Tilting at China's red windmills
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - The Analects of Confucius quote the ancient sage Zeng Zi as saying "When a bird is about to die, its notes are mournful; when a man is about to die, his words are true."

Today, one may extend this popular quotation to some Chinese officials who, while in various stages of disgrace or retirement, have chosen to air "confessions of conscience" and thereby expose deep problems within the vast officialdom.

Shen Guirong, the police chief of Weng'an county in Guizhou province who was sacked after mass public rioting, is one such quixotic official.

A 15-year-old junior high school student had been pulled from a river on June 22 and found dead. Her family and residents believed she was raped and drowned, and were dissatisfied by a police report claiming she leapt into the river to commit suicide. The girl's relatives and friends were joined in a public demonstration by some 30,000 protesters on June 28. Chaos ensued as rioters smashed police and government buildings and several police cars. Days later, Shen and his political commissar as well as the Weng'an county Communist Party chief and its magistrate were sacked for "dereliction of duty".

Last week, Shen broke his silence in an interview with China News Weekly, a magazine published by the state-run China News Service. He frankly admitted the police were disliked - even hated - by some local residents, largely due to a pattern of abuses of power. Shen became outspoken not only after he was sacked, but also because he had been diagnosed with advanced bladder cancer.

"People evaluate the work of the police by looking at their efficiency in solving criminal cases," Shen said in the interview. "To speak the truth, in recent years, we have been unable to solve half of the local cases. This year, no case involving deaths has been solved. This unnerves the local community."

In September and October last year, there occurred four explosions in Weng'an, which panicked locals. There were no casualties, however, and Shen believes the bombs were more about public discontent than any desire to destroy lives or property. Still, none of the cases has been solved, prompting residents to complain about the capabilities of the police.

Although admitting that it is undoubtedly police duty to solve such cases, Shen also said that his department does not deserve the entire blame. According to Shen, local police forces have often been ordered by local governments to deal with "mass incidents" or public protests as well as disputes over business interests and housing demolitions. "Whenever there was an incident, we police were mobilized," he said. "So we had to do all sorts of things that offended the ordinary people."

In Shen's recollection, there were at least five big mobilizations in recent years which involved more than 100 police. Each time the force was ordered to crack down on "mass incidents" caused by disputes over mine ownership, relocations for the construction of reservoirs or housing demolitions. "There are coal mines in Weng'an. With price hikes these years, relations between mine owners and local residents became increasingly tense. Whenever there was a conflict between them, the government ordered us to intervene. We have thus 'offended' everyone in the county," he said, hinting that such cases should have been handled properly by other relevant government authorities, rather than the police.

Shen had an outstanding early career as an officer in Guizhou before being named to head the Weng'an police six years ago. He claims he has opposed what he feels are abuses of police forces, but in vain. He also admitted that some police officers have been suspected of maintaining links with local triad (criminal) gangs, though he declined to identify the perpetrators.

After the interview was published, Shen won popular praise in China's Internet chat rooms and blogs as "the first police officer who dares to speak out the truth". Although Shen just spoke about the situation in Weng'an, he has in fact revealed a general phenomenon running rampant in the country.

In late 2005, armed police forces were mobilized for a bloody crackdown on protests by villagers in Shanwei, Guangdong, over claims relating to inadequate compensation for farm-land seizures by the local government in order to build a power plant.

There have also been reported cases in which police forces were used by local governments to silence voices of criticism and harass journalists over unfavorable reports.

On January 4, a team of policemen from Xifeng county, in the northeastern province of Liaoning, arrived in Beijing and rushed into the office building of the Legal Daily, trying to arrest a reporter who wrote a story about a businesswoman in Xifeng who was unhappy that her gas station was demolished to make way for a market for a very small compensation sum.

She sent out mobile-phone text messages satirizing the county party chief and was later arrested. The arrest was illegal; according to Chinese law, any suspected libel of a person or an institution must be dealt with by a civil lawsuit brought to a court by the party which claims to be the victim. In other words, there is no role for the police. Xifeng county party chief Zhang Zhiguo was quickly named by the Chinese media as "the most arrogant county party chief" in the country, for his "bold" move. After the public backlash, Zhang was sacked.

And Shen is by no means the only Don Quixote in China.

In September 2005, former vice minister of education Zhang Baoqing, who was then approaching retirement, also furiously slammed local officials over growing costs in education, housing and medical care - issues that remain three major sources of public discontent.

In a press conference before his retirement, Zhang confessed that a university education was too expensive in the country. He said that with his and his wife's salaries, they could only afford the expenses of one child's higher education.

Then he slammed schools for imposing extra charges on students. He said at least 400 universities still imposed "arbitrary charges" on students, despite Beijing's bans on doing so, and that at least eight provinces continued to defy Beijing's policy of offering low-interest loans to help students from poor families. He famously roared at the time: "Often a policy of Zhongnanhai [the power center in Beijing] cannot go beyond its red walls."

When the quote soon became a popular byword for regional mismanagement, Zhang said he had mixed feelings. He felt "outraged" and "worried", but at the same time "unable to do anything about it".

Given their positions, if Zhang and Shen could really "do nothing" within their power to counter malpractice, it can only mean that there is something terribly wrong with China's administrative system.

And the fact that they dared to speak their minds only after leaving the realm of officialdom suggests that what is happening across the country is not penetrating the thick red walls of Zhongnanhai and reaching the central leaders.

If anything, such confessions of conscience may serve to support the argument that political reforms are urgently needed in China. If Beijing truly wants effective administration of the country with the aim of creating a "harmonious society", its leaders should listen to the "good words" of men like Zhang and Shen.

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