Stops And Frisks? Public Says “No”! Then What?

Posted on March 25, 2012

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A police officer checking an ID in Guangzhou. Image credit: Yangcheng Wanbao

A local paper Yangcheng Wanbao reported last week that from March 16, anybody in public places of Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province, may be subject to police’s random questioning and search. The paper warns its readers to bring their papers with them when they go out in case they are stopped and interrogated by the police. The news, once came out, stirred up quite some commotion among those who live in Guangzhou and even made the national news. Many people feel uneasy that they can be detained by the police just because they forget to bring their papers with them.

An online poll by Nanfang Zhoumo, a progressive magazine, shows that two-thirds of the 6,775 respondents oppose this practice, while a little over one-fifth support it. In the same poll, of the 3,253 people who responded, more than one fifth reported that they had been asked for their National Residential IDs by the police in public places.

The law enforcement in China, as most government agencies, used to have unquestionable authority. This is common in a society under authoritarian rule. but in China, obeying authorities is also expected in the culture dominated by Confucian teaching for centuries.

This is no longer true nowadays. Many Chinese are not afraid to publicly express their opinions or even challenge public policies and the practices of the law enforcement and government agencies. The legality of Guangzhou police force’s stops-and-frisks practice, for instance, has been challenged by the public online as, if not illegal, at least inappropriate.

“Without a complete legal system in place to restrict (the police’s) power, citizens’ rights can be infringed,” as a reader of Nanfang Zhoumo points out. “Why should citizens sacrifice their rights for public security?” s/he asks, adding “is this evidence that the law enforcement is ineffective or an excuse of expanding their power?” A reader agrees with her/him, insisting that “there has to be an effective legal system to guard against the abuse of power.”

Of course, nobody is against public security. In fact, those who support stops and frisks make their point clear that citizens bear the responsibility to cooperate with the police force because their goal is to protect the public. However, many critics of stops and frisks point out that the ambiguity of the policy in terms of the specifics of “public security” and the lack of protocol undermine the claimed vague purpose of ensuring public security. Besides, the police have never explained clearly why it is necessary to start this practice now.

Indeed, although the Guangzhou police have repeatedly reassured the public that their officers would only stop those who look or act “suspiciously,” they have never specified what exactly constitutes looking and/or acting “suspiciously.” The police’s actions, it seems, are solely based on arbitrary judgment which can open up opportunities for abuse of power and discrimination.

“What is ‘looking and acting suspiciously’?” a reader asks, and then adds, “we see abuse of power quite frequently nowadays; he who has a mind to beat his dog will easily find his stick.”

“So somebody must be suspicious just because the police say so? Is this how citizens act as the masters (of the state)?” a reader also responds with suspicion.

Many people are also unhappy about the fact that police officers are not even required to show their credentials to stop or search somebody as long as they wear a uniform. “Even if citizens are willing to cooperate, the police officers must show their papers before they interrogate and search anybody,” a reader writes.

The unpopularity of the practice surely reflects the public’s cynicism in the law enforcement, whose enforcement of laws is often arbitrary. Many Chinese nowadays simply do not trust the police force to be fair and just. “I don’t like this practice; if you offend an officer personally, you’ll be in big trouble,” a reader writes. Relating to his/her personal experience, a reader complains: “The police are like bosses; I’ve been stopped and I wasn’t happy!”

Perhaps the most worrisome implication of stops and frisks is that as part of the police routine, they may indicate the government’s tighter control of its people in the name of public security (although public security has always been used as a rationale for the violation of civil rights and political oppression in China). “That sounds like the secret service,” as a reader comments.

Despite the public complaints, the practice continues to be part of Guangzhou police’s daily routine. That’s basically how things are these days in China. People can rant almost however they want behind their computer screens, but making things to change in reality is still a very difficult task.

It could get worse. “Is this going to extend to the whole country? Scary!” worried, a reader asks. Well, s/he can rest assured to see stops and frisks in other Chinese cities under clearly stated policies or otherwise. Beijing police, for example, have been randomly checking people’s National Residential IDs for years. Those who do not have a Beijing Residential ID or a temporary residential permit to live in Beijing can be “deported” from the capital.

So, people in Guangzhou should feel fortunate, for as long as they have their Residential IDs ready, or if they can recite their ID numbers, addresses, and other personal information without a blink of an eye upon the police’s requests, they are completely free. In a police state, “everyone is a suspect,” to use a reader’s words, unless you can prove your innocence, which you surely can, can’t you?

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