Cornell University Press

Protest Control Overshadows Policing in China

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Recently, police in China have made headlines for well-coordinated crackdowns in Xinjiang Province and Hong Kong, lending credence to claims that the nation boasts a powerful police state. But this ability to put down protests belies a more complicated reality for policing in China on the ground.

China’s intense focus on protest and dissident control—often referred to as “stability maintenance”—has achieved the desired result of tamping down dissent, but it also siphons resources away from other areas of policing. In many Chinese cities, police departments are struggling to handle non-protest-related crimes because of resource constraints and enforcement and oversight problems. These challenges compromise security on the ground by making it hard for officers to perform basic responsibilities such as responding to calls and solving cases. They also further strain relations with the Chinese public.

In many Chinese cities, police departments are struggling to handle non-protest-related crimes because of resource constraints and enforcement and oversight problems.

In my new book, Policing China: Street-Level Cops in the Shadow of Protest, I detail how stability maintenance comes at the expense of other areas of policing. In 112 interviews with fifty-six officers up and down the police hierarchy, officers reported that the local state has difficulty responding to most types of crime. From dealing with thefts to handling drug crimes, frontline police say they struggle under heavy workloads and lack the proper guidance and training to solve cases. Yet the same local cops who complain about problems with everyday crime report being able to manage protest and dissent.

The police in China were not always laser-focused on stability maintenance. Older officers recall that protests in the 1980s were handled haphazardly at the local level. But the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident changed everything.

Protests and other acts of dissent now face a highly coordinated state response. Local cops are often the first responders and many have detailed training for a variety of situations. If a protest escalates, police leaders call in the People’s Armed Police, a specially trained force that travels in squads of up to 500 officers. When combined with internet censorship and high-tech tracking capabilities, the result is a highly effective, protest-crushing machine.

The police in China were not always laser focused on stability maintenance.

But advances and coordination for stability maintenance have not been mirrored elsewhere. “Everyday policing” such as responding to traffic accidents, burglaries, petty thefts, rapes, murders, and other violent offenses have largely been left to the local level. Because China has a relatively low per capita force and limited funding, dealing effectively with these crimes is difficult. Officers labor under heavy caseloads, low pay, and administrative drudgery, reporting they are often unable to solve cases or keep up with the workload.

One local officer explained the situation, “We are not helping people… We are just filling out reports.” Another officer said that heavy caseloads left his station unable to fulfill its mission: “Our goal is to serve the people, but there are many problems we can’t solve.” Yet another reported, “We aren’t solving cases. This is why Chinese people don’t like the police.” Such assessments were common across interviewees.

The issues that arise for everyday policing are not just stories of low officer morale or disappointed residents with unresolved cases. Problems on the frontlines also raise larger questions about the resilience of the Chinese state and its ability to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

One local officer explained the situation, “We are not helping people…We are just filling out reports.”

Paradoxically, struggles with everyday policing may also be undercutting stability maintenance. A rare 2012 report from the state-owned Legal Daily revealed that 22.2 percent of protests and riots over an unspecified period were caused by police-society conflict. The authors cited “improper behavior, perceived injustice, and bad attitudes of officers” as the primary drivers of these conflicts.

It is possible that technology may ease some of the frontline issues by helping officers solve cases more efficiently. But this requires proper training and manpower, which one ministry official recently acknowledged most stations lack. Misuse of the technology could also damage public trust. In the meantime, frontline police must continue to make do as best they can on issues of everyday crimes, given operating constraints, a lack of support, and a contentious relationship with the public.

*Featured photo: Police Officer In Dalian, China. Credit: Luther Bailey.

Cover Image of Policing China.
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Suzanne E. Scoggins is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Clark University. Follow her on Twitter @szscoggins.

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