After my two brushes with crime in China — a mugging, which resulted in the theft of my Nokia N95, and catching a catburglar trying to break in to my apartment — the reactions among Chinese people were all pretty similar:
- Did you see his face? Did he look like he was from Xinjiang?
- Was he a Xinjiang person?
- A Xinjiang guy stole your phone, right?
By “Xinjiang person” the speakers mean a Uighur, a Eurasian minority from Xinjiang that is genetically and linguistically related to Turkish people. In Tianjin and other large Chinese cities, Uighurs are among the lowest of the underclass, making a living selling dried fruits or Muslim food or, yes, by stealing and selling stolen goods.*
What was striking to me, however, was the automatic assumption on the part of Chinese that “thief = Uighur.” Is this just a Tianjin thing or are such reactions common around China?
* Note that I’ve never been robbed by a Uighur but they’ve offered me (presumably) stolen cell phones dozens of times.
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.