Thoughts on Getting Arrested in China

Yesterday I recounted the tale of how my American friend and I got arrested on Beijing’s Jingmi highway for driving a stolen vehicle (our rental car). It was all a wash in the end, and they offered neither details nor apology when they handed us back the car key and said we could be on our merry way.

For lack of better formatting ideas, I’ve come up with a list of theories as to what went down while we were riding around an armored van and sitting in the soft-core interrogation room. I’ll start with the most likely possibility:

1. It was an honest mistake. Sean heard the police officer say that the highway security camera had alerted them that we were driving a stolen car. This could make sense considering how quickly the cops descended on us, in tandem. I imagine the cameras are programmed to read license plate numbers. But who knows how accurate that is?

If that were the case, then the cop should probably not have announced that we were driving a stolen car. I am glad he did for our sake — so we knew what was going on — but that seemed a bit showy at the time. It also turned out to be (apparently) wrong, and it would have behooved him to treat the case with more caution.

2. Racist theory: They saw we were foreigners (Sean, with a dark beard, is pretty recognizable from afar as non-Chinese) and assumed we might not have a license or otherwise be causing some form of disturbance. I was certain this is why we were being pulled over in the first place, up until he announced that the car had been stolen. With the official campaign against “bad” foreigners having recently struck Beijing and Shanghai, it is possible that they saw us (in particular Sean, as a male) as potential trouble-makers.  How many foreigners have a Chinese driver’s license anyway?

If this were the case, then the officer made up the car-theft story on the spot. Remember, he was looking at the documents when he announced that the car was stolen: Sean’s passport, license, registration, and the rental agreement. Everything checked out. He realized this, panicked, and announced that the car was hot goods. We sat around the police station for about two hours for good measure before they wrote down our names and then gave us back the car key. Thank you for your cooperation, we’ll take care of things from here.

3. They were looking for a bribe from either us or the car rental place. It is possible that the car rental place paid them off in a “harmonious settlement,” which in China may be considered a successful implementation of the law.

While the overall experience was far from harrowing, and the officers were generally cordial, the leaks in the boat were also apparent. First, they offered no explanation or apology. This means that they were concerned about face, because to admit they had made a mistake (i.e. the car was not stolen) would have been embarrassing for them. If they had pulled some trick and accepted a settlement from the car rental company, then they would still lie and say that they had made a mistake to cover-up. Either way, an explanation and apology was not in the cards.

Second, there was a loose semblance of protocol, but it was clear that they were in total control. Our American citizenship was the best thing we had going for us, and Sean made sure to text a friend at the embassy while we were in the van. A sign behind the counter at the police station read, “For the sake of the people, we serve.” That was so tragicomically far from what I was feeling that I actually laughed  a little.

I would have been happy to know that they were enforcing laws, if that could have been confirmed. But as a person (albeit a foreigner) who was taken in, I was basically a prisoner from the start. We were surrounded, loaded into a van, and escorted into a back room at the police station. Forget Miranda Rights — no one told us anything beyond “this is a stolen car.”

And finally, they may have treated us differently had we looked different. If the Racist Theory is correct, they may not have pulled us over in the first place (had we looked Asian). But if they really did pull us over thinking it was a stolen car, then how would they have treated us if we were Chinese? African? We at least look “Western” i.e. white, and we were clearly on our way back from a lovely day of sightseeing, wearing laymen’s clothes, hiking bags, and carrying cameras. Perhaps they treated us with a certain amount of deference because of this image. They did not rough-house us, insult us, or really do anything too rude.

The conclusion is that it was an incident run by behavioral protocol rather than legal regulations. There were no rights for the captured. Everything ended up OK for us because we didn’t ask too many questions. We just did what we were told. Something wrong did happen though, and we’ll never know what it was. The whole thing may not even be recorded in the system, since they took down our information by hand. The sign taped to the computers that said “Please check to confirm that the record matches what you have said” implied that there was a computerized system of recording interrogation. I have misgivings about whether or not the whole ordeal even made it into that system.

Bottom Line: Mistakes are not made. Face must be maintained. All suspects are temporary prisoners, and the law enforcement must be like a solemn, omniscient father taking care of naughty children.

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1 Response to Thoughts on Getting Arrested in China

  1. Pingback: The Day I Got Arrested in China | Seeing Red in China

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