This article also appears on ChinaFile, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
A policeman draws his gun to stop a desperately escaping criminal. It may sound sensational, but this is technically what happened in the southern Chinese megalopolis of Guangzhou on January 31. As traffic policemen were manning a drunk driving checkpoint, a driver in a red Porsche pulled a U-turn and attempted to escape. After the driver refused to stop, the traffic policeman pulled out a gun and forced him to pull over. The driver, who was found to be drunk, was punished severely.
A discussion of this incident quickly became one of the hottest topics on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. Sina ran a survey on Web users’ feelings about the incident, with more than 52,000 people voting over just five days. Voters could choose between “Drunk driving should be punished severely” or “Pulling a gun on someone is just going too far.” The vote was a landslide, with supporters numbering 97% (about 50,000) compared with 3% (less than 2,000) opposed.
Some of the supporters expressed their hatred for drunk driving. User @Floraxu wrote, “Drunk driving isn’t just suicidal; you’re also dragging passers-by down to your grave with you!” Another user, @科科了, commented, “The only reason we’re debating this at all is that we’re in China. If we were in America, we wouldn’t feel sorry for him even if he died.” Those few who felt the gun was too much seemed more concerned about gun safety generally than about the proportionality of the officer’s response. Wrote Weibo user @刘牛牛007, “What if an accidental discharge happened? Who would be responsible for that? Isn’t that illegal?” @关小关新年offer多多 wrote, “The question is, how did a traffic policeman get a gun?”
In social media environments, where so many diverse viewpoints coexist, it’s rare to see users come to such near-unanimous agreement. Although police officers are generally distrusted by the Chinese micro-blogging public, official response confirmed that the traffic policeman’s response in this case was within the law. Wrote @Troy从阿尔卑到安德门, “As long as it actually happened, and it was legal, the public doesn’t really care whether it looks like police violence.”
Delving deeper, comments about the survey reveal an undercurrent of reverse classism, perhaps the main reason Web users stood behind the gun-waving police officer. @吐个烟圈22 wrote, “I support the policeman, but I just had a thought: what if the car forced to stop was a Santana [a low-end cheap car] or even farmer’s car. What kind of results would the survey get then?” Commented another, @尼尼哥哥, “The regulation of the princelings [slang for wealthy scions] is long overdue.” Some responses were extreme; @Samuel_Smith wrote, “That’s how it should be! Think you’re so special just because you’re rich! Just because you drive a Porsche!”
Who do netizens hate more–the rich or the police?
The incident is not without (multiple and tragic) precedents. In May 2009, a driver raced through a residential area in Hangzhou and hit a passer-by, who later died. The car driven was a modified Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, a World Rally Car, and the drunk driver was later discovered to be among the “fu er dai,” a Chinese term for the offspring of the extremely wealthy. The case drew national attention when the official investigation was revealed to have been tampered with — the report claimed the car was going only 70 kilometers per hour, while a follow-up investigation showed it was travelling at between 84-102 kilometers per hour. The driver was eventually convicted of a traffic crime rather than the crime of endangering public safety, and sentenced to serve only three years in prison.
This accident sparked a national conversation about drunk driving and related regulations. In another famous case, a princeling drove drunk on a college campus, killing one student. He then arrogantly refused when stopped once again, telling security, “My Father is Li Gang.” This remark provoked a national backlash against traffic violations, especially drunk driving. This time, the offender in question came from a family with government connections, which again hit a nerve online. Multiple cases such as this finally led authorities to revise the country’s Criminal Law in 2011, re-categorizing drunk driving from a civil to a criminal violation. as the crime of dangerous driving. With its close associations with political authority and family wealth in the Chinese mind, drunk driving has became a symbol of privilege’s disregard for social order and the law.
While many Chinese view police with the same suspicion as they do government officials and the wealthy, traffic police — who are fairly low on the totem pole of China’s police bureaucracy — are not always the targets of public anger. In fact, the public is generally sympathetic towards them. Policing China’s raucous traffic is considered a tiring and low-level job in which one is forced to engage in many dangerous confrontations. Traffic cops are also compelled to breathe in the filthy sulfurous emissions from Chinese cars, and Web users recently called en masse for Beijing’s traffic cops to be permitted to wear face masks at work. In this case, when forced to choose between a rich, spoiled, politically connected drunk and a traffic cop, netizens chose the low-level government worker.
How nuanced was public discussion of this incident? Some key questions about gun control lay buried in cries of support for the policeman. Should the traffic police have guns? Are they legally allowed to pull out their guns in a situation such as the incident in Guangzhou? According to the Guangzhou Daily, the official response deemed it legal because “attempting to escape and crashing through the check created a threat to the traffic police officer’s individual safety, and was also a threat to public safety. In this situation, the police officer was allowed to respond as he did.”
Though the public rallied behind this particular police officer, the jury is still out on whether Chinese are generally comfortable with gun use or gun carry by their police. As user @短发小男孩cc asked, “If the news came out that a traffic policeman shot and killed a drunk driver, would you still support him?” As discussion of this particular incident dies down, debate about the broader issues it has brought to the surface will undoubtedly continue.