Canaries in the coal mine

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China is in a police state of mind lately. The number of police-related controversies since early May makes some observers openly wonder if it is pure coincidence or intentional agenda-setting.

One commonality in all these cases is the assertiveness of the country’s security forces both offline and online. The eventful month started with the Beijing police’s forceful handling of Lei Yang, a twenty-nine-year-old young professional who died while under custody on May 7, and culminated with a Shenzhen police officer’s disgraceful attempt to detain two young women who refused to show their ID upon random stop on the street. After information about the incidents was brought onto the Internet, the cyberspace was rattled, not just by the expected public outcry, but also by the unusually loud roar of the police force itself.

On the night of May 7, plainclothes policemen intercepted Lei Yang on the street near Lei’s home. According to family members and friends, Lei was on his way to the airport picking up relatives. He never made it to the airport though. The police’s story was drastically different: he was caught leaving from a prostitution house disguised as a foot massage place. Based on that theory, he made a detour on his way to the metro station, and used that extra time (a few minutes to be exact) to enjoy paid sexual service. Upon interception by the officers who were to bust the shop that night, Lei panicked and tried to escape. The cops forced him into a police car. In a struggle, he had what seemed to be a heart attack and died after being rushed to the hospital.

That version was heavily challenged by Lei’s family, who insisted they saw disturbing wounds on his dead body. Was he beaten to death? Accounts by street witnesses also suggest that there was quite a scene around the street corner that night.

From the beginning, questions about police misconduct shadowed the discussion. But they were met with a stern response from both within the security force and the society. Such voices are unapologetic: if Lei actually fought his arrest, then the police were fully justified in their use of violence. Amidst a tide of public criticism, the Changping district police, the authority responsible for the May 7 mission, released information about Lei’s attempt to violently escape. But it failed to put the controversy to a rest as no visual record existed to corroborate that claim, a key sore point in the debate as, inexplicably, all the video recording devices, including street surveillance cameras and the police’s handheld device were either not functioning or damaged in the struggle . The police also had a hard time selling their key assertion that Lei was a suspected John, a premise on which the forceful intervention was based. Again, no direct visual evidence, except for contradictory testimony from inside the foot massage shop, exist of Lei’s entering.

But state media quickly joined force with the police to quench public questioning. On May 11, BTV, Beijing’s local TV station, broadcasted a news clip wherein the woman who supposedly served Lei Yang went on camera to say that she gave him a “hand job.” On that same day, CCTV followed with a more extensive piece that almost exclusively disseminated the police side of the story. The officers directly involved in the questionable arrest were given generous slots in the prime time news program to make their case, which included the revelation of DNA evidence collected from a condom found at the scene.

Emboldened by what seemed to be strong evidence of Lei’s wrongdoing, commentators sympathetic to law enforcement did not feel they need to pull punches. In an article titled “Lei Yang, sorry but I am a policeman“, the author, who is likely affiliated with the security force, argues that law enforcement has “indisputable” right to stop and question those suspected for illegal conduct, and that suspicion can be entirely discretionary or even arbitrary. Upon resistance, police officers are fully entitled to use force to put suspects under control. “The society should correct a very wrong notion,” says the article, “the idea that police cannot beat you is a misconception. The law has given officers authorization to use force.”

The sentiment was echoed by Internet personalities who held the view that Lei was basically “asking for it“. What should have the police done? They asked rhetorically, begging for his cooperation? Even more restraint observers contended that Lei (and his family) had a weak case vis a vis the police, as it’s “nearly impossible” to hold the cops accountable for excessive violence if some manhandling was justified in the first place.

The incident set the country’s law-and-order hawks on an offensive mode throughout the month.  Later, when smartphone videos turned up on the Internet showing police officers handcuffing middle-aged women on the streets of Shanghai for minor traffic rule violations, and a Shenzhen officer verbally abusing and threatening two girls that he would lock them up with “rapists and people with AIDS”, hardliners turned the blame around and accused the subjects of law enforcement of disrespectful behavior. They maintained that those “scenes” were necessary lesson for the country’s populace to learn the proper way in front of its police. Much of that stance is a response to what they see as a knee-jerk liberal reaction which invariably criticizes the officers in such situations. By demonizing law enforcement, liberal “public intellectuals” have made the public unrulier in their encounter with it, the allegation goes.

What’s remarkable is the number of police-affiliated social media accounts that became particularly vocal. “What’s wrong with checking your ID? Who do you think you are?” One Weibo account owned by a local police officer fired up, “Who said women can be exempted from checks?” Other accounts also expressed impatience with public protest. An account associated with a county-level police department, noting the number of online video clips that put security forces under the spotlight, went even further by educating the public that simply video recording policemen in action is illegal, which drew immediate criticism from those who insist that to witness and monitor official proceedings is a citizen’s constitutional right.

Response to that newfound assertiveness is marked by a pessimistic reading of the bleak legal landscape the public faces. Lawyers lay bare the dire consequence if one does not comply with orders from officers, even when they are clearly violating protocol. Precedents after precedents indicate that Chinese courts do not side with ordinary people daring to talk back at officers who do not, for example, feel the need to flash their badge (a key point of contention in the above mentioned Shenzhen video). The Chinese state sends the signal that it values the authority of law enforcement more than procedural rights of the public which it considers a secondary concern. That same logic has prompted People’s Daily to publish an opinion piece following the Shenzhen video that advises citizens to “abide first, and complain later”. Entertaining “the right to refuse,” the logic goes, would be too costly a compromise for ground level enforcement.

But the defensive, unapologetic tone of the law-and-order camp provides an assembling ground for its resistance. The CCTV news program was intensively questioned for its one-sidedness and its inappropriateness: suspects of a potential criminal case were literally given the floor to influence public opinion. In a widely read post later thoroughly censored, a group of volunteers who took the time to examine the site in person, carefully recreated the scene and picked open the police’s claims one by one. How could the “prostitute” mistake Lei’s white clothing for black? Why would a “hand job” require a condom? How come Lei, who was in a hurry to get to the airport, ended his 200 RMB “service” prematurely yet spent a full 2 minutes walking only 67 meters, as recorded by two surveillance cameras? Why didn’t the police, eager to establish Lei as a suspect, never specified when exactly Lei entered or exited from the shop? They ventured the bold yet convincing hypothesis that the policemen never saw by their own eyes Lei’s presence at the foot massage place but only rushed to the scene after receiving reports. They probably intercepted the wrong guy, who was likely, and fatefully, just waiting for a taxi.

The provocative stance of police-affiliated social media accounts attract a particularly determined pushback from multiple corners of the cyberspace. Veteran observers point at the blatancy of their disregard for legal validity and lament about the pervert popularity they enjoy “among some high-level officials”. Apparently certain elements within the establishment see these accounts as novel and effective means to neutralize liberal attacks against the country’s security forces in social media. Ideological hawks have long advanced the conspiracy theory that public backlash against police malpractice is a systematic assault on the legitimacy of the Party, orchestrated by hostile external forces.

But the alienating effect of the arrogant, gun-wielding image of such “police trolls” online is starting to become clear. Even long time regime defenders became frustrated with their posturing, accusing them of being nothing more than bullies that intimidate ordinary netizens and push them to the opposite side. Certain official outlets joined the chorus, cautioning such accounts not to overreach and create unintended effect in the sphere of public opinion. As long time media watcher Song Zhibiao notes, this wave of police-related debates seems to have created a particular dilemma for some online “patriots”, who are torn between their affection for the country and their anxiety for everyday security, a feeling intensified by cases above.

The authority has to navigate carefully in waters like this, lest they get caught in treacherous swirls. The People’s Daily was openly trolled by hardliners after its Twitter account implied criticism of the Shenzhen policeman. After the Changping police and CCTV went under heavy fire, official response to the Lei Yang case has become more reserved: prosecutors have been meticulously updating the public about steps that haven been taken, while distancing itself from substantive statements. There are signs that public complaint is taken seriously: policemen involved in Lei’s arrest were put under surveillance on Jun 1. Two of them, including the one who had appeared on CCTV, were formally arrested one month later. Possible charges include causing Lei’s death and interfering with investigation. In the Shenzhen video case, the officer’s unit immediately apologized for his behavior and suspended his job.

In Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s groundbreaking dissent against the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Utah v. Strieff, which coincidentally happened right in the middle of the Chinese debate over police misconduct, she compares victims of unwarranted police search as “canaries in the coal mine” that warn society about the corrosion of civil liberty that “threaten all our lives”.

In China, the warning sent out by the canaries have to pass through a much noisier tunnel before it reaches the ears of people in the “coal mine”. In the process, the simple clarity of civil liberty is complicated by anxieties about law and order, entrenched mistrust of authority and an urge to publicly prove the other side wrong, either through righteous, dogged questioning or through nasty intimidation. The whole affair has made some question the overall impact of public opinion on the judicial system. As one prosecutor writes after the arrest of the two officers in the Lei Yang case, “We have seen cases where the judiciary is hijacked by public opinion. We have also seen cases where the judiciary single-mindedly disregard public oversight. Both are a deviation from true justice.” The goddess of justice has hell of a partner to tango with in China.

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