China Mulls New Laws to Boost Police Powers, 'Authority'

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china-activist-ni-yulan-beijing-sept-2018.jpg Chinese housing rights lawyer Ni Yulan, who has filed a complaint against the Beijing police department after a beating by police left her in a wheelchair, appears in a photo in Beijing, September 2018.
Photo courtesy of Ni Yulan

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has announced new draft laws in recent weeks to formalize sweeping police powers to stop, search and monitor citizens, and bolster low morale in the country's law enforcement sector, analysts said.

On Sunday, the ministry for public security issued a document titled "Draft Provisions for the Protection of Police Officers' Authority in Law Enforcement."

The new rules highlight the protection of the "authority" of the Chinese police in the process of law enforcement, including protection from official sanctions following public complaints about their behavior.

"Individual police officers do not bear legal responsibility, and the public security department to which they belong shall compensate for any damage caused [in the exercise of their duty] in accordance with relevant state regulations," the rules state.

"Public security departments shall not take disciplinary action, including the confinement, dismissal, demotion or dismissal of the police, without due legal process," they say.

In cases of "malicious complaints" and "hype" against the police, public security departments should "actively protect the authorities of law enforcers," the draft rules say.

U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said the rules "protecting" police authority come amid widespread violations of the law by the police themselves, with very little available to the general public in the way of redress.

"These regulations from the ministry of public security give the police even greater power," Teng said. "The rights of the people, including basic human rights and personal rights and the right to freedom of expression, will be further jeopardized by this."

Teng warned that such attempts to snuff out any obvious disputes between the police and the rest of the population could backfire, leading to "more serious social conflict."

Housing rights lawyer Ni Yulan, who has filed a complaint against the Beijing police department after a beating by police left her in a wheelchair, said the effect of the new rules will be to increase public fear of the police.

"If they can just beat someone up when they feel like it, injure an ordinary citizen, and then not bear any responsibility for that, regardless of how serious the injuries, then I think the impact of this is going to be huge," Ni told RFA on Tuesday.

"This will create a great deal of psychological fear, if there is no hope of compensation or of pursuing those responsible, even if they beat you to the extent of breaking your bones," she said.

‘There will be a backlash’

A former Beijing police officer surnamed Li said the government is afraid of losing control of the population.

"Of course, there will be a backlash; people are going to fight back, and even harder now," Li said. "This policy is really dangerous and extremely counterproductive."

Calls to the ministry of public security rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.

U.S.-based lawyer Gao Guangjun said that "powers" and "authority" are two separate concepts in Chinese law, and that while powers can be strictly regulated by law, authority has more to do with a public perception of fairness in law enforcement.

"It is impossible to bolster the authority [of the police] using such methods," Gao said. "True authority can only be established through the fair and just enforcement of the law."

"Otherwise, the idea of authority is meaningless, and it's just to scare people into submission," he said.

Gao said true authority is also highly unlikely in a country that lacks an independent judiciary, and where much of the law-breaking is done by police and officials themselves.

Meanwhile, a draft version of China's 2012 Police Law is currently under discussion that would formalize many of the sweeping powers already exercised by police to stop, search and carry out surveillance of, and biodata collection from, citizens.

The draft law, which spells out the duty of police to be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party for the first time, allows police to stop, search and collect biodata from "criminal suspects" at any time, as well as demanding that citizens produce ID on request, regardless of whether they are suspects or not.

Anyone refusing to comply can be arrested and forced to give samples or personal details, it says.

"Police can carry out searches of criminal suspects and collect individual identification information such as facial shots, fingerprints, voiceprints and iris images, as well as biological samples like blood, saliva, urine, and hair," the draft law, which was first made available for consultation in December 2016, states.

"If a criminal suspect refuses to submit to such [processes] he or she may be forced to do so," it says.

Police are also empowered to summon and hold anyone for questioning for up to 24 hours for hundreds of violations of laws and regulations, the draft law states.

And at times of public crisis, they have the right to implement "internet controls," either on individuals, or by pulling the plug on internet access for an entire region, it says.

They may also "access and retrieve relevant information" about citizens, legal persons and other organizations, as well as collect information through public monitoring of public places, roads, and public spaces, the draft law says.

Wide-reaching surveillance

The recent nationwide rollout of facial recognition and artificial intelligence technology is already enabling wide-reaching and detailed surveillance of citizens by Chinese police, recent reports have indicated.

Chinese citizens are already monitored by more than 20 million surveillance cameras as they go about their daily business in public places, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Artificial intelligence are able to identify and "tag" individual cars, cyclists, and pedestrians with distinguishing information that can be stored and searched for descriptions of wanted individuals.

The smart video tool correctly identifies the gender, age, and clothing descriptions of passersby, as well as distinguishing between motorized and nonmotorized vehicles, recent media reports say.

The technology comes amid a growing trend towards using facial recognition as a secure form of ID, including to identify rail and airline passengers, physical and e-commerce customers, and missing persons cases.

Facial recognition technology is already used by ride-sharing and robotic package delivery apps, airport and college dorm security, and social credit schemes, as well against jaywalkers.

Facial recognition can be used in tandem with the "Skynet" technology to track someone in real time, making a powerful "smart" video surveillance tool that can track many of the country's 1.3 billion people, especially in cities.

The democratic government of neighboring Taiwan last month warned its citizens not to take up Beijing's offer of residence permits in mainland China, for fear of being "pulled into" the government's surveillance dragnet.

"The mainland government has set up the Skynet project in recent years, using a network of surveillance cameras in major cities, so as to track and monitor the movements of people and vehicles," the island's Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement.

"Through the surveillance system, mainland Chinese officials have collected around one billion facial recognition records."

"Automated facial recognition technology is combined with the social credit system to comprehensively monitor the public," it said, warning that the residence permits will be technologically similar to the ID cards currently needed by mainland citizens for most transactions, including buying train or plane tickets and booking a hotel room.

Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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