Shenzhen regresses to Middle Ages

// 13 December 2006

Around 100 prostitutes have been “paraded in front of a jeering crowd, their names revealed, and then driven away to jail without trial” in the Chinese city of Shenzhen.

The New York Times reports that this was part of an official two-month crackdown on prostitution. And it was televised.

The All China Women’s Federation has reportedly sent a letter expressing its concerns to the Public Security Ministry in Beijing, but later denied having done so. At least one lawyer has stepped forward to defend the prostitutes, citing legal reforms in 1988 that banned acts of public chastisement.

“With the development of human civilization and law, this kind of barbaric punishment with its strong element of vengeance has been abandoned,” Yao Jianguo, a Shanghai lawyer, wrote in a public letter addressed to the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature.

Paraphrasing a famous letter by William Pitt during a debate over the excise tax in Britain in 1763, he wrote: “Wind may come in, rain may come in, but the King may not, which is to say that even a poor person living in a slum has his own inviolable rights.”

It is deeply worrying, as well, that the women’s organisation seems to be unwilling or unable to challenge this incident.

“Looming in the background of this case is the fact that the sex trade emerged along with China’s reforms themselves,” said Li Jian, a prominent Beijing human rights activist who has called for organized action to defend the arrested women. “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.”

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