By Xu Youyu, published: May 13, 2014
Like the vast majority of Chinese people, I don’t like to deal with the police. When the police come to your door, it always means something unusual or inauspicious has occurred. That’s why the police always say, “Nothing’s wrong with you? If there’s nothing wrong with you, why are we here?” In truth, the Chinese have long cultivated the habits of obedient citizens, and when the police appear, they believe something unlawful must have taken place.
Whether in uniform or plainclothes, police officers symbolize a mysterious power. Omniscient and omnipotent, they can twiddle the common man in the palms of their hands. The police are a fearsome element in daily life; their arrival suggests impending disaster and casts a shadow of self-doubt and unease.
I remember back around 1970, when I was a sent-down youth in An County, Sichuan Province, two county PSB officers came to see me at my production brigade. My sent-down comrades scattered like sparrows after gunfire, nervously whispering among themselves. After the two officers left, a couple of them sidled up to me with darting eyes and asked what was wrong. I said, “The ‘Learn from Dazhai for Agriculture’ exhibition at the county seat went up in flames, and the PSB thinks some sent-down youth did it. Someone told them that I went to the county seat on market day last Sunday, so they came to make inquiries. They wanted me to tell them everything I did that day – where I’d gone and whom I’d seen.” Although I’d told the police everything they wanted to know, I couldn’t dispel my unease over what might happen next. Who knew how many eyes were watching me furtively and what kind of investigation was going on behind my back? I also detected glee in the eyes of some of my comrades. At that time news of sent-down youth would be called back to the cities was making rounds, and there was competition among us for that stroke of luck. The news of my visit from the PSB spread far and wide, and the shadow cast over my prospects no doubt was translated into hopes for others.
The police entered my life around 2006. In China, the police had become part of some citizens’ daily existence due to their ideas, beliefs, writings and associations, and as with others, my initial fury was eventually tempered by acceptance of this fact – the most disgusting and repellent fact of my life.
Still I find it difficult to maintain equanimity either in their face or after they leave. Every encounter and conversation was for me an act of resistance, whether a well-considered response or an outburst of anger. Compared with others, my treatment by the police is probably the least offensive, but the psychic injury inflicted is none the less for it. I’ve never abandoned my effort and resolve to defy them. In doing so, I was defending my dignity and the normalcy of my social life.
October 21, 2010
On October 21, 2010, I exited the elevator of the Academy of Social Sciences building at 5:15 pm to go to a cultural event at 6:00 at the Czech Embassy. The new ambassador had asked professor Cui Weiping (崔卫平) and me to arrive around 5:30 to have coffee together before joining the festivities. That gave me 15 minutes to reach the embassy. Earlier that afternoon, I received a called from Weiping who told me she had been held in a police station and not allowed to go to the embassy. I called the ambassador’s secretary and inform her of Professor Cui’s situation. Since Weiping had already been held for more than seven hours while I’d been left alone, I figured I probably would be able to make it.
As soon as I stepped out of the elevator, I was surrounded by four men who took me to the Academy’s security office. Upon reaching the security office I was shocked to see a sign reading “Stability Maintenance Office” – I had never known we had such an office at the Academy.
There I was questioned by an officer from the “municipal bureau.” I explained that I was attending a cultural event consisting of an art exhibit followed by a musical performance. In fact, they knew the full agenda perfectly well, having monitored my email throughout the process. But they declared: “You can’t go.”
I’d always thought that in such a situation I’d lose my temper, but in fact I was able to control myself or even keep unusual composure. I scolded them when I felt like it, and talked or ignored them as I liked. I abandoned attempts to reason or win the argument on every point, recognizing it as a waste of time.
The lead police officer was surnamed Yang. A brawny, belligerent man, he made no effort to put a pleasant face on violating a citizen’s personal freedom, and seemed determined to have it out with me. He’d read my professions of “complete transparency,” and used that as the basis for prizing out the details of how the signature campaign for Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize had been organized. I said, “I have nothing to hide, but the facts show that you distort people’s words and then use those words to trap people, so of course I’m not talking.” He had no way to bring me around.
The Czech Ambassador’s secretary called my cell phone, and I explained the situation to her in English and asked her to tell the Ambassador. A young man from the Academy’s Stability Maintenance Office who was assisting the police understood some English, and he tried to score points by berating me for contact with foreigners, lack of patriotism and so on. I’d reached the boiling point by then and gave him a good tongue-lashing, concluding, “You obstruct a citizen’s normal activities for no reason whatsoever, and deprive a citizen of his freedom in broad daylight, and then, after indulging in this blatantly unlawful behavior, you have the nerve to talk to me about being ‘patriotic’ and ‘law-abiding’! It’s obvious you’ve no inkling of the concept of shame!” The fellow had nothing to say to that and minded his manners a bit better from then on.
Around 6:00 they asked me to accompany them to a restaurant for dinner. I refused to go, so they ordered take-out. Despite their insistence, I declared I would only eat at home, even if it meant going without food for three days. I was in fact prepared to do just that.
My detention ended at 8:30. We left the Stability Maintenance Office, and I was driven home in a police vehicle, although I’d insisted on making my own way. When I mentioned writing up what had happened, the Academy security officer looked frightened and kept saying, “There’s nothing worth writing about!”
Officer Yang, however, showed no anxiety, and I said, “I know you people have no scruples about anything.”
On the way home, Yang said he hoped that in future I wouldn’t……I finished for him: “that I won’t do things that displease or that aren’t allowed, even though they’re not against the law.” He tried to explain but I kept asking him why I couldn’t even go to an embassy cultural event that was not related in any way to Liu or the Nobel. He said “You understand perfectly well.” I shot back, “police trot out those words whenever they unlawfully deprive citizens of their freedom. Well, I don’t understand. For the police to detain citizens for no reason and then say they ‘understand perfectly well,’ that is the most shameless reason of all.” The word “shameless” infuriated Officer Yang into a strident rant. But rather than arguing the point and giving him further opportunity to vent his wrath, I decided to let him stew on it.
Upon arriving home, I telephoned Weiping and the next day I sent a letter to her. I wrote:
I believe that our detention yesterday was a deranged retaliation for Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize. First they took out on us. While detained I clearly sensed their profound resentment of our statement supporting Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize. Even more importantly, however, it was retaliation against the Czech Republic, and I’m sure they’ll impose even more frenzied retribution on Norway when they get the chance.
Former Czech President Vaclav Havel repeatedly called on the international community to protest Liu Xiaobo’s arrest and was one of the prominent individuals who advocated for Liu’s Nobel Prize.
We were guests not only of the Czech Embassy, but also of the newly-appointed Czech Ambassador. Detaining his guests is clearly meant to send a message to him and to the country he represents. They did so on purpose.….they used this blatant intimidation and insult to fire an opening salvo at the new ambassador, and to tell European countries: “Offend us at your peril!”
Yesterday’s incident has left me feeling indignant and disappointed. I would rather have a ruling clique preserve their autocratic interests through manipulative scheming than through such irrational and reckless lawlessness and gangsterish disregard for the consequences of their evil. I wonder how much more effort and suffering we must endure before they can evolve even that much.
The letter had the title Their Deranged Retaliation and it was meant to be published. I sent it not only to Weiping, but also to the embassies and the media. I am sure the Beijing police would receive it too.
November 8, 2010
On the afternoon of November 8, 2010, Officer Yang telephoned my home and said he wanted to see me. I said we could talk over the phone, but he insisted that wouldn’t do. Knowing I’d have to go in sooner or later, I finally agreed and was about to propose a time when he said he was already downstairs. Within two minutes he and a young officer appeared at my door.
This time the discussion centered on a single topic: the statement Cui Weiping and I had issued on Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize. Initially signed by more than 100 individuals from all walks of life, the statement supported and praised the Norway Nobel Committee’s decision, and called on the Chinese authorities to take a rational and realistic approach by honoring their commitments on political reform. Yang interrogated me on the statement’s production, who initiated it, who drafted it, who contacted others, who published it, and so on. I told him nothing, but as agreed in advance said that I was the sole initiator and took full responsibility.
Yang kept prodding away, while the young policeman took notes on the interrogation. I’d expected this, since they’d done the same with Cui Weiping two days earlier, suggesting that they were treating this as a serious case for which these notes would serve as evidence and testimony. I also knew it was just for show; we hadn’t attempted, nor were we capable of, any subterfuge in drafting and issuing the statement, and the police made no attempt to curtail our actions while monitoring them.
Yang looked satisfied with the interrogation, as if sensing that the net was tightening around me, and the young officer diligently took down every word. Inside me I sneered, “Go ahead and write it down, it won’t do a bit of good!”
When the interrogation ended, Yang told the young policeman to give me the notes to read, correct and sign. But I’d readied my reply: “I’m not reading them, and I’m not signing them.”
Taken by surprise, Yang was furious. He asked why and accused me of not daring to acknowledge my own words. Unruffled, I replied, “I take responsibility for all I’ve said and done, because I’ve taken pains not to violate the law. I have nothing to fear, but I know it’s altogether possible that you’ll take something I’ve said out of context and use it to incriminate me or others. That’s what you did in the judgment against Liu Xiaobo.”
In spite of Yang’s persuasion and bullying, I held my ground: “I’m not reading it and I’m not signing it!” Finally they stalked off in a huff. That was the last I saw of that police officer.
The policemen who subsequently dealt with me were a pair surnamed Hao and Jia, who introduced themselves as from the “Cultural Security Division of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau.” Of the two, officer Jia was the one who met with me most of the time.
None of the innumerable police officers I’ve dealt with over the years has ever showed me his police ID, even though this is required under Article 4 of the Provisions on the Administration of the Use of Identification Cards by the People’s Police in Public Security Organs. This shows how little regard the police pay to the laws and regulations of our country.
The Annual “Two Sessions”
Before the police became part of my daily life around 2006, all interference with and suppression of my expression of personal political views was carried out through the leadership of the Academy or its Institute of Philosophy. The most serious confrontation occurred in May 2004, just before the 15th anniversary of the June 4th Incident, when I signed an open letter organized and issued by Liu Xiaobo calling on the government to allow renewed discussion of the incident. Perhaps the concern of the authorities was heightened by what they saw as the first time that “scholars within the system” such as myself had joined with a “democracy activist” such as Liu Xiaobo. The Institute’s Party secretary called me in for a talk, and soon after that the Party secretary and the Institute’s director and vice-director rushed to my home and demanded that I retract my name, which I refused to do. Finally I was brought in to see the CASS vice-president, the head of the Academy’s Department of Supervision and others. I expected to be dismissed, but instead I was given a stern warning “not to do this again,” a commitment I refused to make.
Beginning around the end of February 2006, whenever the Two Sessions of the NPC and CPPCC took place, the police would drop by for a “friendly word.” The police would come in and chitchat about what I’d been doing lately, and then casually mention that the Two Sessions were approaching, so I should keep this in mind and so on.
Anyone who experienced the period from the 1950s to the 1970s in China knows that back then, whenever a major festival or national event approached, the police (in the rural areas it was usually the Party secretary or head of the People’s Militia or other person personifying “dictatorial power”) would gather up all local “Five-Category Elements” (landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements and Rightists) for a lecture in which they were warned to “behave themselves and not speak or act rashly,” because “the iron fist of the proletarian dictatorship was devastating,” and they should “harbor no vain hopes of indulging in mischief during the celebratory period!” This tradition continued until the early 1980s, by which time “class struggle” and “dictatorship theory” were no longer the loci of China’s political life.
It was infuriating that the police had resurrected this discarded method – on certain days warning or “having a friendly word” with “bad eggs” and “undesirable elements” – and were applying it to liberal intellectuals.
The absurdity of it all was that if the “Two Sessions” were taken seriously, they should make people more aware of being the masters of their own country, and of exercising the freedoms safeguarded in the Constitution. If people have any sense of the sacredness and dignity of their country and of their identity as citizens, the appearance of the police at just this time profanes these feelings. When expressing independent political views is all it takes for people to find themselves cast under the shadow of police surveillance, or to be regarded as undesirables and potential threats to society, the police not only denigrate and insult these individuals, but also make a mockery of the Constitution and poison the social atmosphere.
March 25, 2011
On March 25, 2011, Officer Jia had come to talk about the “Jasmine Revolution” rallies. In the course of conversation he said that when I’d recently gone to the Czech Embassy, they’d let it pass, and when I’d gone to Japan, they’d let it pass, which showed that they supported normal scholarly and cultural exchange. They hoped that this demonstrated their good intentions and that I’d grant them full cooperation and communication in return. This was a truly highhanded and shameless logic: if there were one or two exceptions to the countless times that they unlawfully deprived citizens of their legitimate rights, that was a demonstration of their lenience and required expression of gratitude in the form of answering whatever the police asked, and giving them whatever they wanted.
I would never accept a setup like this. In no way I would allow them to believe that monitoring my words and actions and deciding whether or not to allow them should become standard practice. They could strip me of my rights, but they couldn’t make me approve of it.
While I don’t regard the police as noble or conversant with dignity, I would think them capable of at least a basic sense of shame. So when the police came to see me the day after overseas media asked me to write articles, and when they came up again the moment I put down the phone after a Beijing-based Western journalist called me for an interview, I was genuinely shocked at their effrontery. They didn’t even try to beat around the bush or to cover up the fact that they’d been listening to my telephone calls.
I said indignantly, “My freedom of expression is protected by the Constitution. This has nothing to do with the police, and the police have no right to interfere. Since when is a citizen’s expression within the scope of police work, that you think you can come up here and discuss what I should or shouldn’t write, or for which publication?”
They had no reply to my barrage of questions.
On the subject of requests from overseas media, the police made a remark that caused me considerable alarm: “We’re concerned about contact certain overseas organizations have had with you.” I couldn’t tell if this was a slip or a carefully constructed trap. According to my legal knowledge, a citizen has the legal and legitimate right to “contact with certain overseas organizations,” and there is no need for subterfuge. However, among the Chinese authorities and police, this phrase has a specific connotation that they construe to accuse someone of a crime.
Seeing a need to clarify and rebut this, I pointed at them and said sternly, “You need to tell me exactly what overseas organizations I’ve been in contact with. It’s completely above-board and proper for a legally registered publication to request an article from me, and it’s my due right as a citizen to discuss with them whether and what I will write. I know that your reference to ‘contact with certain overseas organizations’ is a serious matter related to crime. What do you mean by saying this, and what is the basis for it?”
Jia kept waffling and stalling with vague excuses, but I wasn’t about to let him off on such a serious matter, and I pursued him relentlessly until he unequivocally acknowledged that he had misspoken.
Engaging in a dogfight with the police is disgusting and wearying; even if you silence them with your arguments and rebukes, what use is it? In the end, it’s just a verbal argument and an oral victory. If they want to see you, you can’t evade them, and if they want to enter your home, you can’t stop them. Even though I won every bout, I knew it was just a storm in a teacup and of no consolation.
In another regard, however, the battle was still worth fighting, because “a drop of water can reflect the world.” Arguing law with the police is a refraction of social life in today’s China, and is a microcosm of the battle for civil rights under extreme political pressure. However small the victory, it is crucial to haggle with the police over every detail for the sake of human dignity and rights.
Many years ago, listening over dinner to Liu Xiaobo and Jiang Qisheng (江棋生, participant in the 1989 student movement and twice political prisoner) describing their dealings with the police, I was amazed at their equanimity. As they related it, it was routine for the police to come to their door, to prevent them from going out, to take them away or call them in to “drink tea” or have a meal, and they acted as if it were no different from anything else in their lives. I later came to understand that this calmness came with practice; if the police come day after day, month after month, year after year to see you, question you and detain you, you become inseparable from the police, and the best way of protecting yourself is to dilute the intensity of your rage. If you spend every day fuming with anger and resistance, if every illegal act by the police makes you cry out for Heaven’s justice, your life will begin to crumble, and it will be difficult for you to maintain a living for yourself and your family. I’m surprised that this transformation came so quickly to me. I haven’t attained Xiaobo and Qisheng’s level of transcendence, but the police have forced me to follow in their footsteps.
On the other hand, my sense of the illegality of police actions and of their violation of human rights and stripping of citizen’s freedoms remains as fresh and acute as ever. The police have come to regard their behavior as normal, and so have others, as if that’s simply the way life is. Not me. Every time I came face to face with the words or actions of the police, I set myself at the start point, the start point of the Constitution and laws. They are the sole criteria for judging right from wrong.
Behind the police stands the mighty violence of a modernized state. Facing the police, any compromise, concession or even surrender is understandable. Submission under these circumstances is no cause for shame, but the disregard for law and reason on the part of the police is a disgrace to our country and our people. Every Chinese who is violated by the police is engaged in a struggle for his own rights, for the dignity of his country and for the honor of his people.
Xu Youyu (徐友渔), a signatory of Charter 08, was a Research Fellow at the Institute of Philosophy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences until his retirement. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford, Harvard, Taiwan’s Academia Sinica and other academic institutions around the world. He also taught at Stockholm University and France’s École des hautes études en sciences socials. A prolific author, he is an expert on political philosophy and theory and is a noted historian of the Cultural Revolution. On May 3 he and other four scholars and dissidents were criminally detained for holding a seminar to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the June 4th Movement. “I will give the rest of my life to speaking the truth for the sake of China’s real progress. I am not afraid to pay a price, even the price of life, for it,” he once told a friend.
The article was written in mid-2011 for the Chinese anthology Encounters with the Police (《遭遇警察》). China Change edited down the original translation with permission from the co-editor of the book.
(Translated by Stacy Mosher)