When police in booming Shenzhen organized a parade of 100 prostitutes, pimps, madams and their customers recently, there was little to suggest they were on shaky ground. Not only did it seem like a great way to kick off a two-month anti-prostitution campaign, the methodology was time-tested: Public shaming has featured prominently in China's criminal justice system for thousands of years.
In show-trial fashion, the shackled defendants were marched through Shenzhen's Shazui neighborhood, better known locally as "Mistress Village," in government-issue yellow shirts and black pants. Photos by local journalists show the women trying to cover their faces at the late November event. Any hope of anonymity was soon frustrated when police began calling out the names and addresses of each alleged offender to a crowd of 1,000 or so, announcing a 15-day sentence and ushering them to waiting prison vans.
The name-and-shame campaign has backfired, however, amid a growing social debate over individual privacy and the limits of state intrusion.
Within a week, more than 100,000 people had weighed in on the Internet, the closest thing to voting in China's one-party state, with opinions on the Sina Web portal running 7 to 3 against the police.
Several regional state-run papers on their websites condemned the move as an ineffective, unacceptable violation of privacy. China has vaguely worded language on privacy in its labor, medical and postal laws and in the constitution, but implementation is often arbitrary at the hands of a traditionally intrusive state. Some Netizens questioned the logic of going after little fish while ignoring corrupt police and officials protecting the rackets. Lawyers and academics called on the National People's Congress to enact tougher laws preventing such treatment.
"The police may have had good intentions, but what they did was illegal," said Song Yixin, an attorney with the Shanghai Newhope law firm, citing a regulatory change in the 1980s that banned public humiliation of suspects. "This is reminiscent of China 20 years ago. And to have it happen in as developed a place like Shenzhen is shocking."
Song said the event may have a silver lining by forcing China to fundamentally rethink its privacy rights policies, in the same way the 2003 police beating death of a graphic designer who was detained for not carrying a residence permit forced an overhaul of vagrancy and migrant worker rules.
As the property-owning middle class has expanded in recent years, the public has pushed back on privacy issues.
Zhejiang province introduced rules this year requiring police to obtain permission from higher officials before entering hotel rooms. Shanghai's Shixi Primary School was forced to scrap a fingerprint monitoring system for students last year in the wake of widespread criticism over students' privacy rights. The central government is drafting privacy and government disclosure laws.
Privacy lawsuits, virtually unimaginable in the 1980s, are increasingly common. These range from reports of a farmer who sued a local hospital in April for plastering his X-rays on hospital brochures to those of a 22-year-old single woman who won $1,200 in a privacy suit in far western Xinjiang a few years ago after a doctor allowed 20 interns to witness her abortion.
The outcry over privacy issues notwithstanding, China's increasingly well-funded, tech-savvy security regime has more resources at its disposal than ever before.
Since the 2003 launch of the government's Gold Shield Program, police have collected digital records on 1.25 billion of the nation's 1.3 billion people, police official Liu Shuo told the official New China News Agency this spring. An estimated 30,000 cyber police monitor the surfing habits of Internet users. At least 200,000 cameras monitor residents in Beijing and Shanghai, with tens of thousands in smaller cities, amid plans by many cities to double those numbers within five years.
Although most Chinese appear to believe the police and central government have their best interests in mind, they're also increasingly worried about data leakage by corrupt officials to sales-hungry companies. In a nationwide survey in June, the state-run China Youth Daily found 91% were worried about misuse of private information and 74% in favor of tougher laws.
Too much information
Survey respondents expressed shock at how much salespeople knew about them, not limited to their names and incomes, but their children's birthdays, the direction their apartments faced and their license plate numbers. "Even the recently divorced get calls from marital go-betweens," the newspaper said, blaming government agencies for the leaks.
The Chinese website Souren, or "personal search," and its competitors advertise access to 90 million ordinary people's incomes, marital status and other sensitive information for as low as 12 cents per request.
In line with society's gradual change in mind-set, police shaming campaigns in recent decades have become less common. But China has employed shame as a means of social control and crime deterrence for most of its history, experts said, extending through the Cultural Revolution.
"Shaming was very popular in ancient times with the trip from the court to jail to exile all a form of public humiliation," said Chen Xiaoming, professor of law at Xiamen University. "Punishment included tattooing on a criminal's face and cutting off their feet."
Tattooing of criminals was highly codified, with certain colors and certain parts of the body reserved for specific crimes, historians said. Other methods included cutting off noses to engender social stigma and tying people up in public with signboards so fellow citizens could throw vegetables and other objects at them.
When the Communist Party took power in 1949, cadres were given broad latitude to pry into citizens' lives, dictating how they should dress, act and think. At the peak, the state even monitored women's menstrual cycles under the one-child campaign.
Shenzhen, a fast-paced economic center abutting Hong Kong, has a reputation as a vice capital for Hong Kong businessmen with mistresses or second wives. At least 10 of those arrested were reportedly Hong Kong residents.
The two-month anti-graft push, which lasts through December, is officially known as the Special Campaign to Crack Down on Prostitution-Related Crime.
"It's hard to imagine what the police chief who organized this was thinking," said Song, the attorney. "The ignorant aren't afraid of anything."
Gu Bo in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.