Thursday, November 01, 2007

Men in Uniform

I'm losing respect for the uniformed guards of China.
I've always been one who smiles when she sees a policeman on the corner (order! security! someone to ask for directions!).  During the last few weeks, however, the uniformed men protecting the local establishments have done little to garner my respect. The vendors in these stories are neither the heroes nor victims of this story, rather, they are the canvas upon which the guards painted a portrait of the nature of their current profession. 

Case 1:
In Beijing I visited a fantastic market overflowing with silk paintings, ornate rusty red Tibetan chests, and Mao paraphernalia priced according to its relative location to the exit. (don't shop in the first aisle. they know you don't know the prices.)  Just outside this bustling bargaining market, I saw a few informal vendors trying to sell furs that were definitely illegal, and perhaps endangered.

One vendor carrying one basket of furs sprinted across the street, six guards in tow. As the first guard caught up to him, the other five began laughing and hitting him, throwing his basket of illegal furs to the ground. He agreed to comply with them, and allowed himself to be led back to the market by guard 1 while guard 2 held his hands behind his back. Guards 3-6 found themselves left out and bored, so they alternately hit his basket to the ground again and again, then kicked him in the knees and back as he stoops to pick up his merchandise. A random pedestrian joined the fun and laughed while he kicked the vendor to the ground once again.

Case 2:
Back in Chengdu, Kat and I arrived at the train station after our 30 hour ride from Beijing (much comfier this time - thank God for the simple comfort and companionship of the hard sleeper cabin!). Outside the train station, a poor minority woman (not of Han origins, probably from nearby western sichuan) was on her hands and knees, gathering the pomegranates that a smug security guard had just knocked out of her hands. She scrambled to save one from beneath the feet of the passing pedestrians, but the guard's buddy beat her to it and kicked it into traffic. She ran after it, while guard 1 patted his buddy on the back. Then they spyed another fruit vending woman across the street and jogged towards her, leaving the pomegranate woman to watch as cars destroyed her produce.

 These vendors were selling their goods in vaguely illegal territory, so action against them was warranted. However, the guards obviously do not trust themselves to know what that action should be. They are given enough authority to hold a baton (and sometimes a gun), but rarely enough to make potent decisions. The system breeds frustration, boredom, and one-up-manship rather than model citizenry. This, combined with a pervasive "us v. them" mentality results in situations in which these men behave like cruel schoolboys. Justice is one thing, derision is another.