Was Chinese police officer justified in shooting man dead during scuffle?

Zhou Zunyou considers the public uproar over the death of a Chinese man in a rare case of gun use

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2015, 5:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 4:56pm

There has been intense debate about the case of Xu Chunhe, an impoverished middle-aged man who was shot dead earlier this month in front of his elderly mother and three children at a railway station in Qingan county, Heilongjiang province, by railway policeman Li Lebin.

Shortly after the incident, railway police authorities said Xu had stopped passengers getting through a security gate and when Li intervened, he resisted forcefully and even tried to grab Li's gun before one shot was fired.

Given the lack of trust in the government, the incident immediately drew public ire. When, in the wake of Xu's death, Qingan's vice-mayor Dong Guosheng tried to show solidarity with Li, he became a victim of the so-called "human flesh search engine", a Chinese phenomenon of exposing official misdeeds through the joint efforts of social media users.

On May 14, the railway police authorities finally released some edited security camera footage, showing Xu, drunk and aggressive, in a violent confrontation with Li up until the shooting. Meanwhile, the authorities published an official internal investigation report, reaffirming their conclusion that the shooting was "justified".

The incident needs to be viewed against the backdrop of China's recent policy change regarding the use of police firearms. Before the gruesome knife attack at Kunming railway station in March 2014, Chinese police officers were legally authorised to use firearms in emergency situations. In practice, however, their firearms were kept in safe storage most of the time, due to the fact that gun-related crimes were rare and gun-control laws strict.

After the Kunming carnage, and also in view of the rise in terrorist activities, the Chinese government started to encourage on-duty police officers to carry and use guns to respond to violent incidents. Ordinary people overall welcome this policy turn in favour of enhanced security, but their trepidations regarding police gun misuse are not unfounded, because many police officers have received little training in the use of guns.

The ongoing discussions on the incident in Qingan point to the key question: Was the policeman justified in using deadly force? For an officer's action to be justified, it has to comply with both the principle of legality and the principle of reasonableness.

On the legality principle, Li's shooting appears to be fully justified by Xu's violent attack on him. According to the "Regulation on the Use of Police Implements and Weapons by the People's Police", police officers may use guns if a person, by means of violence, resists or obstructs them from lawfully performing their duties or endangers their life.

The regulation also provides guidelines on how guns should be used: Gun use should not only be sufficient to suppress illegal and criminal acts but should also minimise casualties and property loss. This provision is the very embodiment of the reasonableness principle.

In fact, the reasonableness principle has its origin in common law countries such as the US. In the US, police officers usually have great latitude in using deadly force to prevent an immediate threat, such as injury or death, to themselves or members of the public, regardless of whether such a danger actually existed.

Had the shooting of Xu taken place in the US, it would have triggered little controversy. In spite of this, American standards should not apply in China.

First, the US has the world's highest gun-ownership rate. Second, excessive use of deadly police force in the US has become a serious social problem that needs to be addressed, as was highlighted in the wake of the killing of the young black man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014 and the ensuing massive unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and many other American cities.

In answering the question of whether Li's lethal use of force on Xu was reasonable, all the circumstances Li was facing should be considered.

It remains unclear from the video footage whether he provoked Xu's violent reaction. Moreover, Li, in his response, should have taken into account the fact that Xu was drunk. In retrospect, Li could have used a stun baton or other similar weapon to incapacitate Xu first and then handcuff him. From the perspective of due process, an independent criminal probe appears appropriate.

In the face of serious violence or the threat of serious violence, police officers should have the authority to use guns. However, their use of guns has to be compatible with the law and the reasonableness principle that underlies the law. The basic idea of "reasonableness" is that an act of the state may only restrict the fundamental rights of citizens to the extent indispensable for the protection of public interest.

Dr Zhou Zunyou, head of the China section at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, is the author of Balancing Security and Liberty: Counter-Terrorism Legislation in Germany and China