To Procrastinate and Snub

Two run-ins with the Chinese police.


Editor’s Note: If you’re an expat in China and have called 110, please tell us your experiences.

China is a police state. Why? Because the police are paid more than the teachers—a definition straight from the mouth of V.I. Lenin and one of the few I wholeheartedly agree with. Blame my Trot father for that.

Even if you don’t agree that the above definition, you will surely agree that China’s police force and its bungling subsidiary, the chengguan, are an ever-present feature of life here. I have seen uniformed police and chengguan attending concerts, guarding swimming pools, and hanging around my community watching older residents play cards.

I have no clue how many plainclothes police officers I have encountered during my time here; the only ones who gave themselves away were a pair whom I saw bust two guys on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road back in 2004. They tazered the men, then beat them up on the ground, in full view of the crowds of shoppers. The only others I can say for sure I’ve spotted are the ones meandering around Tiananmen Square, dressed like a child’s drawing of a spy.

Bottom line, the Chinese police—sorry, the Public Security Bureau’s operatives—are everywhere. They’re lauded on television for their heroic defense of the common man and a recent poster campaign in Chaoyang declared, “The People’s Chengguan Love The People.” Maybe this is an attempt to win back the dignity of the Party’s lowest-level enforcers, who routinely beat street vendors (sometimes to death) and are among the most regular clients at my local brothel-cum-massage center, according to the receptionist.

The omnipresence of the police was once a cause for comfort, despite the times I’ve nearly been mowed down while cycling by vans brimming with armed officers, no doubt on their way to kindly assist some elderly petitioners exercise their civil rights. I used to sing the praises of having police everywhere to my regularly-mugged friends living in London and New York. “At least in China,” I would say, “I always feel safe. Beyond the odd pickpocket, you’re in no personal danger from crime, at least in the big cities.”

I’m sure people have written theses on why crime rates are, according to all indicators, low in China. Without having statistics at hand, I rarely hear Chinese friends trade their crime horror stories, unlike my friends back in the UK, who thrive on tales of break-ins, armed robberies, bomb factories and drugs cartels operating out of nearby housing estates.

While it may be true that the worst crimes in China—the murders, the domestic abuse and the rapes—are as common as anywhere else, but take place behind closed doors and the fog of media censorship, when it comes to opportunistic crime—mugging, breaking-and-entering and assault—things seem pretty tame in the country’s capital. Understandably, as the streets are swarming with police officers day and night.

There are exceptions, of course. A friend of mine witnessed a recent acquaintance stabbed to death on the street in Dalian in an apparently motiveless act of violence, until he was later informed that the victim was heavily indebted to a local drug dealer. While a horrific crime, the same story is repeated a dozen times in cities across the world on a daily, or nightly, basis, and doesn’t single China out as a hotbed of violent crime.

I am extending an invitation to anyone who has ever required the services of the police to step forward and describe their experience.

However, I am extending an invitation to anyone who has ever required the services of the police to step forward and describe their experience. How many expats have ever dialed that hallowed number: 110? The propaganda in the subway tells us that upon dialing 110, police officers will arrive at the scene within moments to deal swiftly and efficiently with whatever disturbance or crime is in progress. But I’ll bet that most of us, whether out of concern for our ability to communicate with said police officers in Chinese or out of concern of causing a fuss over nothing, have never dialed 110. Perhaps we’ve just never needed to.

Last year, I had to call 110 twice. And here’s how China’s brave boys in blue (or khaki) responded.

The First Incident

The first occasion was after working a late-night shift last summer, when a British colleague and I were headed home on our bicycles. Cycling past a bakery a few blocks from my apartment, we almost ran over an unconscious man lying stretched out on the sidewalk. He was young, well-dressed, clutching a briefcase and there wasn’t a whiff of alcohol on him—he was simply lying prostrate, apparently unconscious or asleep. We checked for a pulse and to see if he was breathing, and he seemed fine, so we attempted to wake him, as he was dangerously positioned. However, calling out to him and shaking him failed to elicit a response—perhaps he was drugged or had fainted. Passersby had by this time begun to gather, and every one of them told us to leave it, “bie zhao mafan,” literally, “don’t look for trouble.”

We were in a bind. I didn’t want to leave this person to have his legs broken by the first electric bike to come along. However, I also didn’t see that he was in any immediate danger. Had there not been a crowd, I may have just taken their advice and abandoned him, but a combination of their callousness and my own self-consciousness at being an ambassador for my culture, made me take the middle road and call the police.

I was straight through to a young gentleman, who got the details of the situation, its location, and my cell number. Once I had double-confirmed everything, I hung up, stepped back, and considered how this would look to the officers I was assured were on their way. A young, fairly good-looking Chinese man is unconscious in the company of two foreigners. In those pre-Yue Yue days, my first thought was that we would somehow become implicated. A call to my (Chinese) boyfriend cemented this position. “You’ll have to give a statement,” he said, “and you might get into trouble. You’ve done what you needed to do. Now go home.” The thought that, as we’d checked his pulse, our fingerprints would be on him also unnerved me. Suddenly the locals’ warnings to not zhao mafan seemed less callous.

Here’s my confession: I cycled home. It was a warm evening, he wouldn’t die of exposure, and we’d moved him off the road so he wouldn’t get run over. The police later called to confirm my identity and to tell me some officers had found the guy, and that was the last I heard of it. A follow-up would have been nice, just so I’d know the guy was okay, but as far as I could see the matter was dealt with and I’d acted in a reasonable manner. Easy peasy.

The Second Incident

Then came the second incident, which was far more terrifying. My boyfriend and I were awoken a couple months ago at 4AM by an incredible ruckus outside our apartment. I live in a small, slightly decrepit 6-story loufang with my boyfriend. It’s not the most secure of places and the magnetized main door is easily yanked open with brute force. We could hear banging, as if someone was hammering on our front door and the bannisters in the hallway. The noise continued for several minutes, by which time we were convinced someone was trying to force their way into one of our neighbors’ apartments. Then everything suddenly went quiet.

I snuck out of bed and peeped through the spyhole in our front door and could see what looked like two heavily-clothed men standing on the landing outside, one of whom appeared to be peering into the peephole of our door, which made me start backwards. Now, the stairwell lighting is broken in our apartment building, so I can’t swear that these two figures were genuinely there—it could well have been a trick of the light, and when I returned to the peephole shortly after my boyfriend called 110, the stairwell was empty. Regardless, something seemed to be happening in our apartment building in the dead of night, something which we couldn’t handle by ourselves.

It wasn’t the incident itself that shocked me, so much as the reaction of the police when we called in what could have been a life-threatening situation. Their response was markedly different from the unconscious-guy-in-street incident.

First, they asked my boyfriend to go outside and see if there were any men roaming our apartment building. He, understandably, declined to do this as he felt that one slight person was unlikely to overpower two beefy assailants hell-bent on gaining access to his apartment. Then the police asked us why our telephone number didn’t seem to be registered at the address we had given. Frustrated, my boyfriend explained he had retained a previous number when he moved, which elicited condemnation from the police, who then told us, grudgingly, they’d send a car to check things out.

Half an hour ticked by. My boyfriend and I sat up in bed, frozen with fear, listening for more banging or footsteps on the stairs. Then the police called back to say their patrol car had circled our community. We had been keeping watch for flashing lights the whole time and no vehicle had come anywhere near our community since we’d made the call—a fact my boyfriend patiently explained to the officer on the phone. This prompted a second tongue-lashing about our “unregistered number,” after which the police said they’d send “some more officers” to check the building, and would call back.

They didn’t do either. Needless to say, we, and most of our neighbors, didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night.

Happily, everything was fine in the end. We heard a loud hammering from our upstairs neighbor which sounded enough like the frightening commotion of the previous night to reassure us we’d merely misheard. Why our neighbors would be engaging in metalwork at 4AM was a question we didn’t want to ask ourselves, or them. As for the figures in the stairwell, I’ve convinced myself that they weren’t there at all, that I merely fell victim to fear.

However, the police didn’t know all this when we called them in desperation. Someone could well have been attempting to force their way into our apartment. The police first lied about sending a car, then attacked us for not registering our phone at our current address, and then repeated this cycle of lies and blame in their second call. They clearly had no interest in putting police personnel at risk for the sake of two laobaixing shivering in fear in their apartment building.

I Won’t Be Watching You

The Chinese police are only heroes when they round up prostitutes or tazer unarmed drug dealers.

Since the events of that evening, I’ve come to a few conclusions. The Chinese police are only heroes when they can round up some prostitutes, or tazer unarmed drug dealers, or shoot protesting students. In the face of genuinely lethal situations, they’re either conveniently absent or hopelessly ineffective. Do I now believe the Chinese police, for all their shortcomings, will protect me if I’m genuinely in danger? Definitely not. I now wonder if they ever sent officers to check on that young man by the roadside.

There’s a great joke about a Party official who gives his local police force a week track down a rabbit that’s been causing mayhem in the woods. The police play mah jongg for a six days, before going into the forest and coming back with a bear. They tie the bear to a chair and slap him, asking, “Are you a rabbit?” until finally the bear breaks down: “Yes, yes, I’m a rabbit!” Then they close the case to everyone’s satisfaction.


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