BEIJING - A few days ago, a taxi driver posted photos on the Internet of a shirtless man handcuffed to a fence in the middle of a road, with two police officers standing by. It was quite obvious that the police were trying to humiliate the man.

A person, even if he has done something illegal, should not become an object of humiliation; once caught, he should be taken to the police station in a timely manner.

According to the taxi driver who posted the photos, this man’s crime was simply riding a moped, which was not allowed on that road. In other words he had committed a minor offense. The man cried that his mother had had a heart attack and was dying. The police seemed uninterested in determining if there was any truth in this.

It’s common practice for police to use humiliation as a way of enforcing the law. For them, shaming criminals in public is entertaining and fun.

Two months ago in Zhoukou City, police tied up fifty suspects and paraded them in public during a crime-prevention campaign. Two years ago, police in Shenzhen made a public display of prostitutes and their clients. Even more infuriatingly, in a campaign organized to welcome the upcoming Asian Games, two women suspected of prostitution were handcuffed, had their shoes removed, and were taken to the games' sites with ropes attached to their backs.

The police believe that by demonstrating their authority, this will intimidate criminals and prevent confrontations. Even among the public, there is a majority of support for this behavior, because seeing hated criminals being humiliated brings them comfort. They believe it is a deterrent.

However, from the perspective of the rule of law, humiliation goes against the judicial spirit. When a person is detained or arrested, they are only suspected of doing something illegal. Whether or not they are ultimately convicted as criminals depends on the court.

Ancient tradition

In a modern and civilized world, all punishments should be based on clear provisions of the law. Any arbitrary penalty outside of the law simply shouldn’t be allowed. In China, publicly shaming criminals has absolutely no legal basis. As early as 1988, two notifications issued by the high court and the Ministry of Public Security clearly banned any public display of people suspected or convicted of a crime, including those on death penalty.

In ancient China, it was a common punishment for the hair, mustache and beard of a criminal to be shaved off. This came from the Confucian idea that one mustn' damage any of the physical attributes inherited from one’s parents. Of course, this was by no means the worst humiliation meted out in those times. One would generally have a very unpleasant time before being beheaded and cut into pieces. 

That local police today still uses similar methods to insult criminals is essentially a way of governing by fear.

Whether or not a society is governed by the rule of the law is not only reflected in the way authorities treat ordinary people, but also, and most importantly, in the way its criminals are treated. Only by maintaning their humanity and dignity is there a real rule of law. 

Read the article in Chinese in the Economic Observer. 

Photo - IISG