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China's Powerful Police

 

By: Jiang Xueqin
 Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2002

 

It was six minutes past six on the morning of June 5 when the Chinese police woke me with the news that I was being freed after 48 hours of interrogation. At first they were friendly. But then, after they searched me one last time, the smiles disappeared, and one of them punched me and pushed me against the wall. "Just because you're a foreigner you think you're the shit!" he shouted, before handcuffing my hands behind my back. The tall, gaunt leader of the police team added a warning: "Don't play any tricks. If you talk to the media we'll make sure that you can't come back into China." Accompanied by three policemen, I was flown to Beijing and then put on the next flight to Vancouver.

My troubles had begun two days earlier, when I traveled by train to the northern oil city of Daqing, to investigate reports of workers' protests against layoffs and lack of welfare benefits. Arriving in this expansive metropolis of Stalinist skyscrapers, wide avenues and backyard oil rigs, I found several hundred middle-aged workers silently standing across the road from the city's tallest skyscraper, which belongs to the state oil management company.

It is popular among some in the West to argue that the Chinese government has legitimized its one-party rule by introducing economic reforms. But while that may have been true in the early 1990s, when reforms and foreign investment saved the party from losing power in the years immediately after the Tiananmen massacre, the situation has changed greatly since then.

The state sector is coughing and bleeding, laying off tens of millions of workers, many of whom are left destitute. Having lost the once fanatical loyalty of the workers and peasants, the Communist Party now has to increasingly rely on brute force to maintain stability. China's security apparatus has never had it so good.

I spent the past year exploring social issues in the Chinese countryside and industrial wastelands. As a Western-educated free-lance journalist of Chinese birth, I lived alongside peasants and workers, slowly winning their trust by sharing their low-grade alcohol, and from their slurred words pieced together pictures of tyranny and corruption. I wrote about how local officials conspired with developers to confiscate the thin slivers of farmland on which villagers tried to eke out a living, how party officials helped factory managers strip state assets and how real estate development in China is often a pretext for financial fraud.

China's state-controlled media attempts to soothe the people's anger by promising tougher laws and, eventually, a social security net, but all the Chinese public see is that there are more police than before, their eyes more focused, their fists harder. Chinese joke that in many parts of the country, especially the rust belt of redundant state factories in the rugged and desolate northeast, only prostitutes and policemen can find work. In rural parts of China I would ask young schoolchildren their career plans, and be shocked to find that many dream of becoming policemen. "It's guaranteed employment and has many benefits," their teacher explained.

As protests become more frequent, the party is focusing on pampering and professionalizing those responsible for suppressing the unrest. In many parts of China, teachers and other state officials go unpaid while policemen enjoy free dinners. Even hiking in remote parts of China, where dirty malnourished villagers have to trek up a mountain for water, I would invariably get beeped by police driving around in their new SUVs.

The investment in keeping the police happy is paying dividends. A couple of years ago, frustrated laid-off workers could lay seige to railways, bridges or roads, and stymied officials would suddenly appear on the scene with sweet promises. A labor activist friend explained it is now more common for police and hired thugs to drive up before a large crowd has had time to coalesce, throw the protesters into vans and dump them in the suburbs. As the unrest increases in scale -- the initial demonstrations in Daqing in March drew an estimated 50,000 protesters -- the police respond with an increase in brutality, accuse the protest leaders of being part of a foreign conspiracy and arrest any meddlesome journalists.

As I found to my cost, the police are skilled at the use of informants. In my case, it was a frail old man wearing a baseball cap and sitting on the sidewalk. After I lobbed a few simple questions at him, he gave a quick nod to two plain-clothes police. They promptly jumped on me from behind and bundled me into a taxi.

Later, while questioning me at a small hotel in the Daqing countryside, a police interrogator boasted that one-fifth of the protesters had been their informants. Thanks to my Canadian passport, the police were generally quite civil with me, even though I was very uncooperative. Throughout most of the interrogation I lied so many times the police didn't believe me even when I eventually started telling the truth, after realizing they had arrested a worker whom I had interviewed and were interrogating him in the next room.

After finally persuading me to sign a confession, they videotaped me reading it out. I confessed to working in China illegally as a journalist and trying to win quick fame by divulging China's most sensitive secrets, thus bringing harm and tragedy to one billion people. My taped confession even thanked the police for reforming me and helping me realize my Chinese identity and expressed a hope I could contribute to advancing the country's cultural and productive forces. As I finished my confession, the stern faces melted on the two police chiefs, who had been sent from the provincial capital of Harbin to oversee my rehabilitation, and they looked at each other and nodded.

A few years ago, it was more common for foreigners arrested in China to be questioned in damp and run-down police offices, then sent packing after paying a bribe. Now China's police have become more efficient and organized, and my interrogation took place in a two-star hotel, where the rooms were equipped with the latest surveillance technology. Much to my chagrin, I also discovered that the secret police were lurking behind the shadows, co-operating with their Daqing counterparts. As the names of friends in Beijing spilled reluctantly from my lips, the local police called Beijing and investigators were immediately dispatched to visit them.

The Chinese police have also learned the power of the media. "If you talk to the Western media, we'll use our media to broadcast your videotape confession," warned the leader of the team of police interrogators. When I was traveling through rural backwaters, the thought of China's secret police would often pop into my mind only to be dismissed with a quick laugh and the reassuring thought that they are too busy with their own scams to bother me.

I'm no longer laughing. Though I'm safely back in Toronto, I've never felt so threatened by China's police. "The party has been concentrating all its efforts on security, and has ignored developing the law," one police chief told my wife, after he accompanied me to Beijing and decided to pay her a visit.

"We could make it difficult for Jiang [Xueqin], and report that he was a spy," he added. As a Chinese national, she quickly got the point and gave him some money. I was furious upon finding out about this. "What can we possibly do?" she replied. "We're so weak, and the Party is so strong. The police can do whatever they want, and it's just better to give them some money so they'll go away."


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