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How to Deal with the Chinese Police

Zaoyu jingcha: Zhongguo weiquan diyixian qinli gushi [Encounters with the Chinese Police: Stories of Personal Experience at the First Line of Defense of Chinese Rights]

edited by Xu Youyu and Hua Ze
Hong Kong: Kaifeng chubanshe, 370 pp., HK $100.00
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Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photos
An umbrella salesman being arrested by two plainclothes officers a moment after unfurling an apparently apolitical, sports-related banner in front of the Shanghai World Expo (­hoping it would be captured by the foreign photographer who was nearby), April 2010

A casual visitor to China today does not get the impression of a police state. Life bustles along as people pursue work, fashion, sports, romance, amusement, and so on, without any sign of being under coercion. But the government spends tens of billions of dollars annually (more than on national defense) on domestic weiwen, or “stability maintenance.” This category includes the regular police, courts, and prisons, but also censors and “opinion guides” for the Internet, plainclothes police, telephone snoops, and thugs for hire, whose work is to keep citizens in line. The targets are people who tend to get out of line—petitioners, aggrieved workers, certain professors and religious believers, and others. The stability maintainers are especially attentive to any sign that an unauthorized group might form. The goal is to stop “trouble” before it starts.

Weiwen does blanket coverage, but the blanket, most of the time, is soft. This is because citizens are well accustomed to monitoring themselves. They are aware of what kinds of public speech and behavior are to be avoided and they know that kicking the police blanket is not only dangerous but nearly always futile. People who do it, they feel, are odd, perhaps even stupid.

Those who do choose to stand out from the crowd, risking the label of “troublemaker,” immediately come into focus for weiwen. Police arrive for “visits.” They warn. They cajole. Failing that, they threaten and harass. Beyond that, they detain and charge with crimes. At each step they check with “superiors.”

It takes unusual character to stand up to this. People who do it are strong, stubborn, and, as their families and friends sometimes see it, high-minded to the point of obtuseness. The passions of some have been kindled by personal loss—an imprisoned brother, a murdered son, a razed home—while others are indignant primarily at the injustices they see around them. Many are idealists, oddly willing to risk personal safety because China falls short of what they want it to be. Some are lured by the image of heroism, even knowing that its price could be martyrdom. For many, there is a mix of these motives. In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon, a translation of essays from a book published last year in Hong Kong called Encounters with the Police, introduces fourteen such people.

A first question is why they are so important. They are a small minority, nonviolent, not wealthy, and not high-ranking. Many are women. Why are they not just marginal irritants—like “lice on a lion,” as the regime says (if indeed it says anything about them at all)? It is quite clear that they are much more than that, and that their audacity poses a genuine threat to the regime. Ironically, the best evidence for this comes from the regime itself—not in how it speaks of them but in how it handles them. It regularly “invites” them to tea and asks that they “coordinate” with police by sharing their plans; it monitors and if necessary confiscates their telephones and computers; it stations police at their doors (where, during “sensitive” times like anniversaries of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, they remain around the clock).

Among its many anecdotes, In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon tells how, on a cold day in 2010, Ding Zilin, a seventy-three-year-old retired professor of philosophy, leaves her house with her husband, Jiang Peikun, to travel from Wuxi to Beijing. Jiang is ill. Two plainclothes policemen intercept the couple, tell them to get out of their car and into a police car, escort them to the Wuxi rail station, and then board the train to “share a compartment” with them. In Beijing, another car from State Security awaits them. Why all the attention, time, and expense? What does an elderly professor have that calls for such solicitude from a government that owns the world’s largest reserves of foreign currency and commands the world’s largest standing army?

Ding Zilin has—and it is all she has—the power to tell unapproved truths. Her son Jiang Jielian was killed when the army invaded Tiananmen in June 1989, and she later organized and led the Tiananmen Mothers, a support group for families of other victims of that massacre. She also became a mentor to Liu Xiaobo, who, just four days before her train ride to Beijing with the police, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. The prize was given in absentia because Liu remained in a Chinese prison, convicted of “incitement of subversion of state power.” These facts, at this “sensitive time,” were more than enough to assign police escorts to her. Their appearance was a symptom of a real fear that she plants in the minds of the men who rule China. What if her ideas get out and begin to spread?

Václav Havel, observing the response of the Soviet government to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s, described

a desperate attempt to plug up the wellspring of truth, a truth which might cause incalculable transformations in social consciousness, which in turn might one day produce political debacles unpredictable in their consequences.

The mentalities of the Kremlin in the 1970s and of Zhongnanhai—the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party and state—today differ in important respects, but this fear of truth-from-below, so well described by Havel, is something that the two groups share. It arises from awareness that public acquiescence to their rule is often performance more than conviction.

Official language, obligatorily true at one level, at another level is hollow. The rulers themselves need to deal with this language bifurcation. On the topic of the 1989 massacre, for example, they can announce that “the Chinese people have made their correct historical judgment” on the “counterrevolutionary riots.” But do they themselves believe this? If they did, would they not open Tiananmen Square every year on June 4 to allow the masses to come in and denounce the rioters? What they actually do, each year, is the opposite: they send plainclothes police to prevent any sign of commemoration of any kind. They plug that “wellspring of truth,” as Havel calls it. Ding Zilin and everyone else in In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon are plug-pullers.

The “superiors” who order the repression do not appear in the book. They operate behind the scenes. The people we see face-to-face with the plug-pullers are several kinds of underlings. They are normally young and more often male than female. They receive assignments and are paid to carry them out. They sometimes show respect for the people they are watching and speak frankly of “just doing my job.” They make it clear that they are not very well paid, and sometimes talk about their work schedules. Overtime work can be welcome if it entails following someone to a restaurant where state-issued coupons can be used to order fancy meals.

These books show us that they are sometimes not even official employees of the state, but ordinary people, including migrant workers, who are willing to work as temporary employees. There are companies that sell control services by contract. But no street-level police worker of any variety answers questions about policy; they refer these to superiors. Sometimes they don’t even use the word “superiors” but just point a finger upward to explain why they are doing what they are doing. One level above them are police who work in local stations or detention centers. These personnel are generally older, more experienced, and better trained in methods of interrogation. We see some of them in In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon. They have a certain latitude to make tactical decisions, but on weighty questions (like how to handle the travel of a truth-telling seventy-three-year-old professor) they, too, turn to their superiors.

What fills the pages of the book, therefore, is mostly the verbal stand-offs between two very different kinds of people: on one side, obdurate truth-tellers insisting on principle; on the other, people trying to do their jobs in order to earn salaries. What the two sides have in common is that each has an incentive to keep talking to the other. For the truth-tellers, the talk is a passion; for the police, it is a tool in control work. The symbiosis generates a language game that seems unusual by standards of other cases in the world to which it might be compared. Police in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe were not nearly so talkative. They were brusque; business was business. In South Africa under apartheid, blacks dissimulated in their use of language in order to get by, and in that sense also played a language game, but there was nothing like the extensive give-and-take of the game that has evolved in recent decades in China. The matching of wits, the thrusting and parrying, and the posing (even while pretending not to pose, and even though both sides see through the pretending) all seem quite unusual.

For example, a young woman named Huang Yaling, two days after Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize was announced in Oslo in October 2010, went to the Norway Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo to present a bouquet of flowers and a note that said “I love Norway.” The police noticed and invited her to tea. Here are excerpts of her interview with a male policeman. (This account, and another I draw on, appear only in the Chinese-language version of the anthology.)

“Did you go to the World Expo?”
“Yes.”
“To which pavilions?”
“Norway and Denmark. The others had too many people and I didn’t want to wait in line….”
“Was there anything you found especially memorable?”
“Oh, I met the director of the Norway Pavilion! He was as handsome as a movie star!”
“You’re married and you notice the good looks of some foreigner?”
“Why can’t I admire somebody’s good looks? My husband can enjoy the beauty of a foreign woman, and I bet you do, too!”
“I’m not married, so of course I can look at pretty girls. What about that director? You know what we’re asking about, so just cooperate!”
“I gave the director a bouquet.”
“And what did he do?”
“Accepted it.”
“What was the director’s name?”
“Aiya, what a pity! I forgot to ask the name. Do you know his name?”
“How would I know his name?!… What did you say when you presented the bouquet?”
“I love Norway and I’m offering these flowers to Norway.”
“Why give flowers to Norway?”
“I like Norway…. What else can I do?”
“Why do you like Norway?”

A few minutes later:

“All right, enough chit-chat, I’ll cooperate. You want to know why I brought a bouquet to the Norway Pavilion? I’ll tell you, but first you have to show me your IDs….
“Why do you care about our IDs? You’re still not cooperating. Do we need to get a subpoena?”
“Who asked you to be so rude? Come on, let’s shake hands and then I’ll give you all the details.”
“We came to do our jobs, not to shake hands. Our job is to understand the situation. Why did you bring flowers to the Norway Pavilion?”
“OK, it was because of the Nobel Peace Prize.”
“What about it?”
“I was happy about it. Aren’t you? Aren’t you happy that a Chinese won the Nobel Peace Prize?”
“It’s not our job to talk about being happy.”

The words “our job” are significant. For police at this level, the job is to extract information. Their methods are remarkably similar nationwide—a fact that reflects their training. An important priority is to uncover a person’s contacts. Twenty years ago, this meant examining address books; today it means confiscating computers and cell phones. The police note e-mail addresses and read e-mail. They sometimes imitate a person’s style in order to send out bogus e-mail, hoping to lure unwitting responses. In interrogation, many questions are about a person’s associates: Who told you to do this? Who was with you? and so on. For their part, detainees often announce in advance that “I will talk to you, but in principle will say nothing one way or another about anyone else.”

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