China is still a police state (?)

For those who have never visited China, the country offers much more freedom than you are probably imagining. For those who’ve visited for quick trips, China is likely far more restrictive than what you’ve experienced. For most people in China, the lack of freedom only occasionally asserts itself as the veneer of “reform and opening up” gives way, exposing the fact that in many ways, China is still a police state.

Despite my daily reading of abuses and scandals, these breaches rarely appear in daily life. This is partially why I try to avoid reporting on every act of depravity, they don’t reflect the China I know. At times it feels like there are two completely separate realms, the one in the papers and the one that I love. However, from time to time I do catch a glimpse of something that leaves me shaking (often with rage or sorrow), unable to mesh the disparate realities into a coherent picture of China.

Twice I have seen petitioners dragged away screaming.

Once was during my time in Chengdu. Just as my bus passed the central square, an older woman dropped to her knees in the road, prostrating before an official’s sedan. She kowtowed two or three times before men appeared, and pulled her into the gov’t compound. The passengers on the bus pressed their faces to the window as the woman called for justice, but their interest disappeared almost as quickly as the woman.

A few months before that I had stood in the same square celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It was one of the few moments outside of Chinese New Year that I had seen such public revelry. A crowd of thousands had gathered for a fireworks display and the street leading to the square had more flags than I could count. It was a reminder of not only the progress China had made since 1949, but also how far it had moved since reform and opening up began.

These two memories of the square seem at odds in my mind, yet occupy the same space.

Another time, I saw a group of men holding signs outside the gov’t building in Nanjing on my way to work. The morning traffic allowed a slightly longer view as the scene unfolded. Both sides were dressed in the puffy black jackets symbolic of a Chinese winter, for the most part it seemed as though the gov’t was willing to permit this venting of frustration. Then chaos descended and out of the mess of violence, I saw a man handcuffed and dragged, his arms behind his back, out of sight.

I pass that same place every morning. When I see the plain clothed officers pacing back and forth with their coats and purses, which seems to be their unofficial uniform, or when I’m not too distracted by traffic, the weather, or the shoving on the bus, I remember the man who was taken away.

Other reminders of State control are no less jarring – having police wake you as you sleep in the airport so they can record your passport number in their log, or waiting as officers check ID cards on long bus rides between cities (occasionally dozens of times on a single trip). For me the most unnerving was a visit to the Public Security Bureau (to renew my visa), and being questioned about the various hotels I had stayed at throughout China. The man behind the desk knew far more about my travels than I had thought possible.

For many of my students, their first inkling that China is different from other countries came as they began to explore the web. One day at lunch a Chinese friend who had just returned from the US was struggling to remember the name of his favorite actor, and decided to check IMDB with his iPhone as he had done in the States. The page failed to load, and my friend turned red trying to explain away the error message, even though we both knew the reason.

Who knows how many thousands of netizens stumbled into restrictions over this past week as word spread of Bo’s sacking – my co-workers have been talking about it for days.

I would love to be able to tell you that the things you read in Western papers are complete fabrications (and I hope that day comes soon), but even though China has made reforms in many areas, movement is still restricted, laws are bent at the whim of the powerful, and opposing voices are silenced – China is still a police state.

11 responses to “China is still a police state (?)”

  1. Jin Zhao says:

    That’s really sad, although Bo’s fall perhaps has saved Chengdu, and China, from going down to a road of extreme leftist militarization. I actually just wrote in a post on Guangzhou police’s stops and frisks (, which shows that China is undoubtedly still a police state where citizens are subject to random search and interrogation by the police. And this is in Guangzhou, one of the most industrialized and open cities in China. One can only imagine the situations in smaller cities where local authorities have a lot more power over local residents.

    • Kzy says:

      Yes, thank the heavens we won’t go down Bo’s road of leftist militarization. Instead, it will be Wang Yang’s rightist militarization. Whew, dodged a bullet. :/

  2. me says:

    China is often more of a police state for the Chinese than it is for foreigners. I know that you know this Tom, and I just wanted to add this point to this post. For instance, once when riding on a long distance bus, we were stopped at a narcotics checkpoint and told to disembark. The personal belongings of all the Chinese passengers were systematically and thoroughly checked. However, the armed police said I could just wait on the bus or get out to stretch my legs if I needed to–no need to line up for the search. That was super awkward with the Chinese passengers seeing me standing to the side, seemingly “better” than them because my foreigner status apparently did not warrant a search. Now, if I was of Chinese descent…

    • BB says:

      Where did this search take place exactly? I’m asking out of curiosity since I was once on a business trip to a place in Yunnan and our van was also checked by the PAP (at least I assume it was the PAP – the uniforms looked like it should be them) at a permanent checkpoint. Everyone was checked but it took them a bit longer to check my documents; possibly because they had little experience with non-Chinese passports/identity documents. They certainly didn’t forego checking me because I was the only foreigner there. I assume that, as is often the case, it comes down to the people at the scene, their mood, and their own attitudes towards policy and enforcement.

      • me says:

        They still checked my passport, but they didn’t have any interest in searching me or my belongings for narcotics.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Sorry, I get the privileged foreigner angle, but how does this example indicate a police state? Tom’s entry is about suppression of dissent. Random searches and ID checks are a different animal altogether, unless I’m missing the point and Arizona is a police state.

      • Tom says:

        I think Me’s point was that these checks also serve to limit mobility. Sometimes the checks are for drugs and contraband, other times they are used to keep petitioners from reaching higher levels of authority.

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  4. Lorin Yochim says:

    Quick clarification of your description of the protest above, Tom (“Both sides were dressed in the puffy black jackets symbolic of a Chinese winter”). Who is the other side?

    • Tom says:

      A mixture of plainclothes police and somewhat uniformed police on one side and petitioners on the other. After passing the gov’t buildings 2-3x a day for a few months, it becomes rather easy to spot the plainclothes.

  5. Chopstik says:

    In your first example, you note the woman who was suddenly taken away in front of a busload of passengers who could plainly see what was happening. Their interest disappeared as quickly as she did within the government compound? Somehow, I doubt it. I suspect it is more a case of not wanting to know and not wanting to get involved. Their interest was therefore sublimated in order to protect themselves and will only surface when it is safe to do so – and that will only be when they are not among strangers.

    And you were, in my opinion, spot on with your observation about people who have never been to China having a certain misperception about China being a severe police state (North Korea?) and those who’ve been only on short visits being more permissive than might have otherwise been imagined previously. I’ve had to defend China as being more open than a Stalinist state with those who’ve never visited and tend to have a very negative view of China and simultaneously point out to the casual visitors that they’ve only seen a small fraction of a country and that it is far more complex than the little they’ve actually seen. However, I think the same is applicable to most anywhere in the world. I’ve met more than a few people who fear to visit America because “everyone has a gun, it’s like the Wild West” or other such nonsense or Americans not willing to visit France because they don’t bathe properly and the men are all misogynist and egocentric.


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