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
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…

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