By Nectar Gan and CNN’s Beijing Bureau
Police in southern China paraded four suspects through the streets for allegedly smuggling people across sealed borders in breach of pandemic control measures — a controversial act of public shaming that triggered backlash on Chinese social media.
On Tuesday, four people wearing hazmat suits, face masks and goggles were paraded in Jingxi city, Guangxi province — each carrying placards showing their names and photos on their chest and back, according to videos shared on social media and republished by state media outlets.
Each suspect was held by two officers — also wearing hazmat suits and face shields. They were surrounded by yet another circle of police, some holding machine guns and in riot gear, while a large crowd looked on.
The four people were suspected of helping others to illegally cross China’s borders, which have been largely sealed during the pandemic as part of the country’s “zero-Covid policy,” according to the state-run Guangxi Daily,
The punishment was aimed at deterring border-related crimes and encouraging public compliance with epidemic prevention and control measures, the Guangxi Daily said.
On Tuesday, authorities in Jingxi formally arrested two suspects accused of transporting two Vietnamese immigrants into China in October. One of the immigrants tested positive for coronavirus, causing schools to shut, nearly 50,000 residents to undergo home isolation and more than 10,000 tests to be conducted, according to a report on the Jingxi government website. It is unclear if the two suspects were among the four people paraded on Tuesday.
Echoes of Cultural Revolution
Border towns face tremendous pressure to keep coronavirus out under China’s stringent zero-Covid policy, with local officials periodically fired or punished for failing to contain any flare-ups that evade the tough measures.
Jingxi, a city of about 670,000 people, shares a 152-kilometer (94-mile) border with Vietnam. In neighboring Yunnan province, the city of Ruili was repeatedly locked down for months earlier this year due to imported Covid cases, sparking an outcry from local residents.
Since Tuesday, videos of the public shaming in Jingxi have gained wide attention on Chinese social media, drawing widespread criticism.
To many, the parade and placards hark back to the dark period of the Cultural Revolution. Five decades ago, public shaming exercises were a hallmark of the persecutions unleashed by Mao Zedong’s fervent Red Guards, becoming a symbol of the lawlessness and chaos of that decade of social turmoil.
In 1988, the Chinese government banned shaming parades for all suspected and convicted criminals, including those sentenced to death. But similar incidents have occurred repeatedly over the years, prompting criticism from state media — and more notices reiterating the ban from the government.
In 2010, a government adviser hailed a newly issued ban on shaming parades of sex workers as a sign of “the country’s growing respect for human rights and dignity,” state news agency Xinhua reported.
This time, state media weighed in too. The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid, cited a law professor as saying the public shaming in Jingxi “violates Chinese law” and “insults the dignity of citizens.”
The Beijing News, another state-run outlet, said the measure “severely violates the spirit of the rule of law,” and should not be allowed to happen even when under huge pressure of epidemic prevention.
Meanwhile, the Jingxi police and local government have defended the exercise, claiming it was an “on-site disciplinary warning activity” and there was no “inappropriateness,” according to the state-run Zhengzhou Daily.
This is not the first time Jingxi authorities have paraded suspects.
In November, three people accused of people smuggling were held on stage while an official read out their punishments to an audience of hundreds, including primary school students, according to a report on the Jingxi government website.
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