China Sex, Prostitutes, Rule of Law, Unintended Consequences, and Bull Connor

I usually avoid writing on the really big China issues, figuring they get enough coverage elsewhere. I am veering from this now because there is still more to be said about the recent Shenzhen prostitute “shaming” incident.

When I first saw the pictures of the prostitutes with their heads bowed, I instantly thought of Bull Connor:

One of the most enduring images of the Civil Rights Movement is that of Birmingham firemen and policemen using water hoses and police dogs against African-American demonstrators in 1963 Birmingham. The episode came during the first week of May, following a month of peaceful demonstrations by Birmingham’s African-American community against their city’s segregation ordinances. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who described Birmingham as “the most segregated city in America,” organized the demonstrations with the help of local civil rights leader Fred L. Shuttlesworth and others. “Bull” Connor tried to stop the growing demonstrations, and gained lasting infamy when he resorted to using the water hoses and dogs. Televised reports of police dogs lunging at African-American citizens and people being washed down the streets by water from powerful fire hoses dramatized the plight of African-Americans in segregated areas. The events in Birmingham helped mobilize the administration of President John Kennedy to begin efforts leading to the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The name “Bull” Connor thus came to symbolize hardline Southern racism. Ironically, Connor’s heavy-handed defense of segregation in 1963 Birmingham actually hastened the passage of America’s Civil Rights Act.

Those pictures of Bull Connor and his henchmen spurred America to live up to its laws and to its ideals. In China’s Sex Workers, The Wall Street Journal talked of China’s views on the shaming incident:

The prostitutes’ parade through Shenzhen was unusual for another aspect: It has touched off a lively public debate. A Shanghai-based lawyer wrote an open letter to the National People’s Congress claiming the march was illegal. Bloggers weighed in in cyberspace. On a online survey conducted a few days after the incident, more than 69% of those logged in disapproved of the public condemnation, compared to 25% who supported it.

The majority see the shaming incident for what it was: a feeble attempt by the government to exercise moral authority. The sex trade is one of the blots on modern China, but it will take more than public humiliation to curtail it.

The Pandagon Blog, in Panty Sniffing Moral Scolds, had this to say about the incident:

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better image of prurience that motivates moral scolds. The police of Shenzhen are trying to conduct a vice crackdown, and this is their brilliant idea on how to handle prostitution — march suspected prostitutes and johns into the street and read their names out loud so everyone can get a sick thrill out of shaming them. Regardless of how you feel about prostitution, this is unacceptable. The problem associated with prostitution that should concern people is the way that most women involved are being mistreated and exploited. The little stunt is just an extension of the same mistreatment and abuse prostitutes get on the job, only this time the dogpile of abuse has a stamp of social approval on it.

Sentencing Law and Policy Blog, in A Chinese shaming stirs controversy and debate, also noted the uproar:

Whatever one might think about the specifics of this punishment in China, it is notable that a public shaming sanction has prompted a national and international debate about Chinese crime and punishment.  I doubt that the Chinese (or NY Times) buzz would have been as great if all these defendants were simply locked up or fined.

China Rises, in Public Shaming in Shenzhen, linked the Shenzhen shaming to “rule-of-law issues in China:”

It might seem a stretch to link this event with rule-of-law issues in China. But there is a link. The story didn’t just fade away. A variety of people are seeking legal redress, and Shenzhen is feeling the heat. The South China Morning Post reports this morning that some police who carried out the raid “may face disciplinary punishment” amid an outcry that the vice parade was a human rights violation.

The Washington Post, in Public Shaming of Prostitutes Misfires in China, wrote extensively on the public outcry:

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

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.”

But since nobody has seen fit to speculate on its long term impact, I will.

Something like this has to have an impact, however small. China’s government is obviously not a democracy, yet it still both wants and needs its people to view it as legitimate. Its people generally viewed the Shenzhen shaming as illegitimate. Because of this, the power to parade prostitutes has probably been taken from the Chinese government and that means new power lines have been drawn. Whether this line will extend beyond just this one thing remains to be seen. But this incident ought to at least give the Chinese government a little more pause before trampling on the rights of its people.

A morally vapid redneck racist helped advance civil rights in the United States and some dumb power-hungry bureaucrats in Shenzhen may very well end up doing the same thing for China.

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