China Promises Police Will be Better Paid, and Better Behaved
If newly announced changes turn out to be real, China’s oft-maligned police force will be forced to record every interrogation, face life-time liability for mishandled criminal cases and have less power to deny urban migrants access to public services.
The question is how big an “if” that is.
Those changes were among more than 100 items included in a public security reform plan (in Chinese) released by the Communist Party on Sunday, a next step in Beijing’s efforts to improve law enforcement following the creation of an ambitious legal reform blueprint in October.
Also included in the plan were promises to simplify driver’s license testing, punish physical abuse of criminal suspects and raise pay and benefits for police.
In many cases, the proposed changes were expected, matching similar changes already laid out in reform plans for the country’s courts and prosecutors. Others, like a proposal to scrap China’s controversial temporary urban residence permits, were more surprising.
The temporary residence permit system, which dates to the early 1990s, allows migrant workers to live legally in cities but denies them the same social benefits as urban residents – including, in some cases, the right to buy houses and cars. A number of cities eliminated the permits after a 2003 incident in which a migrant worker was detained and later beaten to death in the southern city of Guangzhou after police discovered he didn’t have one. But some major cities, including Beijing, continue to require them, giving police power to decide where tens of millions are allowed to live.
Plans call for the system to be replaced with a permanent residency program that would provide migrants with urban social benefits according to the amount of time they’ve lived in a given city.
“Scrapping temporary residence permits may bring only limited benefits to farmers moving into the city, but at least they won’t have the shame of being called ‘temporary residents’ while living on their own country’s soil,” wrote Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Beijing’s Renmin University, on the Weibo microblogging site.
It’s not clear, however, that a permanent residence program would reduce police power over the lives of migrant workers, as living in a city would still require them to obtain a permit.
“Changing it won’t make much of a difference,” said Liu Xiaoyuan, a Beijing-based human rights lawyer who has been living in the capital under a temporary residence permit for more than a decade.
Mr. Liu was critical of other parts of the reform plan, saying it did little to address key public concerns about abuse of police power and unfair law enforcement. For instance, police were already banned from using torture and were also required to record interrogations in certain cases, he said, but that hadn’t prevented the police from skirting the rules when it suited them.
“There’ s nothing in here about supervision. Without that, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Legal reform advocates have put hope in the threat of lifetime liability for wrongful prosecutions as a way to eliminate problematic police habits, in particular a reliance on forced confessions. The idea, implemented on a local level by central China’s Henan province and several cities, was included October’s legal reform blueprint. In a widely publicized case, judicial authorities in Inner Mongolia recently reversed an 18-year-old death penalty conviction and detained the police officer responsible for the original investigation.
Mr. Liu said a lifetime liability system, if implemented, would likely help, but he noted that police already face criminal liability for negligence in major cases.
“Cases involving common crimes are relatively to fix, but any case that involves the government or touches on issues of repression – that’s much harder,” he said.