Chinese shame parade

Authorities in the city of Shenzhen march prostitutes through the streets and jail them without trial.

Published December 13, 2006 6:55PM (EST)

Ugh. The New York Times has a story today on a recent demonstration in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, in which about 100 accused prostitutes were "paraded in front of a jeering crowd, their names revealed, and then driven away to jail without trial," according to the Times. The event was also televised.

Given China's history of human rights abuses, public shaming might not sound like a surprising occurrence; as the Times notes, "so-called rectification campaigns, or struggle sessions, like these were everyday occurrences during the Cultural Revolution, which officially ended in 1976." But Shenzhen is a hub of foreign investment and economic growth, and is viewed as a relatively open place -- at least until recently, the city's sex trade seems to have done a booming business -- so it's something of a surprise that the throwback anti-prostitution display happened there. The Times reports that on Chinese Internet forums, visitors compared the parade to crime crackdowns in the Middle Ages, criticized the Cultural Revolution tactics and called for human rights for criminals. A Shanghai lawyer wrote an openly critical letter to the Chinese legislature, and Beijing human rights activist Li Jian skewered the shame parade for distracting from larger failures of law enforcement: "If you say that prostitution is illegal, there is an administrative backdrop to the issue. To punish the prostitutes in such a crude manner is a way of avoiding responsibility on the part of the administration and the police."

Optimists see the public outcry as a happy sign of progress; Zhu Dake, a cultural critic at Tongji University in Shanghai, told the Times that the objections show that the Chinese people "are willing to overturn the traditional morality in favor of a more universal notion of human rights. The fact that people came out defending these women shows a real maturity." Still, one line in today's piece suggests that the move toward free expression is still in its nascent stages: "The All China Women's Federation has reportedly sent a letter expressing its concerns to the Public Security Ministry in Beijing," the Times reports, "but later denied having done so."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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