Thin blue line

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 September, 2005, 12:00am

The mainland's notorious 'policeman beats policeman to death' criminal case reached its climax in Taiyuan , Shanxi province recently. But not before taking an unexpected twist.

Readers of this column will know the story. During the May holiday week this year in Taiyuan, an off-duty policeman got into a traffic dispute with another (also out-of-uniform) policeman on holiday from the capital. He followed the Beijing officer back to his hotel while using his mobile phone to muster a gang of thugs - some of whom were known criminals. They set upon the outsider and beat him to death.

On trial with his eight accomplices in Taiyuan last month, defendant Liu Limin's tearful guilty plea came as no surprise to anybody. The local officer came forward and confessed all, soon after he realised his colleagues were about to arrest him.

What hit the media 'like a clap of thunder' (in the words of one press report) was the Taiyuan Public Security Bureau's (PSB) 'unimaginably fantastic' (in the words of another report) announcement that 'Liu Limin was basically not a policeman'. That was made on the first day of trial, August 24. Since transferring to the force from the army in 2002, a spokesman said, Liu 'had never received a rank'.

The Taiyuan PSB, indeed, seems to have had trouble making up its mind about its man. A few weeks into the case, it reversed its initial defence of Liu as a 'good policeman' whose 'lack of self-control and momentary passion' resulted in tragedy. The bureau changed its description of the episode to 'criminal', and 'the result of one policeman's perniciously inflated ideas about special privilege'.

The latest version seems to rest on an informal and not uncommon - although legally shady - practice in mainland PSBs of assigning friends to undertake police duties. It was clearly an attempt by the Taiyuan PSB to shirk any responsibility.

Needless to say, the press were not having any of it.

'That an individual piece of scum should appear in the police is not alarming,' thundered The Beijing News. 'What is alarming is that some PSBs cannot face reality and shoulder responsibility.'

Under cross-examination during the trial, one of Liu's henchmen - Zhang Ji - continually referred to his employer as 'big brother Liu' and 'leader'. Liu now awaits sentencing.

While nobody in Beijing seems to be surprised by any of these revelations, Hong Kong citizens may be asking: why does Taiyuan need triads, when it has its police?