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December 13, 2006

A Chinese shaming stirs controversy and debate

China_shamingA helpful reader pointed me to this fascinating article in today's New York Times regarding the recent shaming of prostitutes in Shenzhen, China. Here are snippets:

For people who saw the event on television earlier this month, the scene was like a chilling blast from a past that is 30 years distant: social outcasts and supposed criminals — in this case 100 or so prostitutes and a few pimps — paraded in front of a jeering crowd, their names revealed, and then driven away to jail without trial.

The act of public shaming was intended as the first step in a two-month campaign by the authorities in the southern city of Shenzhen to crack down on prostitution.  But the event has prompted an angry nationwide backlash, with many people making common cause with the prostitutes over the violation of their human rights and expressing outrage in one online forum after another....

That this event took place in Shenzhen, the birthplace of China's economic reforms and one of its richest and most open cities, seems to have added to its shock value. "Even people who commit crimes deserve dignity," one person wrote on the popular Internet forum 163.com....  While voices condemning the behavior of the city and its police force were the most energetic, some spoke up in support of the crackdown. "Perhaps you've never been to Shenzhen, or you've been there and you don't have a thorough understanding of the place," wrote one contributor to an Internet forum....

Instead of jumping on the bandwagon against prostitution, which is illegal but omnipresent in China, many commentators aimed their criticisms at the government for its hypocrisy in not acting against the rich underworld that operates the sex trade or even arresting the prostitutes' customers....

Whatever one might think about the specifics of this punishment in China, it is notable that a public shaming sanction has prompted an 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.

Some recent posts on shaming sentences:

December 13, 2006 at 11:05 AM | Permalink


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One need not be opposed to shaming punishment to be opposed to what occurred here.

First and obviously, the article implies this punishment occurred without a trial.

Second, the government created the atmosphere of a "jeering crowd," which, IMHO, makes the person feel more like a victim of the punishment rather than one who is shamed by the punishment. If shaming is going to work, it must be through a non-aggressive attack on the psyche that what the person did was wrong. Having others jeer at a group of people hanging their heads (all dressed in the same clothing) does nothing to promote respect for the law that was violated and only attacks the person's dignity. For all types of punishment (including shaming), violating a person's dignity should be minimized, while here it apparently is the goal. I know many people who are opposed to shaming feel that way because they believe human dignity is unnecessarily attacked. But shaming punishments do not necessarily have to be carried out in such a fashion (as it was here), and instead can be implemented in a way that promotes dignity more than locking a person in a cage can.

Third, prostitution is a crime where it is inappropriate to use shaming punishments. The theory behind shaming is deterrence (general and specific, but mostly specific). But prostitution is generally a crime that cannot be specifically deterred. While I have no idea what the situation in China is, in America the crime is usually one of last resort for women who have no other options. Specific deterrence is simply inapplicable to this type of crime, and the only theories of punishment that are applicable are incapacitation and rehabilitation.

Posted by: DEJ | Dec 13, 2006 11:57:46 AM

This is somewhat reminiscent of the scene in July, 1989 when the DC police marched prostitutes out of the district, over the 14th Street Bridge and into Virginia. Story here: http://www.washtimes.com/metro/20030718-112350-1862r.htm.

Maybe that's where China got the idea?

Posted by: osler | Dec 13, 2006 1:38:03 PM

Were they being marched to the mayor's house?

Posted by: Bernie Kleinman | Dec 14, 2006 9:03:21 AM

China is a repressive authoritarian society that we've enriched with little progress towards the Democratic openness that capitalism was supposed to engender. The Chinese people have not been well served and our judgement in indebting ourselves to such an increasingly empowered authoritarian, anti-democratic country will likely be looked at in retrospect as far more damaging to US than a bunch of crazies in caves.

Posted by: China Debt | Apr 12, 2008 11:08:53 PM

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