The Police: A Mirror to Society?

I grew up in a small mill town in Upstate New York (the real Upstate; not Westchester) that had three police officers – the chief and two deputies. All three had been born and raised there and knew everyone by name.

As a young boy growing up in a small town where the police knew everyone could be a handicap.  Overall, however, it felt awfully safe.
As a young boy growing up in a small town where the police knew everyone could be a handicap. Overall, however, it felt awfully safe.

As a young boy, actually, that could be a handicap. I recall one winter evening when a couple of friends and I were throwing snowballs at passing motorists and soon we saw Chief Reilly coming down the street in his patrol car.

We scattered for the bushes nearby and thought we were pretty clever in selecting our hiding spots. Chief Reilly, however, came to a gentle stop right in front of us, and, without getting out of his car, got on his loudspeaker. He addressed each of us by name and told us to stop throwing snowballs at cars and please go home. “It’s too late for you boys to be out. And I’ll warn you now that if I catch you again I’ll have to have a talk with your dads.”

And he drove off and we went home and did as he said.

At that age I never questioned what the role of the police was. They were just there. Chief Reilly was just, well, Chief Reilly. He or his deputies usually stopped by the school at the end of the day to direct traffic and make sure the many kids who walked to school (I rode my first bus to school in the 7th grade.) got on their way home safely.

The Chief could be a serious man but was always ready with a friendly smile. He was a moderately sized man, but not muscular in any way. One of his deputies had the same build as Barney Fife (Don Knotts), in the popular television show of the time, The Andy Griffith Show, wherein Griffith played Andy Taylor, the sheriff of Mayberry.

It would be unfair to conclude that we lived in a homogenous white middle class community. It is true that there were relatively few African Americans in the community but there were a large number of Native Americans who resided there, not on the reservation the next county over, but among the rest of the citizens. We had immigrants from all over the world, including India, various countries in Southeast Asia, and many parts of Europe. We had a large Italian population and a large Irish population, but many of those were second generation whose parents had come through Ellis Island and been put on trains taking them to where the government, at the time, thought people of that nationality should settle down.

I don’t recognize the U.S. police I see in the news today or when I return to the U.S. to visit. They frighten me, to be honest. They aren’t Chief Reilly, who I never hesitated to approach and ask a question. And when did they start hiring only body builders to be policemen? Barney Fife, I dare say, would never get hired to be a policeman in America today.

As I’ve traveled the world I’ve begun to notice that the police are, in a certain way, a mirror to the society they serve. The bobbies of England project British gentrification and tradition. And the gendarmes of France project French virility and the ever-present whiff of presumed superiority. (I am French by heritage.)

There are many levels and branches of police here.  Some are not there to answer your questions but they  all exist to protect the peace and security of the nation.
There are many levels and branches of police here. Some are not there to answer your questions but they all exist to protect the peace and security of the nation.

And what about China? Well, they don’t really project much at all. Because it is clear in China that the main role of the police, at the risk of over-generalization, is to protect the state, not the citizens. There are many levels of police that belong to many different arms of the government, but they all fall into one of two camps – power or bureaucracy. In both cases, however, you, as an individual citizen, are not their raison d’etre, as it were.

While the police in America are there to protect the rights and safety of the individual, the police in China are here to protect the rights and safety of the group – i.e. the country at large. The difference perfectly mirrors not the difference between Chinese and Western culture, but the reason(s) for the difference.

If you are involved in a traffic accident you are expected by law to negotiate a settlement on the spot.  If you can't, or someone is injured, the traffic police will show up.  But don't expect the cast to go before a court.
If you are involved in a traffic accident you are expected by law to negotiate a settlement on the spot. If you can’t, or someone is injured, the traffic police will show up. But don’t expect the case to go before a court.

There is one whole branch of police responsible for traffic control. They don’t carry weapons. And they don’t really control traffic. I’ve never seen a motorist get a citation for speeding or running a red light or anything else. If there is some special event that is clogging up traffic at some obscenely congested intersection they will often be there in relatively large numbers, but usually standing off to the side observing more than directing.

When there is a traffic accident you are, by law, expected to try and negotiate a settlement on the spot with the other driver (assuming there were no injuries, of course) but the traffic police will intervene if necessary and, as I’ve observed, play a role somewhere between arbitrator and judge. The court system, in its infancy, will not welcome your complaint so everyone has an incentive to settle.

The most powerful police are the military police and unlike in the U.S. they carry full domestic civil authority. They do carry weapons, always work in pairs, are inevitably quite tall and fit, and march more than walk. You will see them at the airport if there are visiting dignitaries in town but they are not there to answer your questions. And chances are you won’t feel inclined to ask them. They are a serious looking lot.

Having said that, China’s military is, by all estimates, quite large. But it sticks to itself. As the world witnessed during the recent demonstrations in Hong Kong, civil order is generally left to the local police. The PLA keeps a very low profile. They have no need to campaign for public support, as they might feel they must in Western countries, although they do get involved in humanitarian crises such as earthquakes, floods, etc.

Such large human tragedies, of course, are a potential threat to the security of the country and so it’s easy to understand why they would be called in although I believe sheer compassion for the victims is also a key motivation.

The ‘normal’ police, as it were, are not unlike my Chief Reilly. The police wield immense power in terms of their ability to access records, do background checks, and monitor suspects. But they appear to wield it with great reservation. They certainly set priorities. If the threat and/or consequences are thought to be relatively mild they will be inclined to encourage you to work it out or wait for further evidence of intent before getting involved, in much the same way Andy Taylor might have.

I have had a couple of opportunities to enlist the help of the local police, however, and one involved an international con that could have been costly to my company. And they did get involved. And they were professional, thorough, and extremely civil and courteous throughout the process. And it was stopped.

One thing you will find here is that it is next to impossible to take investigative matters into your own hands. There are no private investigators – not legal ones, at least. Access to things like phone records and Internet usage records are considered the exclusive right of the police and the government’s overall security organization.

You can look at that glass as half full or half empty (An American friend of mine used to joke that no one in her otherwise liberal city wanted gun control because then only the police would have guns.) but I prefer to take the half full perspective.

While the Chinese police may not spend too much effort trying to locate the thief who stole your bicycle they are, by the same token, very unlikely to rough you up. (Recent Internet video would suggest that there are exceptions but you’d have to admit the situation behind it is a little more involved than merely wandering onto a highway.) They simply don’t have the motivation and are likely to weigh the risk of greater civil disturbance against any desire to teach you a lesson or project their power.

By contrast, I did witness an event once where an elderly couple from some remote province had come to Beijing to air some grievance that wasn’t being resolved to their satisfaction, and while they drew a crowd, the police led them away in a way I found remarkably civil and deferential, as if the couple were more befuddled than doing anything wrong.

So while many Westerners may perceive that China is a ‘police state’, in fact just the opposite is true. The police here remind me very much of my own Chief Reilly and his deputies. They want nothing more than to keep the peace and they’re willing to use personal discretion and judgment to do so.

As in most countries, they mirror the society they serve. There are strict limits as to how far you can go in threatening civil disorder, but within those limits people are pretty much left to work it out between themselves. Yin and yang. A harmonious equilibrium between a massive population wanting to improve their lives and the men and women assigned the duty of optimizing the common good.

As I think about it, it’s a role nearly identical to that of Chief Reilly and his deputies, a role that, in America, at least, appears to have changed rather dramatically over the decades.

Barney Fife, Chief Reilly, or Dirty Harry?  In China the police exist to protect the group, not the individual.  Frankly, I find that very reassuring.
Barney Fife, Chief Reilly, or Dirty Harry? In China the police exist to protect the group, not the individual. Frankly, I find that very reassuring.

Photo credit:  Mayberry police car:  visions of america/shutterstock.com

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.