It could have been a scene from the Keystone Kops, those incompetent policemen of the silent movie era. Except that it ended up rather more seriously, with the death of a bystander.
It also raised questions about the capabilities – and perhaps even the mindsets – of some of China’s police officers.
At ten minutes to midnight on January 9, a bus pulled up outside Chuanqi Nightclub in Dongguan, a manufacturing city near Hong Kong. Eyewitness Yan Xiaobo, a local taxi driver, then told Southern Daily what he saw next. About 30 or 40 policemen in bullet-proof vests and helmets jumped out of the bus and raced into the nightclub, Yan said.
But minutes later they came rushing out again, pursued by a group of men wielding clubs and knives.
Spilling out of the nightclub doors, one policeman fired a warning shot into the air, followed by three or four more shots from policemen following him outside, said Yan.
Only when fellow taxi driver Luo Lijun, outside the club waiting for a fare, fell to the floor clutching his stomach did anyone realise that he’d been shot by the panicking police.
Luo died later that day of his injuries in hospital.
Nor was it the first time a bullet had gone astray: police shot (but this time didn’t kill) another bystander in August, during a bus hijacking in Nanjing.
The hostage, surnamed Li, was shot in the face and required metal plates to repair smashed bones and teeth, according to the Beijing News.
The shooting in Nanjing, which initially went unreported, then sparked wider criticism of the police’s combat skills. “This wasn’t a rescue, it was murder!” was one of the more polite comments at the time.
“If the police hit a hostage, then the operation is a failure,” the Beijing News agreed (although the hijackers were eventually caught).
The Dongguan incident has seen police competence being quetioned again. For one thing, why did such a large group of armed police flee from men carrying clubs and knives? And who were the men that inspired such fear that police fled?
According to the China Daily, the police were trying to arrest gang members in the failed raid. And in a report released on the same day as the nightclub farce, People’s Daily Online quoted an assessment by Sun Liping, a Tsinghua University sociologist on the resilience of organised crime. In his ‘Year-end 2011 Social Progress Research Report’, Sun wrote that China has fallen into a “transition trap” in which powerful vested interests take advantage of their privileges under a closed political system to create vast personal wealth, and block further reform.
“The government has lost control in parts of the country,” Sun wrote, without specifying whom or what had taken over in its stead.
Zhang Musheng, a prominent left-wing intellectual, has been more specific, saying publicly that China’s economic reforms have created a gangster class.
This week the South China Morning Post was reporting on another case in which organised crime was being blamed for unrest, although this time more in alliance with the local authorities than in opposition to them.
The location was Wanggang in Guangdong, where a land dispute similar to that of Wukan (see WiC133) has been playing out. “Communist rule has clearly been replaced by corrupted power affiliated with triad gangs. If our problems are not solved, Wanggang will become Guangdong’s second Wukan. The land is left by our ancestors, we will fight until the end to get it back,” one villager declared.
While the Nanjing bus incident may just have been a botched rescue attempt by the police, the Dongguan incident points to a wider failure to confront triad power. Events in Wanggang hint at something different again. Something to reflect on for those who assume that China is a ‘police state’.
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