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Some Chinese Police Riding a Crime Wave

Media expose a pickpocketing scam and a fatal beating as Beijing appears to be targeting officers in a crackdown on corruption.

June 06, 2005|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — An off-duty policeman gets into an argument with another driver at a traffic stop. He calls his buddies and they beat the other man to death. The victim turns out to be another cop.

Pickpockets run the show at a busy train station. The cops look the other way because the thieves have set up a direct-deposit system that fattens the officers' bank accounts.

These two recent crime stories were exposed by China's tightly controlled state media, which aren't known for shedding negative light on authority figures. Beijing regularly launches "strike hard" campaigns to fight crime, and this time the target appears to be the crime-fighters themselves.

Often underpaid and tempted by special privilege, Chinese police are under pressure to clean up their act by a government keen on building a stable and harmonious society.

"Exposing the corruption is part of the measure to rein in the police," said Nicolas Becquelin, research director at Human Rights in China, based in Hong Kong. "There is a lot of public anger and resentment toward the state and authorities in general. They are concerned it would turn political. They are trying to defuse the resentment."

At the root of the problem is the lack of checks and balances to curb the power of the police. Suspects are often held for long periods without a lawyer or trial. Forced confessions and violent beatings are common practice, activists say, and the courts are often reluctant to investigate police corruption.

Some critics are unconvinced by the relaxation on media coverage of police misdeeds and the message that such behavior is no longer tolerated.

"These efforts at self-medication are unlikely to have long-lasting effect," Becquelin said. "The problem is really institutional. The system needs outside scrutiny and counterweight and greater respect for people's rights."

The recent reports confirmed the public's worst fears about the authorities.

At the crowded Chengdu railway station in Sichuan province, pickpocketing had long been rampant. Little did the passengers know that it was because the thieves had the protection of the police.

According to state media, a member of China's armed forces lost his wallet early this year in the station's waiting lounge. After reporting the crime, he saw the thief ripping off another passenger and handing two items to the station police. One of them was his wallet. Instead of arresting the pickpocket, the cop let him go.

Suspecting a cover-up, the soldier filed a complaint with higher authorities.

It turned out the robbery gang had free rein at the train station. They paid a fee to enter the departure lounge and shared half the day's catch with the police.

Of the more than 150 officers at the station, about a third of them have been implicated in the scandal. To avoid cash transactions, the thieves deposited the money -- $29,000 in one month alone -- into their protectors' personal accounts. One officer had about $120,000 in unexplained funds, the China Daily newspaper reported.

A typical local police officer with 36 years' experience makes only about $180 a month, including bonuses, a Chengdu official told state media. The average cop with less experience brings home about $120.

Sometimes the victims are officers' own comrades.

During a road trip last month to pick up his sick wife, an off-duty Beijing officer ran into a cop in Shanxi province. Neither knew the other's identity because they were both wearing plainclothes and driving private cars.

The Beijing cop stopped at a traffic light. The Shanxi cop, accustomed to running red lights on his own turf, kept honking his horn and telling the car in front to move. The Beijing cop got out and yelled at him for asking him to break the law.

Furious about the dressing-down, the Shanxi officer got some friends to follow the Beijing officer into a parking lot and beat him to death, Chinese media reported.

Many believe the case might not have been exposed if the victim hadn't been an officer from the nation's capital.

"These crimes are not unique to police officers. They reflect the bigger problems in Chinese society," said Qiu Baochang, a Beijing lawyer. "At least the government is cracking down on them. It shows the country is serious about weeding out the problem so the police can truly serve the people."

Some officers apparently can't stand the heat.

Last month, a policeman under investigation for his role in another high-profile misconduct case committed suicide. Pan Yujun was the arresting officer of She Xianglin, who served 11 years in prison after being beaten into confessing to killing his wife, a crime he didn't commit. He was freed this year after his wife came back to visit their daughter. She had run away and married another man.

The case made national headlines and put political pressure on the authorities to curb police abuse and end forced confessions. Pan's family believes he was being made the scapegoat.

Before hanging himself from a tree in a graveyard in central China, Pan wrote on a tombstone in his own blood, "I am innocent."

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