Jerome A. Cohen. Why Prostitutes and Not Pimps? New York Times

July 31, 2010

Some years ago, I went to the city of Fushun in northeast China to meet the deputy mayor in an effort to settle a dispute that started with a Chinese company’s fraud against its American joint venture partner. I was prepared to report the case to the police and prosecutors if necessary but could hardly be confident whether I would be taken seriously.

As I approached Fushun by taxi, I was passed by a long parade of open trucks that interested me more than it did the roadside pedestrians who took little note. In the open part of each truck stood three hapless Chinese, each held by the scruff of the neck by a uniformed policeman and each wearing a large sign with the name “Economic Criminal.”

It was not clear where they were going or had come from. Were they en route to a public accusation, a mass trial or sentencing or even a mass execution? Or was this vehicle parade, held during one of China’s periodic “strike hard” campaigns against crime, simply a public deterrent against further misconduct?

I told the mayor, who was responsible for supervising the defrauding company, how happy I was to see that economic crime was being vigorously suppressed. He got the point and settled amicably.

Every government “shames.” The questions are always: how, for what purposes and with what effects? Some government actions are designed to shame, but shame is often a byproduct of other actions that serve less controversial purposes.

The Chinese people continue to be troubled by crime and need effective police protection. Yet their increasingly educated and “rights conscious” society increasingly condemns police arrogance, brutality and errors. Memories of the public humiliation, torture, suicide and killing of the Cultural Revolution are still in the minds of mature citizens, and the Internet and, occasionally, investigative journalists reveal and ridicule today’s law enforcement scandals.

Ordinary Chinese who formerly had no voice are beginning to express a strong desire for equality, fairness and justice and for recognition of individual dignity in daily life. They now ask: Why are alleged prostitutes paraded before they are convicted? What about their patrons and pimps and the corrupt police who will let them work again as soon as the “strike hard” campaign is over?

Will this latest attempt by the central government to stop this form of “shaming” succeed? Those who understand China’s government have a saying: “The center has its policies. The locality has its ways of evading them.”

The following comment by Professor Jerome A. Cohen appeared in the New York Times “Room for Debate” web-feature on July 31, 2010. Professor Cohen was one of several scholars to comment upon China’s recent ban on public shaming of criminal suspects.