Cops Serve as a Keystone to China's Shaky Future

By Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 1995 | Go to article overview

Cops Serve as a Keystone to China's Shaky Future


Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


FOR one former Beijing policeman, memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that crescendoed to the brutal military crackdown are still sharp: standing, arms interlocked with other police, staring down student demonstrators, using weapons for the first time, and mounting machine guns on police station roofs out of fear of attack.

"If I were in the position of the government, I would have done the exact same thing," says the former officer about the Army's massacre of unarmed students and citizens on June 3 and 4.

Six years after being ordered to turn on their own citizens, China's security forces -- the People's Liberation Army, the paramilitary People's Armed Police (PAP), and the Public Security Bureau or police -- are as troubled and uneasy as the society they are pledged to preserve.

Still, in a moment of reflection, the former cop wonders about the fate of the student leaders and dissidents who fled China in the aftermath, especially Fang Lizhi, the astrophysicist who took refuge in the US Embassy and was later allowed to seek exile in the United States.

"He was so outspoken and brave to tell the truth," the 15-year police veteran, who resigned last year, says with admiration.

Pervasive corruption

The police in China today are in a quandary. Official corruption in China has become so pervasive, it has vitiated police relations with communities and darkened the daily lives of many Chinese. Increasingly, press reports claim, the Army is thrust into situations at odds with the police and is often needed to intervene in disputes between civilians and local police.

As the ruling Communists wrestle over succession to ailing leader Deng Xiaoping, the military, paramilitary, and secret police are poised as key powerbrokers in the struggle and divided by loyalties to rival politicians. At the same time, crime is overwhelming cities and rural areas and demoralizing and sweeping police into gambling, prostitution, and drugs.

"The situation is helpless. Corruption is too widespread," says a former officer who served 10 years in the Beijing police and now drives a taxi. "The Public Security Bureau is not very good at cracking crime cases because it's hard to get people to show any initiative."

"There is lots of scope for friction among the security forces," says a Western military official in Beijing. "The element of trust that should exist between a country and the police seems to be going down steadily in China."

As the sixth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square unrest approaches Sunday, the Chinese police have again been called on to stifle dissent. A series of petitions urging a more open political system and a reassessment of the 1989 unrest has produced the most sustained pro-democracy drive since then. Several prominent activists across China have been arrested or questioned during the last two weeks.

Those dark days after martial law and the military massacre rent the Army and, analysts believe, led to the court-martial and even execution of several hundred officers, remain extremely sensitive among military officials. Indeed, in the interest of maintaining a united front, leaders are unlikely to reopen such a divisive issue in the near future, analysts say.

What did emerge from the 1989 turmoil was revival of the armed police as the premier security force. Estimated to number 800,000 to 1 million, about the size of the Army, the paramilitary police now get the best recruits, training, and equipment in order to maintain Communist control. "PAP troops will do their utmost for the nation's stability," Armed Police Commander Ba Zhongtan, was quoted as saying by the New China News Agency. …

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