian official told local reporters in private that he was surprised by the public reaction: 'Our police have from time to time used public parades to fight crimes and educate the public,' he said. 'Why did you people get so upset this time?'

There are plenty of reasons. But most importantly, many people are angry because the majority of those who were publicly humiliated were prostitutes - the most exploited victims in the illegal sex trade. Many of these young women are from the countryside. The surplus of rural labour and low education levels due to traditional discrimination against girls prevents many from making a living in their home towns. Many move to big cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou in the hope of finding a better life. Sadly, many have to sell themselves to scratch out a meagre existence.

Underprivileged, widely despised and lacking even the most basic rights, the prostitutes are often vulnerable to all sorts of bullying and abuse. Stories of how they are extorted, abused and even tortured by triads and corrupt officers are common in Shenzhen. Yet they are often blamed as the source of social evils and crimes.

Because of its unique history and geographical location, Shenzhen has the unfortunate reputation as China's den of vice. It is easy to understand why the government is so eager to get rid of this bad image as the city seeks to become an international city. But, by resorting to this Cultural Revolution style of humiliating punishment, the authorities have shot themselves in the foot.