Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Detained in China: My Chance to Hear a Policeman's Views on Revolution and More

The recent increase of people in China being mysteriously detained is deeply worrisome.  A relatively up-to-date review of the situation can be found here.

This brings to mind my own experience of being detained last fall for several hours in a city in northern China.  I don't want to make a big deal about the detention itself or directly compare it to current events.  While it was a rather stressful and worrisome experience that could have easily escalated further, it certainly was many levels of magnitude tamer than what many detained Chinese are presumably experiencing at this very moment.

What I most want to share now is from a conversation I had when I was alone with one of the more sympathetic police officers (at one point 5 officers were involved) while his partner conferred on the phone with her superior.  Given my experience interviewing numerous people under a variety of conditions in China, I felt reasonably confident that I was not being played in a "good cop, bad cop" scenario and that the police man's comments during that period of time were genuine.  Since the Chinese Government apparently has significant problems in understanding how to best deal with the perceptions of foreigners, it would be surprising to me if a 2nd tier city policeman who had never left China could have been so savvy.

While some of the young man's views may not be representative of the majority of police officers it was nonetheless fascinating to hear them voiced by one.  During the conversation several themes came up that I've noticed in numerous conversations I've had with younger Chinese across China.  They include:

China's "face" can be an overriding concern.
For example, he felt that the housing situation in China was unfair to many people and he hoped for change.  However, he didn't want the foreign press to report on it because he felt it would reflect poorly on his country.

Anything the US Government wants is bad for China.
Whether it was the US Government's stance on the exchange rate for Chinese currency or the reporting on China by the US media (which he viewed as an extension of the US Government), he assumed that for any disagreement between the US and Chinese governments whatever the US advocated must be detrimental to China.  I have previously noted that assumptions regarding the US Government's intents and who it controls played key a role in students' perception of Google last year after a speech by Hillary Clinton and exploited in a recent piece in China accusing Google of "meddling" in Egypt.

China remains far behind the US.
The idea that China is about to surpass the US was laughable to him.  For example, he said, "China only makes cheap stuff.  America makes more important things."

There is an unfair spread of wealth in China.
He said that "80% of the money in China is held by very few" and that the poorer people were very upset and could become "emotional" about the current disparity of wealth in China.

The magic number for improvement is 20 years.
He believes the Chinese Government has many problems and that it will need to change or the people will revolt.  However, he also believes there is a 20 year window before any revolt would be inevitable.  The 20 year figure is one I've commonly heard from people across China.  I have wondered if it in part reflects a desire to avoid feeling they need to personally do anything about the problems they perceive and/or effective "communication" by the Chinese Government to help reduce the number of calls for immediate change.

He was also eager to hear my viewpoints on several topics and it proved a useful opportunity to explore some ideas I had about how foreigners (whether individuals, companies, or governments) can best express their viewpoints in China --  something I plan to post more about later.   There was only one topic we discussed that he was not open to reconsidering --  in his eyes Japanese were categorically "bad".

While I certainly hope I never again face being detained (at any level) in China, I am glad I had this opportunity to have such an open conversation with a police officer.  For me, it also reflected one of my strategies I've often employed while conducting exploratory research in China -- be opportunistic. 

Finally, there were some comments he made that may not have been easily categorized into some of the themes that came out of any of my prior research but were particularly telling.

At one point he said that the police were on "the side of the people" while the military was "on the side of the Chinese Government" -- a striking dichotomy for him to explicitly state.  It also proved relevant to understanding his answer to a later question.  After saying he expected the people to revolt within 20 years if the government didn't make significant changes I asked him, "If there is a revolt against the Government by the people, what will you do?"

He sat pensively for several seconds.  He looked off in the distance and said, "I'm not sure which side I would take."

He then paused before directly looking at me and adding, "But my job is to protect the people."

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