|Police on duty at Guangzhou Railway Station in early 2012. Image eChinacities.|
Speaking personally, four years living in China didn’t leave me with a particularly positive view of the local boys in blue. At best I found the cops overly bureaucratic and generally unhelpful. At worst they were outright rude. The experiences of local friends showed that when it came to abuses of power by people with links to the ruling party – including violent assaults – the cops simply turn a blind eye.
It was with some surprise, then, that I found myself sympathising with the officers in Zhou Hao’s films. The first Cop Shop plays out mainly around the front desk of the police station, where a constant stream of characters from the square outside come in looking for food, shelter, advice, train tickets and money. It’s a grim snapshot of the desperation that China’s economic boom has generated alongside pockets of wealth. The police spend most of their time deflecting those looking for help, directing many to a nearby “social aid centre.” Judging by the reluctance of many to visit the centre, conditions there appear bleak.
Cop Shop II sees Zhou return to the same police station around a year later, in the lead up to Chinese New Year in 2011. As hundreds of thousands of migrants pass through the railway station returning to their hometowns, the police are often expected to work 24 hours at a time. Unsurprisingly a group of officers grumbles to Zhou’s camera at one point about the ineptitude of those allocating shifts.
Without explicitly making the point, the Cop Shop films present a pretty damning view of the vagaries of China’s bureaucratic administration, which impacts negatively upon both the police and the swirling masses outside. In one scene, for example, a recently released prisoner on his way home comes into the station and explains he can’t check into a hotel for the night because ex-prisoners aren’t provided with the documentation that regulations require hotels to sight before admitting guests. All the police can suggest is that the man sleeps on the square outside until his train arrives in the morning. Meanwhile, the police themselves are expected to work excruciatingly long hours and deal with the fallout of a social system over which they have little control.
Cop Shop II is the more interesting of the two films, in that it provides a more varied and nuanced view of the micro-society in and around the police station. In the period before Chinese New Year, the police are told to prioritise keeping the square outside the railway station clear to facilitate the flow of thousands of passengers. As a result, the officers spend a great deal of time detaining illegal pedlars selling everything from folding stools to pancakes. Meanwhile, a man caught systematically conning travellers out of their hard-earned cash is simply given a talking to and allowed to go free.
The situation is representative of much that is wrong with law enforcement in China, where petty rules and regulations targeting the poor are often enforced, while actual crimes and abuses frequently go unchecked. And every time the police release a street pedlar after a day’s detention, he or she immediately returns to the square and begins selling his or her wares. Economic necessity outweighs any deterrent the police can offer.
One of the most fascinating sequences in Cop Shop II involves a conversation between Zhou and an elderly man arrested for selling stools and water. “Without reservation I hate Deng Xiaoping,” the man says quietly to Zhou’s camera, before launching into a scathing critique of contemporary China’s economic system. “All this was caused by Deng Xiaoping. In Mao’s era workers basically didn’t have to pay for housing or education… Factories took care of your medical bills. Kids went to university for free,” the man says. “I can say in this period of Deng Xiaoping, people’s state of mind, [their] helping spirit, has regressed to that of primitive society, or even worse.”
His viewpoint belies official media claims that all Chinese have unambiguously embraced economic reform and the current path of development. While I encountered few people in China willing to endorse Mao’s era in quite the positive terms used by the man in Zhou’s film, the gist of his comments reflect sentiments I have often heard expressed. In short, unfettered capitalism, in an environment completely dominated by government business monopolies and a weak rule of law, has turned Chinese people against one another and reduced daily life for many to the level of an animalistic struggle for survival. With no effective systems or institutions in place to deal with these issues, the police of the Cop Shop films spend their days fobbing off an endless parade of the distressed and disenfranchised.
The officers deal with all this with a surprising degree of patience and humour, although I couldn’t help wondering if they were on their best behaviour for Zhou’s camera. As mentioned, patience and humour were attributes sorely lacking during my limited interactions with the police in Beijing.
While Zhou could be criticised for not probing police culture and actions a little more deeply, it’s unlikely he would have been permitted to stick around the police station if he had started asking uncomfortable questions or recording questionable acts. Nevertheless, the Cop Shop films, especially Cop Shop II, are an engrossing look at the myriad pressures and problems faced by uniformed officers in China, as they deal with the front line victims of what has become a cut-throat, highly stratified society.