One of the common misconceptions foreigners have about China is that the police presence looms everywhere, like in East Germany or the old Soviet Union. While it’s true that China remains a police state in structural terms, the reality is that on most days the police visibility in large cities like Beijing and Tianjin is comparable to, or even smaller than, large Western cities. (This doesn’t hold true during big events or mass incidents, mind you.) In Tianjin, for example, beat cops are actually less prominent than in my hometown, and they generally don’t cruise around looking for crime. The police can be slow to dispatch even when their stations are just minutes away. Likewise, while you can see traffic cops every day in the city, they’re usually deployed alone or in pairs and can be easily overwhelmed during large traffic jams or accidents. As a result, I’ve long wondered whether Tianjin doesn’t have enough police or simply hasn’t learned them to use them efficiently.
On the other hand, while police themselves are not as common as one might expect, the police stations in Chinese cities are everywhere. In the case of Tianjin, local precinct stations (pai chu suo) can be found slapped on one wing of a hospital or school, wedged into an alley, or tucked under an overpass. The conditions of a station vary dramatically according to the local tax base. Stations in rich districts are generally clean and sterile-looking, like a doctor’s office, whereas stations in poorer areas serve to remind you that China is still a developing country.
All of this brings me to the topic of this post. During my nearly four years in China, I’ve had to make four significant trips to the police station. The first time was for something I did; the second time, for something someone else did; the third time, for something I saw; and the fourth time, for something that happened to me. Since the stories that follow push this post towards the 3,000 word mark, I’ve placed my thoughts behind the jump.
Like other unlucky foreigners, my first exposure to the in and outs of a Chinese police station came during a visa overstay. One year I rather foolishly expected that my work visa would last through the holiday season until everyone came back to work at the university. Unfortunately, my visa cut off just before the holiday began, leaving me more than one month past the expiration date. Since the fine for overstays is 500 RMB each day, a 30+ day overstay ought to have put me in the hole by 15,000 RMB or more. However, Chinese law caps the overstay fine at 5,000 RMB (roughly $600), which I paid to the foreign affairs department of the Public Security Bureau after signing an admission of wrongdoing.
A piece of advice to people thinking about coming to China in the near future: Chinese police are big on confessions, admissions, and agreements, but they’re not so big on translating them for you. At least this is the case in Tianjin. So unless your Chinese reading and writing is pretty advanced, I’d advise against foreigners going to the police station alone. Don’t expect them to provide you with a translator. I learned my lesson after that.
The next lesson, however, was learned by my landlord, not by me.
I adore my landlord. He’s a good and honest and decent guy. But he forgot to register me with the local police after I moved into my apartment, which meant another trip to the station. According to Tianjin law, when a person, Chinese or foreign, changes residence, he or she must register that change with the police. What’s more, if he or she is renting, that person’s landlord must register with the police as well. Failure to register will result in a fine and/or being visited by the police repeatedly. This is one of the cases where the Chinese police state is highly visible.
Now, I didn’t actually have to do anything during our trip to the station, but my landlord still thought I should go with him in case the police had any questions or needed my paperwork. The main station we went to was a proverbial hole in the wall station at the end of an narrow street — the paint cracked and gray, and the front door surrounded by impounded scooters and Xinjiang fruitcake carts. As my landlord stepped into a back room and debated with the cops about exactly how big a fine he should pay, I sat in the lobby outside and looked at the cast of characters assembled within.
A boy of about eleven or twelve lay with his head in his mother’s lap, clutching a compress to his eye, slowly moaning. Another woman, presumably his grandmother, also tended to him. A strange little man paced about a corner of the station, laughing to himself. A swarm of flies circled around underneath the station’s solitary fan. A fat older cop sat behind a desk, presiding over the scene.
A few people came in while I sat. There was the vaguely gangsterish fellow with a receding hairline and expanding waist who rode up on a scooter with his overly made-up woman in tow and went into the back. Then there was the young Uighur guy who walked in, and while speaking in Chinese far worse than mine, tried to get help from the cops. The first policeman he talked to complained that couldn’t understand him at all, so he pulled one of superiors into the lobby. The strange little man cackled that he couldn’t understand the Uighur either. The man from Xinjiang rather frantically explained that the apartment he and others were staying in had been robbed. The police officer then informed the man, who lived about five kilometers away in another district, that he was at the wrong police station. The Uighur sulked a bit at his jurisdictional rebuke and walked out.
After that, the fat cop stood up from his desk and killed one of the flies swirling about the room. Satisfied by his triumph, he sat back down. The rest of the flies took little notice. Shortly thereafter my landlord came out from the office and we left. In a word, he was unhappy about his fine.
My third trip to the station followed a rather ugly scene in one of Tianjin’s bars, whose name I will not reveal, though it’s famous to all foreigners in Tianjin. A particular girl on this particular night got particularly drunk and assaulted one of my friends. This fight, in turn, led to the girl attempting to mutilate herself as she was subdued by the bar staff. As she sprawled out on the floor, bleeding, we waited for the police to come. Though the police were just around the corner, they took about half an hour to arrive.
At first, the police officer tried talking to the girl. (She was Chinese.) Her response was a slap to the face. Literally. And in a show of restraint that many Western cops might not manage, the officer on the scene just took her abuse. The girl then took out her cell phone and called the police herself and claimed that the bar owner had paid off some police to come and harass her. The police operator was incredulous, so the girl’s backup plan was to call her mother and say she was in trouble. For the next thirty minutes she argued with the police and threatened bar patrons while the police, and two hospital nurses, waited for her to wind down.
Eventually, the police officers grew impatient and dragged her out of the bar. She threw herself on the ground outside and began to wail. A mob of Chinese came out to watch her, and then the girl’s mother arrived. Things only got worse from there, as the daughter began to publicly humiliate her mother in front of everyone.
Once the girl was finally subdued and taken away for medical care, the police escorted a half-dozen witnesses (including me) to the aforementioned station around the corner to get our statements. Just as in the West, the testimony involved discussing who the girl was, what the girl did, and why she did it. I also had to give my personal information, though the police didn’t ask for my passport or work permit. As before, I had to read (with a friend’s help) the police report and sign my name to it. The time dragged on past two a.m. as we waited for everyone to finish. The girl, her wounds freshly bandaged, arrived with a younger boy and took a seat in the lobby. Her mother soon followed and sat across from her. Mother and daughter didn’t look at each other, though the boy looked at us with an accusatory glare.
We all just looked at the mother and pondered the burdens she would carry.
My most recent trip to the police station came after I was mugged — in a KFC of all places. I had made the mistake of leaving my Nokia N95 out on the dining table in front of me. The thief pushed me from behind and swiped the phone while saying “excuse me” in Chinese. I immediately noticed the phone was gone and grabbed the thief before he could leave the restaurant. I accused him of stealing my phone but he protested his innocence and tried to walk away. The KFC staff came out to see what was going on, and as they asked for my number to call my phone, the thief pulled out a folding hunting knife and thrust it at us, then made a quick getaway.
A sane person would just write off the phone as a loss, but in a moment of temporary insanity I decided to chase after the thief. I found him hiding behind a minivan outside the KFC, and ran after him across a parking lot and into a nearby apartment complex. I lost sight of him inside the complex gates, but then a young guy flagged me down and said he saw the thief and would help me catch him. (I know what you’re thinking: the young guy showing up is too convenient. But he turned out to be legit.) Together we followed the thief through the apartment complex until we cornered him just as he was — as we would later learn — ditching the knife. My phone was nowhere on his person, so he probably did a hand off to a partner while he hid behind the minivan.
It was still pretty early in the evening at that time, so the residents of the apartment complex were still out and about. As the young man held the thief down, the residents called the police and talked to me about what happened. After calling my phone and getting no answer, they helped me to look for my phone in and around the apartment complex, to no avail. After the police came, they talked to the residents and generally avoided talking to me until one of the ladies living there protested that my Chinese was good enough for them to understand — I was their new waiguo pengyou (foreign friend), after all. The thief, a fortysomething man from Dongbei (Northeast China), just stared off into space.
After a few minutes of poking around in the bushes without flashlights we all left. One group of police loaded the thief up in a police van while the young guy and I went with another pair of cops. Our first stop wasn’t the station but the KFC, where I had to pick up my bags. The police took no statements, just spoke to the staff and briefly confirmed what I said was true. We headed down to the neighborhood station, which turned out to be a two-minute walk from my apartment. It was nearly ten p.m.
The young man and I talked and waited for thirty minutes while the police decided what to do next. Their superior asked if they had gotten witnesses from the KFC, and when they said no, he snapped at them to bring the manager in before she went home. Eventually, another group gathered up some flashlights and took the young man back with them to the apartment complex to look for my phone and the knife. The officer in charge came into the room I was in, saw me standing, and said in English, “Please, sit down.” He made small talk with me in some English and a lot of Chinese, then repeated: “Please, sit down.” But I was already sitting.
During the next two hours or so I told my version of the events no less than six times, but no one actually took notes or filled out a report. I suppose I must’ve seemed like a walking sociology experiment to the officers on duty — a fat, Chinese-speaking white guy. The officer in charge was, for his part, very cordial, his overuse of “Please, sit down” notwithstanding. He asked me to teach him different English words, including the word “shower” just before he went to bathe, and while I was with him our discussion ranged from comparing the layout of his office to the offices of his American counterparts, to the treatment of women in Muslim countries, to why I didn’t beat the crap out of the thief. According to him, as an American, I should’ve knocked the guy senseless. I just laughed.
Unfortunately, the small talk did little to mask the reality that I had been sitting in the station for three hours and had yet to give an official statement. As the officer in charge went to shower, a junior officer came and took my statement. We began at one a.m. and we talked for the better part of an hour before I signed and added my fingerprint to the police report. Unfortunately, we still weren’t through. I had to fetch my passport and my phone’s receipts from home for the police to photocopy. This took another 45 minutes, and my time at the station came to an end around half past two.
I wasn’t totally done with the police at this point. (As of this posting, in fact, I’m still not finished.) I had to go to a criminal investigation division two days later and give my statement again and also print out my phone records from the night of the crime to prove that my phone was taken offline about the same time I said I was robbed. My landlord was also called in as a character witness. In the end, after the investigation was finished, the court and the police estimated the depreciated value of my cell phone at just over 4,000 RMB and ordered the thief to compensate me. How or if he might do so remains unclear. I’ve darkly joked to colleagues that he might steal other cell phones to sell them and pay for the phone he stole from me.
My Chinese friends have also been robbed, and after I told them of my experience they noted that the police seem much more helpful in my case, probably because I’m a foreigner. Of course, I handed the police the prime suspect, whereas my friends could only describe who it was who robbed them, which means the police and I have a greater opportunity to cooperate. That said, as a foreigner living in China, I’m constantly aware that what I’m experiencing is subject to the observer effect. By nature of my interactions with the Chinese around me, I’m seeing a China that’s slightly different, or perhaps very different, from the China seen by Chinese people. The police are no exception to this rule, so take my anecdotes above with a grain of salt. But also consider the possibility that the scariest thing about dealing with Chinese police may be the bureaucracy.