A savage lesson in eroding stability on the mainland
The image of the police force on the mainland has taken a beating over the past few months with the domestic media exposing scandal after embarrassing scandal. The public's patience for the nation's unaccountable law enforcement system is growing thin.
First there was the series of unnatural deaths of criminal suspects in police-run detention centres, with officials offering increasingly outrageous explanations for the causes of death - 'death by nightmare', 'death by picking at acne', or 'death by drinking water'. Then there was the incredible tale of Zhao Zuohai, a man who spent nearly 11 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit - all because police investigators found torture to be the most expedient way to get a confession, and law enforcement authorities who were anxious to solve the case turned a blind eye to Zhao's claims of innocence.
The latest incident occurred in Wuhan , Hubei , where six plain-clothes police officers stationed outside a government building savagely beat a woman in her 50s named Chen Yulian , who had come to discuss a grievance with officials. Such violence against so-called 'petitioners' - many of whom are, like Chen, middle-aged women - would normally not be newsworthy, so commonplace has it become on the mainland today.
The difference in this instance is the fact that Chen's husband is an official on the provincial 'politics and law commission' - an institution of the Communist Party charged with overseeing all aspects of law enforcement. As if that weren't ironic enough, Chen's husband is responsible for 'maintaining stability' - in the pursuit of which, acts of brutal violence and violations of individual rights are routinely carried out, including against petitioners seeking redress for personal grievances.
Wuhan police officials immediately apologised to Chen and her family, saying that the officers in question hadn't realised she was the wife of such a high-level official. Their explanation - with its implicit acceptance of violence towards the 'common folk' - and the relatively light disciplinary action that has been taken against the officers in question, have fuelled public outrage over this latest example of officers of the law acting lawlessly.
Beijing has repeatedly rejected international criticism of its human rights record, pointing, for example, to strict laws prohibiting the extraction of confessions by torture and claiming that independent mechanisms exist to root out police wrongdoing. Yet laws and institutions are only effective if they are fully and consistently implemented, and it is growing increasingly difficult to argue that oversight over law enforcement is effective.
This lack of accountability is closely tied to the emphasis the leaders place on stability. Chen was beaten because local officials see petitioners as sources of social instability. Police use coercion to get confessions and limit access by defence lawyers because having a high conviction rate is a more visible index of stability than guaranteeing a suspect's procedural rights.
Meanwhile, arrests and convictions for vaguely defined state security offences have skyrocketed over recent years, and those convicted sentenced to longer prison terms, all in the name of stability.
Maintaining social stability is a worthy goal for a government, and it's a challenge on the mainland where economic growth has far outpaced development in society and political institutions, and where income, status and power are so unevenly distributed. The danger, as Professor Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has warned, is that relying on 'rigid stability' will probably do more to destroy the 'harmonious society' than build it.
As long as 'stability above all else' remains the fundamental principle of governance on the mainland, security forces there will feel empowered to flout laws and regulations intended to safeguard individual rights. When rights are not protected and people lack faith in the fairness and independence of the judicial system, grievances fester and eventually erupt into full-blown unrest.
Part of the solution is to provide effective channels for resolving grievances before they develop into destabilising factors. But restoring faith in the institutions of law enforcement - especially mainland police - may require sacrificing some stability in exchange for something equally valuable: accountability.
Joshua Rosenzweig is senior manager for research and Hong Kong operations at The Dui Hua Foundation