A thief, me, and the PSB

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Brian Hennessy. China Australia Consult. 

I had my wallet pick-pocketed yesterday near my home in Chongqing, China. The thief was slick and quick, and by the time I reacted he was several metres away and running and dodging like a rugby halfback on steroids. There is more to this tale than a stolen wallet. 


A thief, the police, and me


I gave chase. Down some concrete stairs, and over a protective barrier to the steep rocky riverbank below, but I couldn’t keep up with him. So I doubled back to the riverside freeway above, and headed for another place downriver where I thought he might exit the riverbank and make his escape.

Sure enough, I found him there sauntering along, counting my money. I threw my penknife at him hoping to startle him for a few moments before I caught up with him, but the handle-end hit first and bounced off his shoulder. So he took off again. Me in hot pursuit. Young feet are more agile however, (he was about 25), and although I am a fit old buggar who exercises regularly, all I could do was scream “Police” as I chased him past humble floating restaurants and their clientele hoping that they would get a good look at him and call the cops.

My injuries? Two damaged ankles and sundry cuts and bruises sustained during two chases across steeply-angled rocky ledges above the river…plus injured pride for dropping my guard in a known dodgy area.

When I returned to the freeway to get my bearings and plan my next move, I noticed that police were patrolling the road in the air-conditioned comfort of their late model VW Passats (It was a hot day, folks, don’t be too hard on them:). The boat-people had telephoned them. Their response was a show only, so I ignored them and continued my own search along the riverbank. Any thief with half a brain would avoid an open road patrolled by mobile cops. About an hour later though, I gave up the search.

I tapped on the window of one of the police-cars parked beside the kerb and told the officer my story as best I could given my less-than-fluent Chinese. Then I called my wife (who is an English-speaking Chinese) and asked her to come and help me with the detail. The officer motioned for me to get in the car. This was a mistake. Now I would be part of a Police process which would have to run its course. But I didn’t know that then. The officer then got out of the car, but insisted that I stay in the air-conditioned comfort of the vehicle. He was polite but firm. He gave me a bottle of water, called his base, and next minute three more police vehicles arrived, blocking any escape. By me, not the thief.

Five officers disembarked, and proceeded to look over the protective barrier at the river. That was the extent of their professional response at that time. They didn’t look too happy, either. In fact, I overheard one of them remark to his colleague: “Dammit, this will mean trouble for us”. At that time, I didn’t know what he was talking about.

When my wife arrived, we were driven (in convoy) to a small police station nearby. We entered the office, and were asked to take a seat. Next minute, the office was full of police. As polite as Mary Poppins in church they were, but I don’t take any notice of false courtesy anymore. These were bored and curious apparatchiks who had little work to do, and who appreciated a diversion. Not much emphasis on crime and criminals here, folks. Their primary responsibility is to protect the state, not the state’s citizens.

The first thing I did was to thank them for their efforts on my behalf. The second thing I did was to tell them that if they could catch the thief that would be good, and that I knew the direction he had taken in his retreat. If necessary, I would go with them to show them personally. I added, however, that it would probably be a useless exercise, because by now he would be halfway to his village somewhere in the countryside, and would be unlikely to return to the scene of his crime. He was obviously poor and desperate for a feed. A torn blue shirt, dirty white shorts, and yellow plastic slippers tell their own tale.

I told the officer that I did not want to put them to the trouble of a formal investigation because I had searched the river myself and I would like to go home now thank you very much. No way. A process had begun and it had to be followed through. Here. Now. Then an interpreter from a central office arrived, as well as the officer-in-charge of the station…a sharp-eyed woman in civvies who had been called back to work on a Saturday evening to take charge. A foreigner was involved, so she had to be there. Her superiors would want to know everything.

Then it twigged:

These guys are investigating me, not the crime!

Did I have my passport with me? Did I have my work-permit? Etc.,etc. Would my wife go to our home and bring back my passport? Me stopping this rubbish, telling them that I was registered in the local PSB, that all my details and ID were online on their system, and that all they had to do was retrieve that information from the computer on the desk in front of them. My wife telling them that I was a friend of China who had taught for three years in the Chongqing Medical University, and who was currently providing psychological assistance to survivors of the Sichuan earthquake.

No response. Irrelevant information. Then the officer-in-charge pressed my wife for her personal details. My wife, God bless her courageous Chinese heart, refused to respond to these questions saying: “Why do you ask me these questions? You already have my details online.”

The penny was dropping further: These instruments of state power were protecting their collective arses. There would be reports to write about this incident, and they would write what their superiors wanted to read. Their superiors in turn would add their own politically correct bias to the story before passing it further up the chain of command. I can’t prove this of course, but grant me the benefit of long experience with organisational behaviour in China.

By this time I was beginning to smell a large rat. My superficial wounds were bleeding again, my sprained ankles were beginning to hurt, and I wanted to go home and take care of my injuries (no offer of medical help in this Police station, folks).

But there is a report to write they say: and I must remain until it is completed. So I told them I would write my own report, adding that the translator would do a better job if he translated from the written rather than the spoken word. My reasoning was that a signed, written report would be regarded as an official document. There would be less room for ‘interpretation’ of its content. This was one thing that I could control.

So I wrote my report, signed my name in both English and Chinese, and for good measure added an official red-ink thumb-print to the document. Then they asked for personal information about me and my wife. That’s when I got angry:

“Why is this police station, this room containing multiple uniformed and plain-clothed police, plus an  interpreter and the station’s officer-in-charge, wasting time with me when you should be using all these available resources to search the riverbank and environs for a criminal. A thief who by now has had more than enough time to make his getaway because of this absurd procedure here in this room”.

I told them that I would go with them now, right now, and show them where the crime took place, in which direction the criminal had escaped, and that surely that would be a more productive effort than detaining and investigating the background of a bleeding, foot-sore foreigner who was the victim not the perpetrator of a crime in their own backyard!


‘In their own backyard’.


Suddenly, everything that I had read about and experienced in China gelled into a one brief moment of enlightenment: I understood clearly what was really going on around me. 

A foreigner had been robbed in their area of responsibility, and embarrassing questions would be asked by their superiors. Institutional cultural imperatives as well as traditional cultural imperatives were guiding the behavior of these investigators. Now I understood why the officer had remarked earlier: “Dammit, this will mean trouble for us”. This nondescript little police station on the outer reaches of institutional power was in self-protection mode. Someone would have to be punished for this embarrassing incident.

In China, the most important person in a government officer’s universe is his immediate superior. This little emperor can make life really miserable for his subordinates if he wants to. And he frequently does. Further, long and bitter experience has taught Chinese people to be fearful of, and subservient to all dictators: from the petty bureaucrat at the bottom (he is the worst), to the bigger guys at the top. So they have learned how to adapt to this hostile environment. One trick is to avoid responsibility for anything, and pass the buck if you can. Finding a scapegoat is even better. This way one can’t be punished if something goes wrong. And when necessary, lie through your teeth.

China’s totalitarian system teaches its young how to lie. The habit is acquired early in one’s career, and is accepted as normal behavior. It is justified by example, and promoted as a culturally acceptable means of self-protection. Fear of a career-inhibiting black mark in one’s file was causing panic in the hearts of these small fish at the bottom of China’s food-chain. These officers would do anything to demonstrate to their superiors that they could be trusted to protect the state against any threat. No matter how absurd, trivial, or unlikely.

Investigating a foreigner would be one way to do this. Investigating the Chinese wife (a cultural traitor?) of a foreigner would be better still. Ready made scapegoats. Add a dose of political paranoia and racial suspicion to the mix; keep asking questions to keep your victims off-balance; and you might find a career-enhancing nugget of information that could be deliberately misinterpreted and used to advantage. That’s how you do it.

What then?

It was time to get out of this snakepit. “Thank you for your assistance, gentlemen. My wounds need attending to, we are leaving.” And as we departed, the insights gained from this unexpected intuition were reinforced by the officer-in-charge when she collared my wife in the courtyard outside and once again asked her for information about her relationship with me. When my wife asked why this personal information was needed, the response was: “so that if we find the criminal we can contact you with this information”.

More lies. Anyway, how can you find a criminal you are not searching for?

What will happen now?

Causing loss of ‘face’ to these officers will bring its own reaction. China has no cultural or spiritual tradition of forgiving and forgetting, so unfortunately for us, we can expect some kind of revenge. This is par for the course. Most likely we will be monitored for awhile: technically (via email, telephone, etc) or perhaps physically (by undercover police) for any evidence that might support a self-serving, face-saving, false report on this incident.

This is the way it works: Implicate your victim first; find or manufacture enough circumstantial evidence to justify your implication; and in the process, advance your career. Standard procedure for police states everywhere.

What can I do about it?

Not much. All I can do is despise the dishonesty that pervades this regime from top to bottom, and pity those workers whose lives are trapped forever in subtle bondage to a sick system. Feudalism dies hard. Strong words, but that is how it has always been. Emperor or president, it has never been any different. The system has remained basically unchanged for 5,000 years. In fact, Chairman Mao himself tried to get rid of it and failed. And as we know, his methods were brutal.

I give this regime only two more generations, though. No more. A Marxist analysis of this society will explain everything. 


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