To local officials combating Shenzhen's reputation as a den of vice, it seemed like a good idea, the perfect way to dissuade provincial girls from turning to prostitution in the big city and frighten away the men who patronize their brothels.
So after raiding the karaoke bars, saunas and barbershops where prostitutes often ply their trade, police in the southern Chinese boomtown paraded about 100 women and their alleged johns in the street, using loudspeakers to read out their names and the misdeeds they were accused of committing.
The spectacle, which took place Nov. 29 in the Shenzhen district of Futian, was in many ways unremarkable for a nation in which wrongdoers have long been subject to public humiliation. It recalled the Great Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, when Chinese accused of being intellectuals or reactionaries were routinely paraded in front of jeering crowds.
But times have changed, the Futian Public Security Bureau discovered. Instead of being praised for cracking down on vice, the Futian police came under a hail of criticism for violating the right to privacy of those who were paraded about in public.
The swift outcry, in newspaper interviews and on the Internet, provided a dramatic illustration of the distance this vast country has traveled since the Cultural Revolution, when many people embraced such tactics and those who opposed them were afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.
The reaction explained why U.S. and other Western complaints about human rights in China are sometimes ignored here. Although Chinese and foreign activists can point to remaining abuses, many Chinese view the human rights situation as such an improvement that they would rather emphasize how far they have come than how far they have to go.
"Twenty years ago, this kind of parade would have been greeted with unanimous applause," said Kang Xiaoguang, a sociologist with the Rural Development Institute at the People's University of China. "But now it gets more criticism than support because more people realize their rights should be protected. And, of course, they have more channels to voice their criticism, like the Internet."