Home > Analysis, Opinion, politics > Who Are You Calling a Police State and Other Urgent Matters

Who Are You Calling a Police State and Other Urgent Matters

It’s a long running joke that many in the West continue to misleadingly characterize China as a police state. In the run up to the Olympics, there are people who mocked Chinese efforts to provide for a safe and successful Olympics – even though massive security efforts now appear to be quite routine in the West (see e.g., 2002 Olympics2004 Olympics, 2006 Olympics2010 Olympics2012 Olympics).

It’s easy to accuse others. After all, as a well-known verse from the Christian Bible says, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” But isn’t this going a bit too far?

Recently, FAIR had an interesting article about the militarizing of the police in the U.S. and the aggressive tactics taken by police against the Occupy protesters throughout the nation.

[P]olice forces in various cites took a militarized, increasingly coordinated approach to the movement that began as Occupy Wall Street, reporters were frequently treated as the enemy—with tactics designed to prevent them from documenting exactly how activists were being removed from public spaces.

When the NYPD evicted Occupy Wall Street protesters from Manhattan’s Liberty Plaza in the wee hours of November 15, they did their best to keep journalists far from the scene. Before the park was cleared, police asked reporters present to show their press credentials—and then made them leave the park.

Most media ended up behind barricades blocks away; reporters for outlets like the New York Times and NPRwere arrested (Gothamist, 11/15/11). When Village Voice reporter Rosie Gray told police, “I’m press!” she said one officer responded: “Not tonight” (Media Decoder, 11/15/11).

Lest you think such treatment was only given to members of the “liberal media,” police hostility to journalism crossed ideological boundaries: Police clearing Liberty Plaza put a New York Post reporter in a headlock; earlier, a photographer from another Murdoch-owned outlet, New York’s Fox 5, was pepper-sprayed in the eyes (My Fox New York, 10/5/11).

If police forces nationwide seem to be taking similar steps against the Occupy movement, it’s not a coincidence: Police chiefs in cities with occupations going on have been getting together to discuss strategies and tactics, including via conference calls organized by the Police Executive Research Forum, an association of law-enforcement officials.

A San Francisco Bay Guardian article by Shawn Gaylor (11/18/11) gave a sense of who’s directing that conversation. PERF’s board chair is Philadelphia police chief Charles Ramsey, who headed D.C.’s police force when it used preemptive mass arrests to squelch protests against the IMF and World Bank (Extra!, 7–8/00). Before Ramsey, PERF’s board was led by John Timoney, the former Miami police chief whose crackdown on the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstrations attached the name “Miami Model” to this approach to protests (New Standard, 6/8/04)—based on a militarized approach to crowd control, tactical use of “less-lethal” violence (e.g., pepper spray) and, crucially, control of information.

2006 PERF report, Police Management of Mass Demonstrations, advocates the use of military-style “embedded reporter programs” of the sort that were used in the L.A. evictions. “Camera shots from the police side of a confrontation can capture a more comprehensive view than if cameras are only on the protesters’ side,” the report notes. Of course, if everyone on the protesters’ side gets arrested, whether they’re taking pictures or not, that would leave the public with only the police-eye view.

Whatever opinions people want to have about China, they should base those on facts, not ideology.

Here are some interesting facts.  The U.S. has the highest prison population in the world for some time (2008 NYTimes article2011 NYTimes article). According to the most recent data at NationMeter, the U.S. has by far the most prison population per capita also, followed by Russia and Belarus (compare also data from ICPS).  Mainland China ranks in NationMeter at 71 (117 in ICPS ranking).

prison-capita-rankprison-capita-rank-2

Still, sometimes it’s really difficult to put the coldwar ideology blinders away.

Recently, I see some blogger go so far as to attribute the lack of good Samaritan spirit in China to the existence of a police state. The reality is that a fear of the law and the phenomenon of bystander effect are probably more than sufficient to explain problem. In the U.S., for example, you find such cases too (see, e.g., the Lululemon case and the gang rape of  California girl case).

Fukyama, author of his work the End of History recently asserted in an interview:

China is never going to be a global model. Our current Western system is really broken in some fundamental ways, but the Chinese system is not going to work either. It is a deeply unfair and immoral system where everything can be taken away from anyone in a split second, where people die in train accidents because of a rampant lack of public oversight and transparency, where corruption rules. We are already seeing huge protests in all parts of China …

Besides misunderstanding China’s search for a “model” to be a paradigm to export and impose abroad, Fukuyama amazes me by how he continues to see every problem in China – from train accidents to corruption – as a an existential indictment of the Chinese polity.

For the record, China’s train system is still one of the safest in the world, despite the recent high-profile accident at Wenzhou. A simple perusal of public data reveals:

In the United States for 1990, 2005, 2008 and 2009 (combined), there were about 30.3 deaths for every billion passenger kilometers traveled. …

For every billion passenger kilometers traveled in China for the same four years, there were .02 deaths.

For every billion passenger kilometers traveled in India, there were .07 deaths.

The death rate in America was 1,515 times higher than China for each billion passenger kilometers traveled.

And while corruption is a real problem in China, it’s much worse in democratic India – and may be intractably worse in America too if systemic, legalized corruption (see also revolving door politics) is taken into account.

Here is my take: the belief in liberal democracy is genuine, but that’s not necessarily bad.  Even when China was at its weakest, a lot of Chinese people still believed that the values it held were “superior.”

The belief becomes a problem when one becomes a zealout and refuses to see the world any other way.

The reality is that both Eastern / Western systems probably work just fine.  You just need a proper environment.  The “environment” has been good for the West the last 500 and bad for China the last 200 or so years.  That historical fortune (misfortune as may be the case for China) does not mean Western models work better than the Chinese model per se.

It’s in the interest of the world to experiment with all sorts of political structures. The way forward is to allow each other space to develop and to learn, adopt and benefit from each others’ experiences – not to fall back on religious zealotry and fear.

 

 

  1. February 8th, 2012 at 13:24 | #1

    Fukuyama is a bigot. For the Wenzhou train tragedy, the Chinese government held 54 Ministry of Rail officials responsible. He should ask why nobody has been held responsible for the financial meltdown in the U.S.. Worse yet, Wallstreet was not only not held responsible, but bailed out by tax money! Pretty blind.

    King of bigotry driven by ideology.

  2. melektaus
    February 8th, 2012 at 13:43 | #2

    Hmm…this will be good for the chapter on human rights to provide some context.

  3. aeiou
    February 8th, 2012 at 13:57 | #3

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YcocIG1CA2k&skipcontrinter=1

    Here is some Indian democracy. You will never see Hilary Clinton feign outrage at this. Wouldn’t surprise if a couple of Tibetans are at the receiving end of this Indian hospitality.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=e5kBqutAcio&skipcontrinter=1

  4. February 8th, 2012 at 17:25 | #4

    Come on now… is this a website about how bad America is or a blog about China? America doesn’t represent ‘the rest of the world’, so if someone asks the question “Is China a police state?” then the answer isn’t “Well look at America!”

    Police behaviour – yes, you’re right. The behaviour of the police at OWS is shocking, and that’s why many people are so outraged by it, because it’s not acceptable. Yet… how does China deal with equivalent widespread public protests? Do the Chinese police behave in a less or more ressponsible way when faced with peaceful protests? Where’s the discussion about China here?

    Prison population – not really a great indicator of whether a place is a police state or not. Prison population is driven by many factors like poverty, public policy, wealth disparity… I do feel more safe living in China than I do at home, but perhaps that’s the success point of a police state: there’s less visible crime. Perhaps more crime goes unprosecuted in China because of corruption? In any case, where’s the discussion about China?

    Fukyama – so he’s a bigot for basically saying that “the Western model is broken, and so is the Chinese model”? I’m getting the impression that anyone who criticises China is a ‘bigot’ now?

    Train data – it looks like this is bad data. The data for the US includes suicides on train lines, while I’m guessing the data for China does not? Eg. common sense check, if you look at the number of rail accidents in the US in 2010, there’s no way the death toll adds up to @500-600. Similarly, if you look at the causes of accidents, it’s often cars on the line or equipment failure. Not 54 officials suspended, allegations of cover-ups and corruption, media blackouts etc.

    Corruption – hold on, you’re suggesting that China can’t be that bad, because India is more corrupt? That’s not a great yardstick to use. China is an awfully corrupt country, which extends from primary school teachers right up to the highest government officials. There are problems of corruption in the US and Europe, but it’s a misnomer to suggest that the scale is anywhere near comparable. I grew up in the UK and not once did I ever come into contact with corruption in any form. I paid my first bribe in China, to a policeman, trying to get a certificate of residence. Where’s the discussion about China?

    I agree with the final points – different countries need different systems, and there’s nothing to suggest that a liberal democracy is ‘the one and only true system’. But how does that prove that China is not a police state?

    Why not answer the question “Is China a police state?” by talking about China directly instead of muddying the waters with isolated and fairly random stats about America? Or just start a separate blog called “Reasons we hate America”, and I’ll start agreeing with you on that one 🙂

  5. February 9th, 2012 at 00:37 | #5

    @westiseast
    I’ll just address two of your points:

    1.)

    Why not answer the question “Is China a police state?” by talking about China directly instead of muddying the waters with isolated and fairly random stats about America? Or just start a separate blog called “Reasons we hate America”, and I’ll start agreeing with you on that one

    When we criticize something, it must be done with a point of reference. If I am to criticize American society today based on a norm from Star Trek, that’d be absurd.

    So, when we talk about China, especially in response to distortions in the Western media, it is natural to compare to the U.S. which the Western countries loosely accepts as the leader of the West.

    To dismiss the Western countries as a point of reference as “reasons to hate America” is a weak straw-man.

    2.)

    I said:

    Fukuyama is a bigot. For the Wenzhou train tragedy, the Chinese government held 54 Ministry of Rail officials responsible. He should ask why nobody has been held responsible for the financial meltdown in the U.S.. Worse yet, Wallstreet was not only not held responsible, but bailed out by tax money! Pretty blind.
    King of bigotry driven by ideology.

    In response, you said:

    Fukyama – so he’s a bigot for basically saying that “the Western model is broken, and so is the Chinese model”? I’m getting the impression that anyone who criticises China is a ‘bigot’ now?

    You misquoted him. This is what Fukuyama said:

    China is never going to be a global model. Our current Western system is really broken in some fundamental ways, but the Chinese system is not going to work either. It is a deeply unfair and immoral system where everything can be taken away from anyone in a split second, where people die in train accidents because of a rampant lack of public oversight and transparency, where corruption rules. We are already seeing huge protests in all parts of China …

    Him citing the Wenzhou train crash to condemn the whole system as “immoral” is not bigoted?

    The West has always been trying to export its system. So, he says China is “never going to be a global modal” because it has corruption. So why can the West export it’s modal when it is corrupt too. Read my comment above about bailing out Wallstreet despite them wiping out trillions of dollars from the U.S. economy! This is not corruption, then what is?

    So, China can be corrupt and cannot be a global modal, and America can? Isn’t that bigotry?

    Now, don’t take me wrong. I believe there is a LOT China and West can learn from one another. This is not condemning the West. This is about exposing the nonsense that gets tossed around in the West at China’s expense.

  6. LOLZ
    February 9th, 2012 at 07:33 | #6

    westiseast :

    Why not answer the question “Is China a police state?” by talking about China directly instead of muddying the waters with isolated and fairly random stats about America?

    It’s kinda like how some people would start to talk about Chinese media bias whenever the issue about Western media’s bias comes up.

  7. LOLZ
    February 9th, 2012 at 07:41 | #7

    On police state, I think it’s up to a nation’s own citizens to decide what is the ideal level of balance between security and freedom. A non-Chinese complain about China’s security model is lot like a Chinese in China complain about the influence of religion in US politics.

  8. February 9th, 2012 at 12:50 | #8

    @westiseast

    Thank you for at least agreeing with the conclusion. That is really the most important part of this post.

    Now I’ll try to respond to the many points you brought up:

    Police behavior: I don’t think there has been any accusations of mass police brutality in China. The main concern in 2008 was with the the number of police officers and security measures taken beforehand. The even itself was peaceful and rather uneventful, but people just shrugged that off – chucking off that China was a “police state.” The comparison with the West (I focus on U.S. since is the leader of the West) simply shows that China is not out of norm – if what the West is to be deemed global norm. If you don’t think what the West should set the norm, I applaud you. We can talk humanist-to-humanist about some other theoretical norm, but then this might not be the forum for it. In this forum I am primarily interested in defusing the China needs to be socialized to Western norm thread – and to say that what one sees as out of norm may actually not be – as my Bible quote tries to capture.

    On prison population: sure I agree that prison population per se may be due to many factors. However to me it’s an objective bottom line. When all is said and done, if a nation keeps a disproportionately high amount of people behind bars, that nation – law, police – whatever is at odds with the people – and in a way that makes that nation a police state. If a nation does not, then the polity structure is not at odds in a way that makes it a oppressive police state.

    Besides the bottom line, what you brought up may be considered window dressing. If the majority of people lives in a nation that you think is oppressive, but where people actually live happily – you could argue that’s so because their sense for what they want (freedom) is already hammered or sucked out of them. I can counter – no it’s because the gov’t did its job and provided for a happy populace. We can then go in circles…

    Going back to the West. I might also argue: people think they are free because democracy is a mass opiate. To argue whether a nation is a police state, we need to agree on a notion what is freedom – and we can sure have that discussion (and we already have many in this blog), but looks like for many, we can’t agree. The point of this post is – for those who can’t agree on a norm of what is a free state and what is a police state, let’s look at the bottom line.

    As for train statistics, I will let what I wrote and cited speak for themselves. I admit I did not do a thorough research. I don’t have the resources. But to the more important point you brought up – that in the West investigations usually result in technical issues while the same usually also reveals corruption and even media blackout. First of all – you get your facts wrong. Most major accidents do result in political change – firing of gov’t officials, changing of laws, etc. In China, you might hear more because gov’t is involved in projects more than U.S. -where you have contractors – but even then, you have investigation into procurement procedures, etc. Maybe I’ll do a post where I can dig into this more – but then you can probably then accuse me ( after all my hardwork) and ask whether this is a blog about China or the West.

    About Fukuyma – I never used the term “bigot” in the post. I don’t think he’s a bigot, but that he does represent a strong (and influential) advocate of the liberal democratic order.

    About corruption, never do I downplay the problem of corruption in China. Just as you accuse people of being too sensitive about China, I think you are too sensitive about the West. Just as I compare with the West or democratic India, my purpose is not to downplay the problem – but to point out Fukuyama’s problem. Corruption is cast as an existential threat to China but not the West – why? That’s the context in which I cast corruption.

  9. August 8th, 2012 at 03:00 | #9

    @Allen

    Kind of a late reply here, but I think another interesting fact – brought up by PLA expert Dennis Blasko in the linked lecture below – is that on a per-capita basis, the US has 4 times as many police officers than China does, “yet they call China the police-state” was Blasko’s punchline.

    He also mentions that while the PLA is OFFICIALLY the largest army in the world on paper, in reality the US gives China a good run for that 1st place spot too. The US has a lot of defense contractors that perform the same duties that their uniformed PLA counterparts would (including front line combat duty, in the case of mercenary groups such as Blackwater). These contractors are not on the official personnel rosters of the US military. On the other hand, the PLA puts a lot of people in uniform whose duties has nothing to do with war-fighting (the art/music troupes being the most obvious, but not the only example).

    Anyway, I wonder what a more comprehensive police per capita ratio would be if we were to include informal, non-government security (i.e. armed guards patrolling gate communities, universities, etc). Anyway, here is the lecture, I wish I could point out a specific minute/second where he makes the statement about the number of police, but I don’t have time to go through it in its entirety at the moment.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOGW0HC0v44&feature=relmfu
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DQ1_ldLBGk&feature=relmfu

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