IP and Law

Please go elsewhere for prostitution

The following warning sign was erected at Beijing's Sihui subway station:

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The sign, captured in an article in the Beijing Times, is intended to warn passers-by that the area around the Sihui station is a hotspot for scams. It lists off a number of the most common swindles - items 3-10 on the list outline techniques to watch for. Citizens are encouraged to dial a police hotline if they encounter any suspicious situations.

It is #2, however, that has caught the most attention: "Streetwalking and soliciting prostitutes, as illegal activities, are strictly prohibited in this place" (此地区严禁站街、招嫖等违法活动). "This place" (此地) naturally leads one to wonder if prostitution is allowed elsewhere.

As reported in BT, the PSB erected the sign in response to the "special circumstances" in the Sihui area - it's meant to warn people about the presence of prostitutes rather than to make any statement about the law. And online mockery at the "incompetence and stupidity" of the police was condemned in a number of newspaper editorials this week, which suggested that the critics were being unfair to the police by getting hung up on language.

Some opinion pieces were more nuanced. An editorial in China Business View suggests that slogan banners are a cover for lazy government. Here's an excerpt:

Having erected a sign out of good will only to become "news" in the bubble of public opinion, I'd guess that the local PSB is pretty depressed. Citizens' objections are obviously just linguistic quibbles; the value judgment of whether or not soliciting prostitutes is permitted rests on the bottom line of the law and on ethical standards rather than the absurd logic that "what the signs do not prohibit is permissible." In a certain respect, we do not question the good motives of this warning by local law enforcement; two things can be inferred from "soliciting prostitutes strictly prohibited in this place": one, "soliciting prostitutes in this place" is a rampant practice; two, this is probability-based crime prevention aimed at potential "solicitation of prostitutes in this place." However, the problem is that the public notice so solemnly set up by the PSB is not something that can be casually "prohibited"; some slogan banners go against the normal model of life in society. First, "soliciting prostitutes strictly prohibited in this place" assumes that the target of the prohibition is anyone who reads the banner, creating a feeling of antagonism. Second, striking at "soliciting prostitutes" is within the scope of PSB work, in the purview of things it can control. This is not like mountain roads in transportation; if the sign said, "This area has frequent accidents and steep grades; speeding is prohibited", I'd expect that no driver would ask, "so speeding is allowed in other places then?" But "soliciting prostitutes is prohibited" is comical because the language hints at the shirking of responsibilities. It creates the misconception that citizens' ethical standards are being underestimated to achieve "lazy government-by-slogan."

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Comrade, have you read the banner today?

There is no need to dance around the issue that "slogan worship" is the epidemic of our age. Lots of actions that cross the line have been placed under a collective prohibition - for example, "teachers are prohibited from abusing students," "officials are prohibited from graft and accepting bribes," "doctors are prohibited from accepting cash gifts"....on the one hand this no doubt leads one to believe that many practices must be prohibited, but on the other hand it leads one to wonder: has the entire framework holding together the normal order of the workings of society really become so weak? In public life there are so many laws and regulations, as well as the good habits and social order that have been followed throughout the ages; in our every movement there are so many things that must be "prohibited," but with morals and beliefs, restraint and good character, even if there is no "prohibited" banner, this society can still be bright and harmonious. We cannot put all of those professional standards, personal ethics, and social customs on to banners for "prohibition," can we? Actually, slogan banners are impotent; they are secondary to ethical constraints, for their coldness and coercion very easily push people away. Suppose that slogan banners would actually prohibit solicitation of prostitutes - in that case the taxpayers would have gotten rid of most branches of public power long ago.

A city full of "prohibitions" does not seem much like a livable city; at least, the content of the "prohibitions" are enough to give us the chills. If "prohibited" is seen as a warning, then the city government is broad and generous with its warnings, and in some respects this shines a light on the actual value of the responsibilities of working sections. If the government truly wants to be a good "patron saint," then it should not be pointing fingers at us prohibiting this and that. Rather, it should simply give us a space that needs no "prohibitions" yet allows us to live happily.

Nanguo Zaobao argues that the sign is useful precisely because it doesn't paint a rosy picture of society:

Addressing the real situation, regardless of how the police augment their enforcement, regardless of how severely they strike, it is perhaps far too little to keep up with the expansion of crime. Timewise, they are half a step too late. Looking again at the solicitation phenomenon, there is not a single country in the world that can wipe it out. Naturally, neither can Beijing's Sihui Subway Station. The PSB has realized that prostitute solicitation is serious in this place, and they have struck at it severely in the past, but they never have been able to completely erase it from the area. So, with no other options, they set up a notice board, demonstrating that the police are thinking from the perspective of the welfare of the city's residents, that they are thinking of the people. So we cannot view this as the "incompetence and stupidity" of the police, but rather their hard work and seeking truth from facts.

Actually, the police were completely free not to erect the sign; that way the people would have no need to go off on it. Like the police said, erecting the notice sign was meant to inform passers-by that if they encountered this sort of thing, they could immediately call the police hotline. This is thinking of the people. But some of the people took hold of the two words "this place" and without any further thinking mocked the police as "incompetent and stupid", seeing the good intentions of the police as malicious. I believe that this is unfair to the police. At many times, our expectations of others are very high; we expect the police to eliminate criminal phenomena, but this is far too idealistic. In real life this is something that cannot be achieved. The tall, strong, perfect figures (高大全) created in literary works of the past are very hard to find in real life. The saying goes that there is no completely pure gold, and there are no completely perfect people. As for the police, we similarly cannot demand perfection. In my opinion, honesty to seek truth from facts is far more "people-centered" than spinning pretty untruths.

Mocking a notice sign that seeks truth from facts will distance us from seeking truth from facts; we will be plunged into a completely nonexistent prosperity, and ultimately we will be the ones who suffer.

This particular episode is actually part of a larger debate over how to approach crimes like prostitution, graft, and bribery that still manage to flourish despite repeated efforts to wipe them out. In August, for example, there were questions about the sincerity of an oath taken by five hundred Guangzhou civil servants who promised to resist corruption over the course of their careers. And last fall there was a serious discussion about the long-term value of the "campaign" model of law-enforcement: if certain laws are strictly enforced during periodic, short campaigns, does this not encourage disregard for those laws at other times?

See also: The ten most absurd regulations in China.

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