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China’s Little-Noticed ‘New Police Law’ Gives Vastly Expanded Legal Powers to Public Security Apparatus
China Change, September 6, 2018
On August 17, 2018 at about 3:30 p.m., He Guangwei (何光伟) strode out of the A Exit at the Zhujiang Xincheng subway stop in Guangzhou, carrying a bag of drumstick leaves, a rare vegetable, on his way to meet a friend. In the years prior, when he worked as a journalist at the prominent newspaper Southern Weekend (《南方周末》), he got on and off everyday at the very same stop. A short walk from the subway, a member of China’s auxiliary police (that is, a non-official police officer) intercepted him and demanded in a voluble tone that he produce his identification card for inspection. He glanced around and noticed that not far off another police officer was rebuking a young man for not having his ID with him. He Guangwei had worked in Guangzhou for eight years and had never once been stopped on the street and subjected to an ID inspection. He asked the officer why — “Are you enforcing the law?” The officer said he was. He then enquired as to which law was being enforced. The officer couldn’t answer, but simply stared at him and roared: “Are you going to produce your ID? Are you going to cooperate or not?!” He was then taken to the local police station where he was informed that, according to Article 15 of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Resident Identity Cards (《中华人民共和国居民身份证法》) he was being submitted to an ID inspection. It just so happened that He was quite familiar with Article 15 of the ID Law. He Guangwei knew that he was neither a criminal suspect, nor at a controlled site, nor suspected of involvement in any incidents seriously harming social order, nor present at any of the designated locations during large-scale public activities during which ID inspections may be freely conducted by police. He was merely a pedestrian walking on the street, no different to any other person on any other day walking on any other road. And so he began to argue. The officers grabbed him and shoved him into an interrogation room, pushed him up against the wall, and patted him down. They checked his phone and notebook, and rifled through the bag of vegetables. To conclude the ordeal the officers demanded that he write a self-criticism and dictated its content: “Having been educated by the People’s Police, I have come to recognize my error. I promise that in future when police ask for my identification, I will produce it for inspection.” He Guangwei later wrote about the encounter on his WeChat account, titling it “A Trip Through the Xian Village Police Station” (《过冼村派出所》); the post appears to have attracted over one million readers.
In the essay, he wrote: “If the enforcers of the law actually followed the law, would anyone dare to violate the law while enforcing it? If there is something a citizen doesn’t know and the police give you the answers, who would reject an ID inspection?”
He’s mistaken. The Ministry of Public Security on December 1, 2016 published the Draft Amendment of People’s Police Law of the People’s Republic of China (《中华人民共和国人民警察法》修订草案稿, referred to throughout as the ‘New Police Law’), which significantly increases police powers. The amendments have essentially written China’s police a blank check allowing them to inspect any IDs they wish, to collect personal information, and intrude on citizens’ privacy at will.
Affirming Police Loyalty to the Communist Party
Article 5 of the New Police Law stipulates:
“The People’s Police must be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party, loyal to the country, loyal to the people, and loyal to the constitution and the law.”
The first version of the Police Law came out in February 1995, with the full title the People’s Police Law of the People’s Republic of China (《中华人民共和国警察法》) (it was revised in October 2012). Neither the original or the 2012 revision mentioned the CCP (which does not mean that the police don’t belong to the Party), and nor were the constitution and the law placed at the bottom of the hierarchy of allegiance.
In late March of this year, Xi Jinping held the first meeting of the Party Central Committee for the Comprehensive Deepening of Reform (中央全面深化改革委员会), which oversaw the passage of several new police documents — including “the Pilot Plans for Reforming the Rank of Law Enforcement Officers at Public Security Organs” (《公安机关执法勤务警员职务序列改革方案（试行）》) and “the Pilot Plans for Reforming the Rank of Police Technicians” (《公安机关警务技术职务序列改革方案（试行）》) — among others. According to follow-up reports in the official and semi-official media, China may in the future establish two police corps, in the form of a Public Security Administration (公安行政部门) and a Police Corps (警察总署). The responsibilities of the former would be focused on the administration and management of the household registration and entry-exit system and other administrative affairs; the latter would be the coercive power of the state apparatus, organized as a semi-militarized force that must maintain absolute loyalty to the Communist Party. It’s possible that the items about “loyalty” in the New Police Law were in order to pave the way for the Police Corps — but whatever the case, these articles without any doubt reflect the increasing weight being given to police powers in the current stability maintenance regime.
Special Clause for ‘Social Entities Participating in Public Security’
Article 6 of the New Police Law introduces “the principle of integrating police forces with the masses.” The precise language says:
“Public security organs must persist in linking their specialized work with the Mass Line; [they must] improve the mechanism for mobilizing social entities to take part in public security; [they must have a public security system in which] public security is maintained by the masses guarding against and handling problems; [they must] promote the socialized management of public security.”
Just what is “the socialized management of public security”? According to an exposition on “the comprehensive management mechanism for public security” in the Party journal Qiushi (《求是》) three years ago, socialized management of public security refers to “relying on grassroots organizations, cultivating a wide network of informants, and working hard to extend the antannae of public security work into every corner [of society].” Currently, the public security and police departments already make widespread use of mass organizations, such as neighborhood committees, property management companies, neighborhood security guards and private security companies, to engage in surveillance, reporting, and assistance for their work. This has become the norm in China. The New Police Law would codify all these activities, giving them a basis in the law itself, and allow the police to legally and effortlessly demand and obtain the cooperation of more social entities.
Authorizing the Police to Inspect IDs on Demand
Article 16 of the New Police Law stipulates:
“The People’s Police may, in the performance of their duties, lawfully inspect the identification cards or other forms of proof of identification of residents.”
Shi Ping (施平), a former journalist and currently a lawyer (who goes by the moniker Shi Yu [石玉] online), points out: “If this draft law is passed, one can imagine a circumstance like this in the future: Few police officers citizens encounter in public space are not there ‘in the performance of their duties’; they are at least ‘in the performance of the duty’ to prevent illegal activity. Thus, a police officer will, without any other requirement or restriction, be empowered to inspect the identification of any citizen on demand.”
In comparison to the stipulations about the inspection of identification in Article 15 of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Resident Identity Cards (《中华人民共和国身份证法》) , the New Police Law without any doubt expands to an arbitrary degree the power of police to inspect ID cards. Even when conducting their duties now — as seen in the He Guangwei incident and countless others — it is a common occurrence for police to arbitrarily demand to see citizens’ IDs. What the New Police Law does is codify this practice in legislation.
Summons on Demand
The current Police Law makes no mention of the power of summons (传唤), and the word does not appear anywhere in the text.
The New Police Law however adds the following clauses about summons powers:
“The People’s Police, where they need to summon and investigate individuals who have violated public security administrative management laws or regulations, shall use a summons authorized by a responsible officer in the public security department handling [such] cases. In cases where violations of public security administrative management laws or regulations are taking place on site, police may show their ID and deliver the summons verbally, but this should be noted in the interrogation transcript. When a summons is delivered, the reason, basis, and location of the summons should be told to the individual being summoned. Coercive measures may be taken to enforce appearance at a summons for individuals who, without legitimate reason, refuse to accept or attempt to escape a summons.”
What does “violating public security administrative management laws or regulations” refer to? On December 27, 2010, the Ministry of Public Security formulated and published “Notice Regarding the Promulgation of ‘Opinion on the Reference Terms and Applicability of Illegal Behaviors in Violation of Public Security Administrative Management Regulations’” (关于印发《违反公安行政管理违法行为的名称及其适用意见》的通知》), which comes up with 682 violative behaviors described and regulated in 67 different pieces of legislation, administrative statutes, or regulations that would be considered violations of public security administrative management laws and regulations. They then break down the offenses into the following areas: public security (1-401), exit-entry and border defense (402-508), fire control management (509-554), computer and internet security (555-613), traffic management (614-662), and drug prohibition (663-682).
These 682 offenses are so encompassing that, in other words, there will always be a reason to summon you.
Not long ago a short piece of footage went viral online showing six police officers forcing their way into the home of a young woman late at night, saying they were “summoning” her, because she had written “something” online. She demanded that the police produce a warrant or formal reason for the summons. This form of arbitrary summons is common in China today — though a vivid recording of it is extremely rare to see. China Change made English-language subtitles for the video in order to give readers a better understanding of the deep terror and menace that Chinese police instill in ordinary citizens. Part of the exchange includes the following, for instance:
[Woman] Why are you coming to my home this late? What’s going on?
[Police] You come with us and we’ll discuss it.
[Woman] Why should I?
[Police] Because we’re the police.
[Woman] So just like that you can take people away for no reason?
[Police] Yeah — so what?
When the New Police Law is passed, it will be completely legal for six police officers to summon a young woman from her home in the middle of the night to the police station where she has to give an account of her social media posts. She’ll have no grounds to ask ‘Why?’ and will simply have to obey.
Expanding the Scope of Police Power to Conduct Searches
Article 22 of the New Police Law, on inspections and searches, says the following:
“In performance of their duties, the People’s Police, having produced identification and a search warrant, may conduct an inspection and search of individuals — including their residences, personal effects, and persons — suspected of violations of the law; in cases where there is a genuine need for immediate inspection and search, police may, after producing their identification, carry out the inspection and search on site forthwith; if the individual subject to search and inspection refuses to cooperate, they may be forcibly inspected and searched.”
The New Police Law expands the power of police to search and inspect with reference to the vague phrases “in performance of their duties,” and “in cases where there is a genuine need for immediate inspection and search.” This effectively means that whenever any individual police officer personally decides that it’s necessary, he may simply engage in the inspection and search of any citizen right then and there. This gives far greater scope to police powers than Article 12 of the current Police Law, which says: “In order to investigate criminal activities, the People’s Police of the public security organs may, according to the law, detain, search, arrest or employ other compulsory measures.”
Article 37 of the Constitution stipulates: “The freedom of person of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable,” and “Unlawful deprivation or restriction of citizens’ freedom of person by detention or other means is prohibited; and unlawful search of the person of citizens is prohibited.” Article 39 of the Constitution says: “The home of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. Unlawful search of, or intrusion into, a citizen’s home is prohibited.”
And yet the amendments in the New Police Law will empower any police officer to invade at will the personal residence of any citizen, and the action need not require any evidence or due process.
Does the new clause about ‘searches’ include the extraction and inspection of data on the cell phones of Chinese citizens? Though the language is not clear on this point, the current practice shows that the answer is almost certainly ‘yes.’
Authorizing Police to Physically Inspect Citizens and Collect Biometrics
Article 24 of the New Police Law says:
“The People’s Police may search the persons of criminal suspects, obtain a mugshot, fingerprints, voice signature, an image of the iris and other individually identifying information, including blood, saliva, urine, hair or other biological samples. If criminal suspects refuse to be searched or have these items collected, the search and collection can be undertaken by force.”
This is new, and the current Police Law contains no article of this type. Nevertheless, for a very long time now police around China have already begun collecting mugshots, fingerprints, DNA samples and more from Chinese citizens of all sorts — not only criminal suspects, but non-suspects too, including activists, human rights defenders, dissidents, and others. Moreover, these individuals report having their biometrics collected by multiple police departments in different jurisdictions.
Some have feared that such biometrics could be used to plant evidence and frame people up, while others have worried about yet other motives.
Article 38 of the Constitution says: “The personal dignity of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. Insult, libel, false charge or frame-up directed against citizens by any means is prohibited.” Yet the criteria for judgment as to who is a “criminal suspect” and who is a citizen suspected of no crime but still targeted for “mugshots, fingerprints, voice signature, an image of the iris and other individually identifying information, including blood, saliva, urine, hair or other biological samples” contains a great deal of flexibility for the authorities. The process of collecting biometrics of citizens not only limits the personal freedom of the individual, but is an infringement on basic human dignity.
On March 3, 2018, during the ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing, the Beijing resident Li Wei (李蔚), responding to the demands of Beijing public security forces, left the capital and went to “travel” in Hangzhou. That evening Li was accosted by police at his hotel and his ID demanded for inspection. In the process of Li requesting a summons to verify that he indeed had to produce his ID, five or six individuals broke into his room and beat him, causing injuries. After he produced his ID, the police told him to go to the police station so that his fingerprints, DNA, and cell phone data could all be collected. The police told him explicitly that he had not been suspected of any crime, but that his ID was being checked and his biometrics collected merely because he had a “prior record” (Li Wei was imprisoned during the Chinese government’s crackdown on the New Citizens’ Movement, and has since been designated as a ‘key person’ in the eyes of the guobao, or political police). Li lodged a series of complaints against the Hangzhou police for illegally restricting his personal freedom as well as a variety of other rights violations, including the police failure to provide written acknowledgement of the complaints as required by law. His case has gone nowhere as the courts and the police departments refuse to file the case for him.
Police Can Search People or Organizations at Will and Surveil Public Spaces
Article 25 of the New Police Law stipulates:
“The People’s Police, as required to perform their duties and in accordance with relevant national regulations, may look up and extract relevant information about citizens, legal persons, and other organizations, and they may collect information from public spaces, roads, and cyberspace using surveillance technologies. The information so obtained shall be stored and used prudently, and may not be used for matters unrelated to the fulfillment of official duties.”
This article, again, is not in the current Police Law. One recent phenomenon is the appearance on social media of short videos showing police at subway stations in urban areas inspecting the phones of commuters. A twitter user recently described what he personally witnessed, and noted that he was extremely scared and didn’t dare to take photos of the incident. He wrote:
— Hongpo (@Hongpo_Shanghai) August 23, 2018
Date and time: August 23, 2018, 3:55 p.m.;
Location: Safety check at the entrance of the No. 1 Line subway at the Fengqi Road station, Hangzhou (杭州地铁1号线凤起路站); [the police were] checking the phone of every passenger waiting in line to enter the station;
Apparatus: They were using handheld scanning equipment;
The number of police: 6 to 7.
Despite the fact that the current Police Law does not in fact authorize the police to do this, evidently the regime has commanded that they do so anyway. Just as with the other changes, the New Police Law simply codifies in a statute what has already become practice. As for the surveillance of public places roads, and cyberspace, one can already see cameras every 50 meters on the streets of Beijing for a taste of what that feels like. So much has already been reported about the shocking extent of China’s surveillance state.
Severing the Internet When Called for
The New Police Law bestows expanded powers of internet management on the public security organs. Article 29 says:
“Public security organs of the People’s Governments at the county-level and above may, when encountering natural disasters, accidents, public health incidents, or social safety incidents, or if there is the urgent danger of any such disaster, catastrophe, or incident taking place, set up roadblocks and delimit controlled zones over a certain area and time period in order to limit or prohibit personnel and vehicular travel, lingering, or entry and exit, among other traffic management or site management measures. When necessary they may, with the consent of public security organs of the People’s Governments of the provincial-level and above, implement controls over the internet.
“On the occasion of large-scale public events, mass activities, or when providing security for state-designated individuals or targets, [authorities] may adopt the above mentioned measures, and may at the same time institute safety inspections, personnel inspections, electronic jamming, and other measures.”
Though it’s not yet a common occurrence for the authorities to sever internet access, there are already many precedents. On July 5, 2009, following ethnic conflicts in Urumqi, the Xinjiang authorities cut off the internet for one month. On the scene of mass incidents and protests, people often report being unable to access the internet or operate other electronic equipment. In April 2014, tens of thousands of residents of Maoming, Guangdong Province, marched in protest of a paraxylene plant set to be built there. The authorities blockaded the city and cut off the internet, thus suppressing the news. In April 2017, after the suspicious death (said to be due to falling from a building) of a 14-year-old middle school student in Luzhou, Sichuan, the police engaged in a coverup of the case, triggering protests from over 1,000 residents and leading to clashes. For the next 12 days, electricity and internet services were cut off in much of the city. In the recent protests by parents in Leiyang, Hunan, over the authorities assigning students in public schools to privately-operated schools with high tuitions, no news has been heard for the last few days, leading many to suspect that Leiyang has also had its internet cut off.
At first blush, according to the language in the New Police Law, it may appear that the circumstances under which the internet can be cut off, as well as the threshold required to get approval for such an action, are set very high. But judging by the actual cases over the last few years, the requirements for severing internet access appear to be quite small, and the decisions seem to be mostly triggered by mass protests.
Some predict that the New Police Law will be granted passage and become law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress during the ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing in March 2019, after a package of public security/police institutional reform measures are approved.
It’s been 20 months since the Ministry of Public Security put the draft of the New Police Law out for public comment, but the document has attracted little public notice, except for a handful of lawyers and interested citizens who have expressed concern about some of its clauses. This sort of indifference is not in the least surprising: In China, the question of which laws are decided, who decides on them, and how they decide them, is all based simply on the Party’s will. Citizens do not have the right to elect their own representatives, the media are owned and run by the Party-state, and the people simply have no say in the affairs of state. The so-called “solicitation of opinion” is merely about the authorities going through the motions. Everyone understands that the National People’s Congress is the Party’s rubber stamp; the police forces are the Party’s ‘knife handle’; legislation and law enforcement are merely tools for the Party to maintain its rule. It is increasingly dangerous for citizens to express their dissent. Police would arrive at their door in no time, just as they did that night to the young woman in Shenzhen for her social media posts.
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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)
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.