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 -- were 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.
So-called rectification campaigns, or struggle sessions, like these were everyday occurrences during the Cultural Revolution, which officially ended in 1976. In that benighted era, popular justice was meted out and so-called class enemies were publicly beaten, then forced to make confessions and sent to camps for re-education.
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 www.163.com.
"Must we go back to the era of the Cultural Revolution?" the person asked.
"Isn't this a brutal violation of human rights?" asked another, who likened the parading to an act out of the Middle Ages. "Shenzhen's image has been deeply shamed."
It was reported that the All China Women's Federation had 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.
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. "A person who really knows Shenzhen would feel that this is not harsh enough, because the prostitution industry has become so prosperous there."
In recent years the Internet has served as an important barometer of the public mood in China, and increasingly it functions as an outlet for criticism.
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.
A poster on one Internet forum put it more plainly: "They only dare go after mosquitoes, but they are frightened of the tigers."
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