China’s Bad Comrade Cops

Photo by Derrick Chang

The early-morning killing in Guangzhou a week ago of a respected neurosurgeon by a rookie policeman has raised a storm of protest against abuse of police power and lack of accountability.

At five o’clock on November 13, Yin Fangming, 43, a doctor at the city’s Pearl River hospital, was talking with a friend when two officers came up to his car. He argued with one of them and started to drive away. The officer fired a bullet through his heart. An ambulance drove him to the hospital where he worked, but he was declared dead on arrival.

The news sparked an uproar among a public already angry about heavy-handed cops who run roughshod in a system with no independent judiciary, no free press and a concentration of power in the hands of the Communist Party. Judges and investigators do not have a free hand in cases involving the military and the police. As in the former Soviet Union and other one-party states, Communist or right-wing, the army and police enjoy a high official status because they are the guardians of the regime. Without them, it would not survive.

This is especially the case in China, where the government regards stability as essential for economic development. “Kill 10,000 and we will have stability for 10 years,” Deng Xiaoping reportedly said when he agreed to implement martial law during the unrest in Beijing in 1989. “Without stability, we can achieve nothing.”

“I do not know how many villains and bad people this officer has killed,” wrote one angry blogger, expressing a common sentiment. “This is not only a loss to the nation and the people but seriously infringes the country’s legal system. We want to see how this criminal in police uniform is held responsible.”

There is widespread skepticism over the official version of the incident the officers said they were suspicious of the military number plate on Dr. Yin’s green passenger car and asked him about it: he refused to answer questions and drove away, dragging the officer, who was holding the door handle, for several meters. Only then did the cop open fire.

The consensus among bloggers is that, whatever Yin did, the officer should not have shot to kill.

The chief witness, Wang Yanwu, whom Yin was talking to, was taken away by police and remains in custody. The Guangzhou police chief promised a public accounting of the incident once an investigation is completed. The propaganda department of Guangdong province ordered the media to report only official pronouncement and to do no independent reporting of the incident.

Yin, who held the rank of deputy professor, was a graduate of the First Military Medical University and had received numerous awards for his surgery and research work. The hospital where he worked was run by the military until the end of 2004, when it was turned over to the local government.

The officer who fired on Yin is about 30, a recent recruit, who had worked for just three months on a security detail at the hospital.

On the afternoon of November 16, more than 100 of Yin’s colleagues held a memorial service on the hospital’s basketball court. “We do not fear medical emergencies but we fear for our own lives,” said one long-serving nurse. “No-one is safe now. They must clear the good name of Doctor Yin.”

Controversial police shootings and gratuitous beatings are hardly a rarity. Last Friday (November 16) a court in Henan province heard a case in which six officers took an unemployed worker to the local station in September 2004, beat him up and threw him out of a third-floor window to his death. He had been in an argument with an official of a law court. The case was first presented as a suicide but was finally prosecuted this year. One officer was sentenced to death, one got a suspended life sentence and the third life imprisonment.

The police also have their representative at the pinnacle of political power, in Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang, chosen as one of the nine members of the standing committee of the ruling Politburo in October. He is also the first party secretary of the People’s Armed Police, a nationwide paramilitary organization under military control that complements the police and the army.

Police in China, then, operate in the knowledge that they have the full backing of the government and the party and are rarely vulnerable to challenge by the public.

As a result, many Chinese regard them with a mixture of fear and disgust. “One policeman more, one hoodlum less,” is a common saying.