Monday, December 1, 2008

Super Cop on TV, bad cop on street

Dec 1, 2008

China tries to correct poor reputation of police via reality-show contest

By Peh Shing Huei

MOVE over American Idol. It's time for Super Cop.

Not content with just choosing the best singer or model, China is taking the reality-show concept to another level with its programme Super Cop.

All in, the show will feature 60 officers on China Central TV, with viewers voting through text messages or online for their favourite policeman.

Every night, two officers are featured, with their additional achievements highlighted on individual blogs on the CCTV website.

By the end of the year, votes - which are already approaching 100,000 after less than a fortnight - will be counted for consideration by a panel deciding on the top 10 Super Cops.

The programme is timely, coming at a time when the reputation and image of policemen in China have just about sunk to all-time lows.

Consider the tragic case of Yang Jia. Last week, the 28-year-old unemployed Beijing man was executed by lethal injection for stabbing six officers to death in July.

He had said that he was seeking revenge after being badly beaten by the police in Shanghai who had wrongly accused him of stealing a bicycle last year.

But what was surprising about Yang's case was that he was hailed as a hero, rather than a villain, by many Chinese.

At his trials in Shanghai, supporters wore T-shirts printed with his photo and shouted 'Down with the Communist Party' and 'Down with the Fascists'.

Videos of the protests were posted online and some bloggers wrote that Yang had done what many Chinese wanted to do - kill policemen.

'Too many people (in China) have come to see too many police as bullies and oppressors rather than those who function to keep people and their homes safe and traffic flowing smoothly,' said political scientist June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami.

'Corruption, which is in many areas of Chinese society, is particularly harmful when the police are known to be involved, since it destroys their moral authority.'

Yang had popular opinion on his side precisely because the moral authority of the police in China has been largely compromised in the past few years.

Gone are the days, like in the 1920s, when a policeman was expected to be 'a man of learning', as was cited in the Rules of Policework, a guide for new recruits then.

Instead, cops in China are now widely seen as brutal bullies who would torture the poor and the disenfranchised. And very often, torture is not seen by the public as being a last resort taken by the police in cracking a case.

For example, in one alleged incident, probably the most brutal, four police officers in the north-eastern Heilongjiang province tied farmer and murder suspect Li Xiangfu to heating pipes and clobbered him to death during interrogation in 2000. The trial of the quartet started last week.

A week before that, two officers in the same province were arrested for beating university student Lin Songling to death outside a nightclub. Lin's case also shows how much harder it is to cover up such abuses in the age of the Internet. Pictures of his corpse, covered with bruises, were widely circulated online soon after his death.

In all these incidents, public opinion invariably took the side of the civilians, a fact that was not lost on Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu.

A fortnight ago, he urged his charges to show restraint and professionalism and also warned of more troubles ahead with social unrest caused by the economic crisis.

Dr Yu Guoming, who studies public opinion in China at Renmin University, told The Straits Times that such lop-sided views showed the tension between the people and the government.

He added that the people are also to blame at times. 'The police are the window to the government,' he said. 'It is the arm of the government which interacts the most with the people. So when people are unhappy with the government, they take it out on the police.'

As Beijing-based analyst Russell Leigh Moses said, the police in China also have their own problems. 'They see themselves as underfunded, understaffed, and overstretched,' he said.

'Chinese society has changed and continues to change, and officers see themselves as still trying to adapt to the demands of citizens to protect them and the directives of the government to enforce rules.'

A way to improve police-citizen ties, said Dr Yu, is to have clearer laws. He believes that the current laws are skewed in favour of those in power and open to interpretation.

Alternatively, there is always Super Cop. Said Dr Dreyer: 'TV programmes can certainly help improve the image of the police, but only if people see that the 'good cops' of the TV show are like the cops they see on the street. People have become pretty cynical, and it will be a tough job to convince them.'

Professor Yu Maochun, a China watcher with the United States Naval Academy, is doubtful that it would have much impact. He told The Straits Times: 'The mistake of the Chinese government in redressing the notoriety of the police is to treat it merely as a public relations matter, not a law and governance matter.

'Unless the fundamental principles of governance are changed in China, police brutality will continue unbridled because social harmony by police violence has always been the bedrock of China's proletarian dictatorship.'

[Sometimes it's a PR thing. This is not.]

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