-Op-Ed-

BEIJING – It would seem that police brutality is not just for ordinary – powerless – citizens in China.

A policewoman from central China’s Henan Province was recently arrested when visiting her daughter in the provincial capital Zhengzhou. Mistakenly accused of being sex workers, the woman and her daughter were beaten, tortured and detained for hours by local police.

After media reports led to public outcry, the policemen who were responsible for arrest were suspended from active duty.

This must be one of the most embarrassing mix-ups in the history of China's police. Not only did this poor policewoman suffer the punches of her male counterparts, when she attempted to persuade them they were making a mistake by showing her own police ID they laughed at her. And when she requested to see the policemen's credentials, they told her that their uniform was all the ID she needed to see.

Refusing to show credentials or arbitrarily assaulting a civilian are both unlawful offenses. It is a procedural violation of administrative law; and a violation of a citizen’s individual right, which constitutes an abuse of authority.

Unfortunately such cases are all too common in China. I personally have had several experiences with such policeman. When I demanded to see their credentials, they most often rudely pointed at their uniforms to say those were the credentials.

I have more than once witnessed police beating people and extorting confessions by torture – in particular during important national congresses and events. When they are in groups, Chinese police officers are particularly ruthless, walk around aggressively, banning photography, confiscating mobile phones or randomly restricting the freedoms of passersby...

A trusted instrument of violence

If the victim had not been a policewoman and the media not reported the story, the police would have quitely filed the incident, which would have been considered as an ordinary, negligible affair. Not only would the policemen not have been punished, they would most likely have been praised internally for being "resolute" or "loyal to the party."

I don’t know what kind of punishment awaits these policemen once the investigation is complete. In my experience, it is most likely that they will be asked to write a report and that the matter will not go any further. Meanwhile, as ordinary Chinese citizens know, if it had been one of them who had manhandled a police officer, they would have been charged with obstruction of official business and sentenced to a year or so in jail.

That’s the big difference. And this is why so many police officers in China have grown accustomed to being authoritarian and ignoring civil rights. Having a gun entitles them to use violence. There is also the idea that the police force is one big family that protects its own, allowing them to do what they please. This leads to the following three problems:

First, the police have long been considered by the state as a trusted instrument of violence. They have a great sense of self-worth, which leads to their authoritarian behavior. The police are like a vicious dog kept by a bully. The more the master depends on his dog, the more he feeds it delicacies and gets it to bark at the passers-by.

Second, in most police violations such as arbitrary arrests, minor assaults, etc., as long as the deed does not constitute a serious crime, the police administration usually turns a blind eye. They think that this is normal behavior for police officers. Over time, this becomes a breeding ground for abuses.

When police have been found guilty of committing offenses, instead of punishing them severely according to the law, the relevant authorities often just trivialize the issue. For instance, extorting confessions by torture, which results in serious injury or death. According to the penal code, the police officers would have to be charged with causing intentional injuries or manslaughter. But in practice, no Chinese police officer has ever been condemned to death for torturing somebody to death. In spite of repeated official bans of extorting confessions by torture, this practice continues because China's entire police system covers it up.

Naturally, the main victims of police bullying are still ordinary citizens. However, since this behavior is so widespread, the victims are bound to include a larger public. This time it was policewoman, assaulted and humiliated by her peers. Two years ago, a Beijing policeman was beaten to death by police in the western Shanxi Province. These examples demonstrate that under an evil system, nobody, including the ones who safeguard the system themselves, can be spared.