Mistaken identity is a well-worn formula in Hollywood blockbusters (North by Northwest, and more recently Date Night). But a strange case of mistaken identity on the part of Hubei police resulted in a retired doctor being severely injured because cops believed she was a petitioner (an aggrieved citizen seeking legal redress).
You could call it a case of bad luck. The drama took place on June 23 when Chen, a 58 year-old woman tried to enter the provincial Communist Party headquarters in Wuhan for an appointment with a government official. She says she wanted help with her retirement benefits.
Chen soon found herself stopped by a security guard but told him about her appointment. Before she knew what was going on she was surrounded by six men, and punched and kicked.
After 16 minutes of beating captured on surveillance camera, Chen lost consciousness. The assault stopped only when an onlooker called out that she was the wife of a senior government official, says the Southern Metropolis Daily. Chen was later diagnosed with concussion, a broken left foot and nerve damage.
Her family was outraged. “It was like a bunch of mad dogs,” says Chen’s sister. “They weren’t dressed like the staff, but also not like the police, they seemed like they were from the triads.”
Unfortunately not. The attackers were later identified as plain-clothes police officers from the district, supposedly tasked with guarding the provincial Party’s office building. That includes dealing with those who wanted to demonstrate or hand in petitions at the building, news reports said. For some reason, the police had mistaken the victim for a petitioner.
There is a further twist. Chen is the wife of Huang Shiming, a senior party official in charge of handling petitioners and protesters in Hubei province.
Suddenly, the police grasped the enormity of their mistake, although their apology was far from convincing. “It was purely a misunderstanding. We did not know we had beaten up the wife of a senior leader,” the police chief pleaded.
His comments annoyed netizens intensely. Their take was that the apology was not for the act itself, but more that someone of ‘status’ should have suffered it. One internet posting on the China News Service was representative: “So you have beaten up the wrong person, but does it mean ordinary people can be battered?”
Chen’s experience is not wholly unusual. Petitioners, in particular, are often the subject of heavy-handed treatment. In issue 62, we discussed petitioning and why it remains a risky proposition. Despite the risks, millions of petitioners continue to travel to their local government offices to seek justice.
In Chen’s case, the incident reflects some deep-rooted problems with the country’s constabulary, says Wang Yukai, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Governance. Police chiefs are so focused on maintaining the appearance of public order that individuals can suffer.
“The local police authorities are exceptionally sensitive about the increasing petition issues and therefore they are exerting every measure to stop the petitioners from claiming their rights,” says Wang.
But beating up an official’s wife has certainly not helped their cause.
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