China's anti-vice crackdown must remain within the law

Zhou Zunyou urges anti-vice officers to guard against violations, including on right to privacy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 6:11pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 5:15am

Guangdong authorities' heavy-handed action against the sex trade in Dongguan , dubbed China's "capital of sex", has raised concerns about the execution of the wider campaign against vice that is now under way.

In law, prostitution has been banned in the People's Republic since its founding in 1949. In practice, however, the "world's oldest profession" exists everywhere, especially in the country's economically developed regions. Prior to the crackdown, Dongguan authorities seemed reluctant to face up to their problem of rampant prostitution.

Surprisingly, the CCTV exposé of the extent of the trade and Guangdong's subsequent response generated a debate over whether to legalise the sex industry. Given the generally negative attitude among its people towards the sex trade, mainland China is not likely to decriminalise prostitution in the foreseeable future.

Since prostitution is illegal, the government is right to enforce the law. Yet the current anti-vice crackdown is a cause for concern because of human rights violations.

As in many previous crackdowns, images of many sex workers were exposed to the public and circulated widely on the internet. By contrast, the identities of pimps and organisers were concealed. This is exactly why social media users and human rights activists criticised CCTV and the authorities; their actions shamed and intimidated the sex workers rather than exposing the powerful people who operate and protect the business.

Revealing the images of sex workers was intended to shame them. Such public exposure should be forbidden, because it is a humiliating practice similar to the "shame parades" that have been banned by the authorities.

In 2010, the Ministry of Public Security issued a regulation to forbid police authorities from publicly shaming sex workers, on the grounds that such practices violated the law and human dignity. This regulation was a response to the public outcry provoked by "shame parades" in several cities, including one instance in Dongguan where sex workers were shackled, roped together and forced to walk barefoot through the city streets.

As a marginalised group in society, sex workers are often insulted, harassed and even assaulted. Despite being on the lowest rung of the ladder in the sex industry, they are invariably the most victimised targets in anti-vice campaigns. It is a universally recognised principle that all people are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law, without discrimination. The sex workers in Dongguan deserve to have their rights to human dignity protected, just as the pimps and organisers behind them do.

Apart from the sex workers and their clients, innocent customers in the hotels were also affected during the police raid. For example, it was reported that police officers forced a couple of lovers to let officers into their hotel room for search and interrogation. Such investigations are not exceptional in mainland China; anti-vice campaigns typically involve police raids that are euphemistically called "routine inspections" under police law.

It remains highly questionable whether police authorities have the legal power to routinely search hotel rooms that have been privately rented. Such searches may be carried out in public places. But when it comes to private places, there should be restraints on the exercise of police power.

Under the law, hotel rooms rented for private activities should be deemed private places. This involves the right to privacy, a fundamental human right protected by international human rights instruments and the constitutions of many countries.

In Western countries such as the US and Germany, hotel rooms used for private activities enjoy similar protection to citizens' homes. In Germany, for example, the inviolability of a home is a fundamental right of citizens to defend themselves against unjustified intrusions. Though the right to privacy is not absolute in these countries, restrictions are possible only under exceptional circumstances.

The Chinese constitution also protects the right to privacy. The constitution declares, for example, that the home of a citizen is inviolable, but it does not specify what circumstances can justify infringements. In other laws, provisions on such circumstances are either missing or very vaguely worded.

The lack of explicit regulations that categorise hotel rooms as private places also leaves much room for abuse of power by the police.

In their campaigns against prostitution, the authorities have the duty to conform strictly to the rule of law. Great emphasis should be placed on protection of the human rights of all people, including innocent customers and those involved in the sex trade.

All people are equal before the law, regardless of whether they are organisers, pimps, prostitutes or clients.

Zhou Zunyou is head of the China section at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law