Red Echoes in China

A petition by two Shaanxi Province women to higher government authorities for redress against what they regarded as unjust local rulings led to a public humiliation that harkens back to the Cultural Revolution – in front of thousands of local residents in their community.

Qiao Zhuanli, 47, petitioned the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing in March, accusing a local court in her home county of Fuping of making an unfair ruling in her lawsuit concerning a financial dispute. Duan Dingmei, 42, also sought to lodge a complaint with Beijing authorities over improper land seizure by village officials at around the same time.

As with other petitioners in China, however, the two women’s cases never reached top authorities. Local government officials, fearing that the petitions could make them look incompetent, were quick to send the two women home after they submitted their documents on March 4.

The two women went home believing the saga had ended, only to be taken by police to a public square, where they say they were shocked to discover more than 10,000 people gathered with a large banner that said “Public prosecution for handling illegal petitioning.”

Public shaming parades have long been a practice in China, with criminal suspects and prostitutes paraded through the streets while onlookers shouted abuse at them. In July, a wave of complaints against the government erupted following the parading of prostitutes in Shenzhen. In 2010, there have been at least 20 public humiliation campaigns against criminals, suspects and prostitutes, local media have reported. In July, the central government called for an end to the practice. However, the two women say their “crime” was nothing more than to attempt to petition the central government for redress.

“We were warned [by police] not to defend ourselves in the meeting and not to speak, otherwise, it would look embarrassing,” Qiao said.

The two women said they were forced – with police holding their arms tight – to face the mass audience and hear their “offenses” read by a public security official, who said they had petitioned illegally and disrupted social order.

“This just reminded me of what happened during the Cultural Revolution. I felt ashamed and painful,” Qiao said, a reference to the 1966-1976 practice of “prosecuting” alleged reactionaries in front of mobs, with local officials reading out their “wrongdoings,” even before they were tried in court to determine their guilt or innocence.

The two women say they were allowed to go home after the public prosecution, but they were depressed over being shamed publicly.

“No one told us before that it was a public humiliation meeting. They just said it was a meeting. I felt something wrong after arriving at the plaza, and a police officer told me not to feel bad because there are many other people who had been humiliated in the past,” Qiao said.

Duan broke down in tears as she watched footage of the prosecution meeting on television. She said she feels disrespected when she walks along the street, and she dares not go out to meet friends and relatives.

“People just say derogatory things about me. I even heard someone saying “Look! That’s the disgraced woman,” she said.

In reality, filing a petition against any local officials in the country’s capital can be dangerous. If provincial government liaison officials discover the petitioner, he or she may end up in so-called “black jails” – usually nondescript quarters in storefronts, where the petitioners are held and often beaten until they agree to shut up. And, even though authorities at the central level stress that they strive to protect the dignity of suspects and criminals, local authorities still believe public humiliation is a “special measure” that should be used to deal with serious crime.

“This is certainly against human rights and the law. People should not be held guilty before a judicial process,” legal scholar Hao Jinsong said in an interview. “Such a practice seriously hurts the dignity of the suspects.”

In November, police in Shanghai said they would support a Web site that posts personal information of Internet users who have spread online rumors and false information, even though there are concerns about invasion of privacy.

“Some local government leaders are still thinking in old mindsets, believing that public punishment is an effective way to deal with crime,” said Mao Shoulong, a professor at Renmin University of China. “The development of the rule of law in some places still seriously lags behind. They believe human rights should be ignored when combating crimes, and by publicly punishing the criminals and suspects, they can promote to their superiors that they have done a lot in maintaining security and order.”

However, the local authorities insist that public humiliation is legal. Defending the use of public humiliation, the local government of Fuping said in a response published in the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post that the special measure has played an important role in educating the masses.

In another statement, the government said the assembly to openly announce the punishment against Duan and Qiao was held to “enhance the transparency of law enforcement,” an act that is legal. It also said the assembly was only attended by several hundred people, not by the 10,000 described by Duan.

Both Mao Shoulong and Hao Jinsong said that in theory, people affected by public humiliation can take the local government to the court, demanding compensation. However, there is no such precedent in China, and it is doubtful whether the courts would accept such a lawsuit.

Mao said the courts may judge on moral grounds, but not on human rights grounds, believing that those who have committed wrongdoings should be punished.

“Besides, I doubt whether lawyers would accept such case. The people affected may need to put in a lot of effort, but get little in return,” he said.

Despite the difficulties, Duan said she will keep demanding that the local government admit it was wrong to publicly humiliate her and quash the accusation that her petition is illegal. She will take the matter to court if the demands are not met, she said.

“There is no word can describe how pained I am,” Duan said. “I have not done anything wrong and I cannot tolerate such suffering.”