Cracks in China’s Armor

It may be a sporting event but Beijing is on war footing with an estimated 100,000 soldiers, police and anti-terrorist commandos mobilized to guarantee the safety of next month’s Summer Olympics. The People’s Liberation Army has also deployed a battery of surface-to-air Hongqi missiles to guard against attacks from the sky. Despite the preparations, however, two recent incidents have exposed glaring chinks in this massive security effort: the inferior quality of the country’s law-enforcement officers and the abysmally low regard in which they are held by many Chinese citizens.

On June 28, more than 20,000 rural residents in Weng’an County, Guizhou Province surrounded the local Public Security Bureau, attacking officers and setting fire to police vehicles. The riot was caused by police mishandling of the death of 17-year-old high-school girl Li Shufen, who was thought by her parents, relatives and friends to have been raped and then dumped into a river. Local police, however, let the prime suspect – believed to be a well-connected hoodlum – go free, all the while insisting that Li had simply drowned. Relatives put the body in cold storage and refused to let police take it away for cremation.

The day after the riots, Guizhou Party Secretary Shi Zongyuan claimed that the disturbances were “instigated by a minority of elements with ulterior motives who want to challenge our party and government.” Shi claimed that underground “triad organizations” were involved. Instead of satisfying the demands of Li’s parents and deepening their investigation, authorities in this poor, southwestern province concentrated on chasing after the “instigators” of the unrest and more than 200 people were arrested.

Guizhou authorities, however, also acknowledged that Weng’an cadres had failed to do a good job of “putting people first,” which is President Hu Jintao’s well-known mantra. On July 3, County party secretary Wang Qin was fired for “lack of sincerity and failing to adopt a self-critical attitude” in the course of negotiations with the angry villagers. Also sacked were the director and the political commissar of the Weng’an Public Security Bureau. Guizhou party boss Shi blamed local cadres for failing to use “persuasive methods” to handle the public’s dissatisfaction with police and other officials. However, neither Shi nor Beijing officials have indicated any willingness to reopen the Li case or to discipline officers who handled the alleged incident.

Then came an equally disturbing incident in which six Shanghai policemen were killed by an unemployed Beijing youth who apparently bore a grudge against public security officials in the city. On July 1, Yang Jia walked into the Zhabei District Police Station in Shanghai and proceeded to stab 11 officers with a knife. Yang later confessed that he hated Shanghai policemen because he had been wrongly accused of stealing bicycles while touring the city last October. Neither the Shanghai Party Secretary, Politburo member Yu Zhengsheng, nor the Ministry of Public Security, has adequately explained why police in the multi-story Zhabei Station were so defenseless against a single person armed with an ordinary knife.

Moreover, since Shanghai was supposedly on the hit list of “quasi-terrorist groups” from Xinjiang in western China, security in the metropolis had been strengthened in recent months. Last weekend, Yu told the national media that Shanghai police “were totally able to do their jobs well.” After the knifing incident, however, security in more than 3,000 public buildings in Shanghai was beefed up.

The Guizhou and Shanghai incidents pose serious questions about the fitness of China’s labyrinthine security apparatus. This is perhaps why both the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of public security, Zhou Yongkang, and President Hu gave instructions concerning the Guizhou incident. The two also heard detailed briefings about the Guizhou and Shanghai cases. Beijing sources close to the security establishment say that the Hu leadership is afraid that “anti-Chinese” elements including ethnic separatists might use “guerrilla tactics” to stir up trouble or otherwise cause CCP authorities to lose face when the world’s gaze is upon China during the August games. Sources say these so-called “saboteurs and troublemakers” might see that security in Beijing is too tight and then strike in coastal cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin or Qingdao, where aquatic events are being held. Alternately, “enemy elements” may engineer a repeat of the Guizhou incident, which mushroomed into a national crisis largely due to the decades-long history of local cadres and policemen bullying and taking advantage of the poor peasants.

The CCP authorities may find out — too late — that without the people’s backing, even crack, well-equipped police units can lose much of their effectiveness at a time of crisis.