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Getting Stung in China

October 23, 2009

There was an interesting show on Phoenix TV last night, one that sheds light on the complex realities of law, individual rights, and state power in China today.

The story begins with a Chinese man, who works for a foreign-owned enterprise, driving to work one morning in Shanghai.  Along the way, he spotted another man walking along the edge of the road, who appeared to be in distress.  The driver stopped and asked him what was wrong.  The other man said he had stomach pains, and asked the driver if he could take him home, or at least drop him off somewhere closer to home.  Even before the driver could respond, the stranger was already opening the door and getting in, so the driver said okay and agreed.

As they neared the man’s destination, he pointed out where to pull over to drop him off.  Once they were stopped, the passenger thanked the driver and offered him a 10-yuan bill for his trouble, which the driver declined, saying it wasn’t necessary.  There was an awkward pause, and then suddenly the passenger made a grab for the car keys in the ignition.  The driver reacted quickly and grabbed them away from him.  At that point, the doors of a van parked in front of them popped open and about ten uniformed men jumped out.  They grabbed the driver, put a bag over his head, and hauled him into the van, leaving the car and its keys with the “passenger.”

Inside the van, the driver was informed that he was under arrest by the traffic police for operating an illegal taxi (picking up passengers for money).  His car was impounded, and he could only get it back by signing a confession and paying a 10,000 yuan (US$1,500) fine, right then and there.  When he refused to sign, the men began pushed him around and twisting his arm behind his back.  When he persisted in his refusal, they signed the document for him and shoved him out of the van.   Then they drove off with his computer and all his other belongings.

The driver didn’t know whether his assailants were actually the police or a gang of thieves pretending to be the police.  So he presented himself at the local headquarters of the Shanghai traffic police and reported what had happened.  The office told him that the men were, in fact, real police, and that his car had been impounded.  To get it back, he needed to pay the fine and sign not only a confession but also a legal agreement that he would forfeit any complaint against the police.  When he asked what evidence the police had, he was told they had a videotape proving the case beyond question.  When he demanded to see it, the police said they could not release it unless he hired a lawyer and sued them.  Desperate to get his car back, he paid the fine and signed the documents.

The driver was still furious, however, so he went to see a lawyer.  To his surprise, the lawyer (who appeared on the show) told him that he was far from the first person to have such an experience.  In fact, on their website, the local traffic police openly bragged about snagging over 5,000 automobiles that year in “sting” operations, meeting their target of bringing in RMB 50 million in fines.  Several people had already sued the police claiming they had been innocent, but not a single one had won.  Only when the driver and his lawyer took the case to Phoenix TV did the police say they would investigate.

Obviously one thing that would strike anyone about this story is the arbitrary exercise of power and lack of accountability in China’s legal system.  It also indicates how money seems to drive everything in today’s China.  But the other observation I take away is how China’s citizens are increasingly willing to complain and fight back when they feel abused.  In the past, most people would have simply paid and counted themselves fortunate to escape a worse fate.  And people who heard the story tended to assume that, if someone got mixed up with the law, they must have done something to deserve it.  Both of these reactions are changing.  China now has a rising middle class that has studied, worked, and travelled abroad.  They know how things work in other countries.  They feel like they’ve earned a decent and secure place in society.  They have, they will tell you, rights – even though they realize that’s not entirely true.  And when they hear stories like this – or when it happens to them – they get angry.  They refuse to sign confessions, demand to see the evidence, and even hire lawyers.

Now it’s not to say that abuse of police power can’t happen elsewhere in the world.  I’m reminded of the recent movie starring Angelina Jolie, Changeling.  Based in Los Angeles in the early 20th Century, it tells the story of a woman consigned to a psych ward for persistently challenging the police over the disappearance of her young boy.  After we watched the film, my wife asked me whether something like that could truly happen in America.  I said, yes, of course anywhere the police have discretionary power they could abuse it – and there’s not much you can do about it on the scene.  But that’s not how the story ends.  When Jolie’s character disappears, a radio preacher she knows goes on the air to demand answers, and ultimately secures her release.  She then sues the police department and wins.  The city’s mayor, concerned for his reelection, fires the police chief who persecuted her.  The police have power, but they are not wholly unaccountable.  A free press, an independent judiciary, and the power of the ballot box all place checks on what the police can get away with, if they try.

In China, the government faces a dilemma.  On the one hand, I believe that most officials in China’s central government are sincerely appalled at the sort of thing that happened to the driver in Shanghai, and want to stamp out such abuse.  The problem is, once somebody complains – and how do you even know about an abuse unless someone complains? – even well-intentioned officials see that person as a threat.  When someone hires a lawyer, files a petition, or goes on television – in other words, when they stop being just a passive victim — they become a troublemaker trying to undermine the State.  Push too hard, attract too much attention, and you might end up in prison; your lawyer too.  Because officials are terrified that if they admit some wrong was done — if they don’t cover it up and silence the complaints — the government and the Party will appear less than perfect, and people will lose respect and stop paying attention to either.  I think many decent officials are aware of this contradiction, and are disturbed by it, but can’t see their way out of the trap. 

In the meantime, China’s citizens — with their ever rising expectations — increasingly feel stung.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dylan permalink
    November 17, 2009 4:21 pm

    Historically, the arbitary abuse of power by the ruling dynasty has become so extreme that the mandate from heaven has been withdrawn. So there has been an accountability of sorts hasn’t there? I’d be very interested in your thoughts on how close the Chinese people are from standing up for themselves against such abuses? Altertatively, how much progress are the authorities making in preempting any serious outpourings of such popular anger with systems to prevent such excesses?

    Really love the blog by the way, which deserves (and I’m sure will soon receive) a much wider readership. Keep up the fantastic work!


  2. maddog permalink
    November 21, 2009 9:47 am

    Hopefully, the Chinese govt will use the example of the West’s free press and free speech to expose this sort of corruption. The govt has in a way turned the Communist party into the Mandarin class, it allows genuine merit to rise; but also allows corruption to flourish. This has always been the downfall of China. Perhaps they can find a cure in a free press.

    There is no advantage to America or to the world in a failed China, or an unfree China.

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