In March last year, in the wake of a bloody knife attack at Kunming railway station, China’s central government lifted a decade-long ban on ordinary policemen carrying guns.
But in the last year, the number of cases in which members of the police force have used deadly force or accidentally shot civilians appears to have risen dramatically.
The latest case – in which a man was shot dead in front of his family in the northern province of Heilongjiang – has people asking if arming the rank-and-file in the police force was the right decision.
According to the edited video footage of the incident a man surnamed Xu, his three young children and his 81 year-old mother arrived at Qing’an railway station on the morning of May 2 and bought tickets for a 4pm train trip to the city of Jinzhou.
Around midday, Xu tried to block the doors to the station. The station’s police officer Li Lebin asked him to move and then twisted his arm behind his back when he refused.
At this point Xu – possibly afraid that he would be prevented from travelling to Jinzhou – turned more aggressive and chased Li as the policeman went back to his office to get his baton.
The next few minutes of the video make for harrowing viewing. An enraged, possibly deranged, Xu then throws his elderly mother and his six year-old daughter into the path of the oncoming officer. Xu then wrestles the baton from Li, who at that point draws his gun.
The authorities have removed the footage of Xu being shot and the next section of the clip shows him collapsing, plus his mother picking up the baton to beat her son’s body.
The local Public Security Bureau, which investigated the incident, has argued that Li followed protocol – first deploying non-lethal force and only shooting Xu when others were in clear danger.
Others have demanded that the authorities release the complete surveillance video, alleging a cover-up and insinuating that Xu had been subject to years of harassment, which made him behave irrationally.
According to his lawyer, Xu was known to the local authorities for travelling to Beijing to petition for better treatment for his family (see WiC62 for an earlier mention of the petitioning culture). Local officials sometimes intercept petitioners to stop them bringing their grievances to higher attention.
Interestingly, netizens have also been comparing the case to that of Walter Scott – the black American shot by white police officer Michael Slager in South Carolina in April.
“Why is it when American cops shoot black guys they are called murderers and when our police shoot beggars they are called heroes?” asked one critic.
“These shootings didn’t use to be a problem, but now there are so many,” lamented another.
The Chinese government doesn’t release figures for the number of people killed annually with police firearms but there’s little doubt that the topic is now being hotly debated. An article in the Legal Daily has estimated that the number of media reports mentioning the words ‘police’ and ‘kill’ rose to 45,100 in the first half of 2014, up from 536 in the same period the year before.
In some cases, the deaths seem to be accidental.
For example, this January a boy of 14 was killed when a policeman in Foshan fired his gun into the air to break up a quarrel.
Another part of the problem is that guns have been given to people with very little practical or psychological training.
“Many police officers would prefer to get hurt than carry a gun because they feel they don’t know how to use it,” the Legal Daily quoted professor Chuan Yuxie at the People’s Public Security University as saying.
She added: “The phenomenon of individual police abuse of firearms has seriously affected the image of the police.”
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