Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

CHINA: A Parade Less, A Step Forward

Kit Gillet

BEIJING, Aug 6 2010 (IPS) - Understanding that sex workers have rights too may still be some way off in China, but the government’s decision to stop police from parading them in public to humiliate them appears to reflect changing public attitudes toward those in the sex trade.

The decision announced by the Ministry of Public Security on Jul. 27 was a major change, given that the practice of parading supposed criminals has been around for a long time in China.

Show trials and parades of counter-revolutionaries were a part of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 70s. For the most part, the practice of parading criminals ended in the 1980s, and was until recently seemingly reserved for those in the sex trade.

“There are a number of people who are for this, I just don’t get it,” says He Weifang, an outspoken legal professor at the prestigious Peking University in Beijing. “Thankfully the government couldn’t continue the practice just to cater to a small number of people.”

“Making them parade down the streets accomplished nothing but humiliate these women, and stopping them being able to try to return to a normal life even if they wanted to,” adds He.

In fact, considerable backlash has been emerging against this in recent years, after instances where police allowed journalists to photograph sex workers and publicise the images, or lined them up to name and shame them in front of the public.

So when in July, two sex workers caught in the southern city of Dongguan were paraded barefoot, handcuffed and led by a rope tied around their waists through the streets in broad daylight and photographed, it was too much for many Chinese.

Thousands of online messages denounced this, and the police officer involved was suspended for a month.

“They (sex workers) are also human beings. Where is the respect? What about human rights?” one netizen wrote in an online forum, where many Chinese express their views more freely. Another argued: “It’s not good to keep this up. We should legalise the sex industry or the government should find other jobs for the prostitutes.”

It was after the Dongguan incident that the Ministry of Public Security ordered a stop to the practice, and asked police to act in a “rational, calm and civilised manner.”

Prostitution is illegal and adult prostitutes face a first-time fine of up to 5,000 yuan (739 U.S. dollars) and a custody sentence of up to 15 days. Successive arrests can get a sex worker two years of labour re-education, Gao Fuguo, a Shandong-based human rights lawyer, says in an interview. “When they are in prison some are assaulted. I have also heard that sometimes, they are not allowed to wear any clothes in there,” Gao added.

Statistics on the number of sex workers arrested each year have not been made public, but local media reported that police arrested 1,100 suspects in Beijing in May.

Still, the July ban and the public response to it has somewhat widened the space for discussion of how sex work can be addressed, with some making rare calls for a more social rather than a criminalised approach.

A week after the ban on shame parades was announced – and perhaps emboldened by it – several women in Dongguan took to the streets and asked onlookers to sign a petition demanding the scrapping of anti-prostitution laws.

“Previously, I had no intention of making demands for legalisation. I had only hoped that under the current state of things, the rights and interests of our sisters would receive greater protection,” the group’s leader, Ye Haiyan, founder of the Chinese Women’s Rights Workshop, told ‘Global Voices Online’.

“But the crackdowns this year have been insane and leave me feeling hopeless,” said Ye, who was arrested for organising the protest and later released. “Every day when you look at the news, you see sex workers being criminalised everywhere across the country. When they see the cameras, sisters will hang their heads or cover their faces as they get paraded around, exposed and publicly humiliated,” she added.

At times, arrested sex workers and their clients find their names posted publicly as well. This was what happened in Wuhan city in June, when police, after a sting operation, posted these on a wall outside their police station.

Later, one local public security bureau director whom the ‘People’s Daily’ newspaper identified as ‘Mr Wei’ said: “We think it is not proper to expose the names of prostitutes and we demand the police not directly publish information such as names.”

He maintained, though, that there was nothing illegal about this.

But “of course it is illegal,” Gao said. “Citizens are protected by the law. We can’t regard suspects as animals; this is (going) backwards. It is the trampling of people’s basic rights.”

“There are lots of reasons for women to become prostitutes; they are poor, may have to support their children back in their home village,” Gao continued. “In a word, they have no money, so how can parading these people in public get to the root of the problem? They will still have no money after they are released, and worse, they may have lost their last bit of self-esteem.”

Meantime, activists take heart from slowly changing public opinion toward more compassion, if not yet full respect, for the basic rights of sex workers.

In 2006, when more than 100 sex workers and clients were paraded through the streets of southern Shenzhen city, crowds jeered at them. In contrast, the release of images from the July parade of sex workers in Dongguan prompted many Chinese to come forward with online messages of protest.

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