Common section


The Policeman: A Cop who Entered the Police Force as the People's Republic was Founded


Family photo, Zhengzhou, 1960s: Mr Jingguan, second from right, and his wife, back, third from right.


In 2001, Mr Jingguan, centre front, with his wife (in wheelchair), their children and grandchildren.

MR JINGGUAN, aged seventy-five, a policeman with the same length career as the PRC, interviewed in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province in central China, near the Yellow River. He became a policeman in 1948 and was a sergeant at seventeen. He is the Henan police history's voice recorder and has an amazing memory; he remembers most cases since 1948. But he quit the police in the 1980s, aged fifty-eight, because he couldn't bear the ignorance and corruption that surrounded him. He lives in a two-room flat with his sick wife, whom he cares for with the help of two daughters.

On 6 September, we arrived in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan, a central province. At the last census, Henan had 97 million people, making it China's most populous province. Up until 1990, Zhengzhou was Asia's biggest rail transport hub, while Henan was one of China's poorest provinces. In terms of public security, it set records too – for modern China's biggest bank robbery, the earliest case of a foreign contract killer, the most brutal murder . . .

I began my career as a journalist here, although before 2003 I could not be as candid about it as I am now, for fear of incurring suspicions that I was "betraying my country".

Soon after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, a 150kW "United Front Jamming Station" was set up in Zhengzhou. This transmitted meaningless radio interference to prevent people in mainland China and neighbouring areas from listening to "enemy stations" such as Voice of America, the BBC, and Hong Kong and Taiwan radio.

In 1988, the reforms which opened up China reached the national media, or rather the interfering signals no longer had the power to prevent people, aided by modern technology, from accessing information freely. The decision was taken to turn the Jamming Station into a cultural and economic channel, and create a new model for the Chinese media. The first radio station to begin direct broadcasting for its main programming blocks was Pearl River Radio in south China, but it was small and covered only a limited area. The Zhengzhou one would be a major channel, and to ensure that, post-reforms, it would continue to be the mouthpiece of the CCP, as all the other strictly controlled provincial radio stations were, Henan People's Radio Station had the job of recruiting programme anchors from all over China to conduct an "experiment in direct broadcasting" under the "instruction and guidance" of old radio hands. From the thirty or forty thousand applicants, the Central Broadcasting selection committee chose seven men and seven women under thirty to be the reform team.

Before this, there were radio stations only at provincial and city level, and these were under the management of the Central Government Propaganda Department. Television did not become part of the mass media until the end of the eighties, when most people had a TV set.

A radio programme went through at least four processes: it had to be read and approved in draft, after which not a single word could be added or changed; then the tape had to be approved again, and the background music added, before final approval was given. In addition, no one's broadcasting voice was permitted the slightest trace of individuality. As we said in the business, there were only two broadcasting voices – one male and one female. This meant that Chinese radio broadcasting was one giant media machine, almost military in its management.

I was one of the fourteen chosen to form the Direct Broadcast Reform Team, and the exception, in that I was over thirty. I still remember how swiftly our initial excitement was replaced by dread induced by the "news discipline" and the "list of rules" which hit us in the face. When we learned that all our direct-broadcast programmes would be monitored and assessed, in order to prevent them from "going down the wrong road" and misleading public opinion, we felt as if we were on the high wire of media reforms with politics the abyss beneath our feet.

We tended to play it safe in the setting up and structure of our broadcasts, since none of us had experience of or training in the "free media", in fact none of us knew how to broadcast without reading from a script. Also, none of us wanted to tackle the explosive issue of "freedom of speech" head on.

Probably because I was the oldest, and also because of all the fourteen "guinea pigs", only I had worked for twelve years in a military academy, and was therefore supposed to have a better awareness of "discipline" than the rest, I was assigned an unscripted night-time chat programme, called Words on the Night Breeze. What were we to talk about? How? What was safe talk? No one told me, but I very soon realised from the large numbers of readers' letters that the resources for my programme lay in the highways and byways outside the office, in the villages where I had never been, in life as it did not appear in the books I read, in the stories told by those women who reared their children and transmitted the Chinese way of life to future generations.

It was the Henan police who helped me to reach these true media sources in safety. They not only gave me police support, they even taught me how to open the minds of these unschooled peasants, in ways which they could understand, so that they could improve their lives and protect the rights which were properly theirs.

One incident I shall never forget. In 1990, someone wrote to me asking why people in certain places on the banks of the Yellow River in Henan had for generations suffered from eye disease. On investigation, we discovered that the cottages of the inhabitants, with their wood-burning stoves, had no chimneys, so that the women who worked indoors every day and the babies they carried on their backs spent their time in a smoke-laden atmosphere. As a result, the locals developed eye disease from an early age, and many were blind by forty.*18

A group of us set out to try to resolve this age-old problem. With me were a doctor, a civil engineer and two policemen, one local to the area and one sent from the provincial capital. We set off down the Yellow River to mobilise the peasants to fit some kind of chimney to their houses, but two days and four villages later, not only was no one accepting the truth of our arguments, they were coming back with their own question: if they opened up the roof, and the souls of those who lived there were sucked away during the night, who would look after them?

On the way to the fifth village, the doctor, the engineer and I were alarmed and angry. We had reached an impasse. Then the local policeman, a taciturn man who hitherto had just been our driver, put a cautious question: could he try something for us? "Of course, of course!" we cried. "What are you going to do?" we asked, but he said diffidently: "Just let me try first. You bosses watch what happens, and then I'll say more. OK?"

As we got to the fifth village, the policeman saw a village cadre coming towards him, slammed on the brakes, stuck his head out and said: "A new instruction from Chairman Mao!"

"Chairman Mao? But surely he's passed away?" responded the cadre in surprise.

"They've just discovered it. He left an instruction that 'The Yellow River waters, and the eye disease of the villagers, must both be brought under control'." The policeman was so earnest that we stared at him openmouthed.

"Control it how?" The village cadre was obviously taking this seriously.

"Put 'heavenly eyes' on your houses. All Chairman Mao's top cadres live in houses with 'heavenly eyes'!" The policeman continued confidently: "You call a meeting and pass on Chairman Mao's instructions, and in two days, we'll be back to check up."

And with this, he put his foot on the accelerator, and we drove off.

"What are you playing at?" the civil engineer couldn't help asking.

"Wait and see," the Zhengzhou policeman answered on behalf of his colleague, and then added: "Haven't you heard the expression, 'the mighty dragon can't keep a ground snake down'? Local people have local ways!"

Hearing this, there was nothing we "civilised" city folk could say, except follow the policemen and "spread Mao Zedong's instruction". But none of us believed that it would work. Privately, we even thought: "It's us city folk they're making fun of!"

We were dumbfounded, however, when two days later we went back to the village where the policeman had left word. To our amazement, there were chimneys on the rooftops! Chimneys of all shapes and sizes, to be sure, and most of them fixed on in a very unscientific way, but the people had listened to Chairman Mao! They had obeyed someone who had been a god to them, but who had long been dismissed by city folk as a tyrant now dead and gone.

I asked the local policeman how he knew to use Chairman Mao to "civilise" these peasants. He answered quietly: "They're peasants. They only believe in the gods that work for them."

The peasants only believe in the gods that work for them? They certainly did not believe us. From this point on, the Henan police became my teachers. They taught me the difference between town and countryside, opened my eyes to aspects of human culture which had passed me by, and made it possible for me to understand the peasants.

Now, some years later, on my return to Henan, I wanted to interview an old policeman, Mr Jingguan, who had been with the People's Republic of China Public Security Bureau (PSB) from its inception to the present day. I'd heard he had an amazing memory, so was one of the people who were writing the history of the PSB in Henan.

When we were on our way to his house in the Central Plains Region Law Enforcement Agencies family housing complex, a policewoman who had done some prior investigation for us said: "He wants to be called 'policeman', not 'judge', even though he worked for years in the courts and even rose to be chief justice. When you mention the courts, he gets indignant. And he hasn't been out of the house for years, because his wife went into a coma, and has become a 'vegetable', and he doesn't want her to wake up one day and find him gone."

I was moved by this man's loyalty and sense of responsibility to his wife – it was a million miles away from men who "keep a mistress", "have a love nest" or "play away"!

At the same time, I became anxious. Could someone who hadn't been out of doors for years cope with questioning by strangers? If he'd had no contact with the outside world for so long, would he identify with our values and understand the significance of this interview? How were we to win his understanding, and get down to the kind of topics which I wanted to know about, in a natural way? I thought it would probably be best to start with recent events which he was most familiar with and which he most wanted people to know about – his family situation.

What we were confronted with when we were taken into his home was, once again, almost unbelievable: this man, noted for his outstanding contribution to the establishment and development of Henan's public security system, lived almost on the poverty line, in a tiny housing unit in a low-cost, five-storey block, one of those hurriedly thrown up after the reforms at the beginning of the eighties. His flat consisted of just two rooms with no entrance hall; the ceiling was not even the regulation 2.3 metres high and the whole area no more than a cramped 25 square metres. Facilities such as kitchen and toilet were squeezed in somehow, and there was no communal area or washroom. The light was so poor that it was almost impossible to read during the day without electric light. The paint on doors and windows was faded, and the walls were flaking. The floor was of rough concrete. The only furniture to be seen was a bed, a dining table and chairs, and two battered old wardrobes, each in one corner of the room. There was a small bedroom which doubled as the food-preparation area, with a shelf which held a chopping board, a vegetable knife, two spring onions and a piece of ginger root. A rusty, old-fashioned washing machine was squeezed into the space by the doorway; there was no fridge, nor was there even the sort of air-conditioning unit that most people had, just a decrepit, noisy, vibrating old electric fan doing battle against the stifling heat. But the flat was very clean and there was none of that smell which often hangs around the bedridden elderly.

Looking at all this, I even began to doubt whether this really was the honoured old official. Had no one enquired why his living conditions were so poor? After all, he was one of the first cohort of PRC police in 1948! From what I knew of national policy to support the elderly, special care was given to senior cadres who had worked for the revolution in the Communist Party before 1949: the army had Retirement Institutes, regional governments had Retired Cadre Villages. Unless he had committed a serious offence at some point . . . but then someone who had committed such an offence would not have been permitted to write the history of the Public Security Bureau.

Once more, I was nonplussed.

Still astonished at this scene of poverty, I first went to greet Jingguan's wife, who lay in a comatose state in a reclining chair. I put my hand gently on her forehead, and said, "Hello, Auntie."


JINGGUAN: It's no use talking to her. She's not conscious, and can't do anything.

XINRAN: Yes, I can see that, but I believe it's right to say hello to her, and maybe, somehow, my respect for her will get through. [As a Chinese person, I know I must ask first about her condition, to show that I care in a Chinese way – though Western readers may think my questions intrusive.] Does she seem to react to light? Is it possible she may gradually wake up?

JINGGUAN: She can't do anything, even if you wave your hand across her open eyes she doesn't react.

XINRAN: You look after her very well.

JINGGUAN: Thirty years ago she had high blood pressure, and twenty years ago she got a cerebral thrombosis. Ten years ago she became paralysed, and eight years ago she became doubly incontinent and lost the power of speech . . . the children help me look after their mother.


I can see from his body language that he is worried about what my reaction will be to his circumstances and the surroundings.


XINRAN: What a good thing you've got children to help. You're lucky in that respect. Your house is so clean, and there's absolutely none of that smell that so many old people's houses have.

JINGGUAN: That's the most difficult thing to deal with. Sometimes in the night, I get up at two or three o'clock to relieve myself, and she's wet through and groaning to herself. When I've changed her and cleaned her up, she stops groaning.

XINRAN: So she has a certain amount of feeling?

JINGGUAN: I think she does, but of course she can't say anything.

XINRAN: So she has no feeling in her arms and legs?

JINGGUAN: Absolutely none at all. When the doctors give her an injection, she doesn't react at all.

XINRAN: And she doesn't have any bedsores?

JINGGUAN: No, her skin is fine.

XINRAN: That's a tough thing to achieve. Coma victims often get bedsores, don't they, since they're not moving or turning over. Can she swallow when she has food?

JINGGUAN: No, she can't, so we use a stomach tube, and a masher to liquidise the food, and get it directly into her stomach with the tube.

XINRAN: That's hard work, I really admire you all.

JINGGUAN: Any family would do the same.

XINRAN: Not necessarily. It's true that our custom is to care for our elderly, but reports of the old being neglected are common too, aren't they? Does she get work insurance and medical insurance now?

JINGGUAN: She gets 850 yuan a month.

XINRAN: Well, that's a good thing. Otherwise someone as sick as this can drag the whole family down with them.

JINGGUAN: Yes, that's true.

XINRAN: Is that a photograph of the whole family?

JINGGUAN: That was at the Spring Festival in 1959. That's our eldest daughter, that's the second, that's the elder son, he's retired now. The fourth, the youngest boy, hadn't been born yet.

XINRAN: And that photo must have been taken during the Cultural Revolution. You're all wearing Chairman Mao badges.

JINGGUAN: It was at the end of 1970, taken just before the eldest became a soldier.

XINRAN: And that one looks like a group of cadres.

JINGGUAN: They're the senior cadres of the Public Security Bureau in 1986; we were at a senior cadres symposium.

XINRAN: Is that your wife? How old is she now? jingguan: Seventy-two. That was our fiftieth wedding anniversary. She couldn't hold her head up, or eat, she couldn't understand anything, but we had our picture taken together, on 28 October 2002.

XINRAN: You said you were born in 1931, sir. May I ask you if you still remember your parents and grandparents, and what memories you have of your childhood?

JINGGUAN: My family moved to Zhengzhou in the twenty-first year of the reign of the Emperor Qianlong, over two hundred years ago. Before Liberation, I went with my grandfather to visit the original family grave, and it was all written on the gravestone, right down to my generation, the tenth. Our forebears were rich. It was the last generations that fell on hard times. If you want to live, you need money, at least enough for food and clothing, and my father and grandfather both had this failing – they had a bellyful of knowledge, but couldn't earn a living, and in the end they starved to death.

I think my grandfather was born in 1886, when the family still had about a hundred mu*19 of land. They lived well. Zhengzhou had no foreign schools in those days, so he went to an old-style private school, and graduated from Kaifeng Normal University. And my grandfather was a dreamer, the couplet pasted on either side of his gate read: "All pursuits are lowly. Only studying is exalted." He had no idea how to earn money – he only knew how to study – so if someone was ill, he sold land; if someone got married, he sold land, until finally, when I was at an age to remember things, there was only forty mu left.

XINRAN: How did he meet his wife?

JINGGUAN: In those days, the parents arranged it, and whatever they decreed, you obeyed. Before Liberation, almost 100 per cent of marriages in Zhengzhou were arranged.

XINRAN: And when it got to your parents?

JINGGUAN: The same. The matchmaker knew the girl's and the boy's families, and spoke to both sides. The adults came to an agreement, then the young people were married. When my grandparents got married, my paternal grandfather's family probably still had seventy or eighty mu of land left. My maternal grandfather didn't have as much, but he was good at making money, and in disaster years they had enough to eat and drink. My other grandfather just had his bellyful of learning, and that couldn't feed them. When my father had finished lower middle school, he milled grain in the slack season, and tilled the fields in the busy season. In a disaster year, they starved.

XINRAN: Have you ever told your children about this?


XINRAN: Why not?

JINGGUAN: What would be the point? It's all about hard work and dire poverty, and my children have grown up in ease and comfort. The flavour of their lives has just been different.

XINRAN: Well, are you willing to tell me about it?

JINGGUAN: Yes, I'll waffle on a bit, if you're happy to listen to me rehashing that stale old business.

As I said, I was born in 1931. The first things I remember are from about 1938, when I was six or seven. After the Spring Festival, I began at an old-style private school. Do you know what that is? One teacher takes on three or four pupils and, to start with, you just studied the ThreeCharacter Classic every day: "People at birth are naturally good." Then we went on to study the Book of One Hundred Surnames: "Zhao, Qian, Sun, Li". After two years of that, I went to "foreign school", what today would be the first grade of primary school. By then, we were poor. I struggled on for four years, and then left without completing primary school.

In 1942, there was a great drought in Henan and we didn't harvest a single grain from our crops. By autumn, all the wheat had been consumed and there was nothing to eat at the Mid-Autumn Festival. People ate up all the grass, roots, shoots and leaves and when it came to the Spring Festival, there really was nothing left to eat. My grandfather proposed that the family split up, and each branch of the family go their own way. My uncle's family (there were four of them) made onenew household, and my grandparents another. My grandfather said: "I don't want any of you to bother about me. Leave me here, and make your own way in life." My father, who was thirty-eight, died of hunger that year and after that my mother took us children back to her family. Her father sold bean curd, so they had a bit of money and could squeeze us in. Even if we didn't get much, at least it kept body and soul together.

In 1944, the Japanese attacked Zhengzhou and my grandfather had no money left to support us any more, so my sister was married off at fifteen, to keep her alive. But she starved to death when she was fleeing the famine. I started doing labouring jobs for the Japanese before I was thirteen, and earned three pounds of coarse, mixed-grain flour per day. It wasn't enough but it kept the whole family from starvation for the time being. We ate one meal a day, in the evening. We had no oil or salt or vegetables, we just steamed pancakes and that was what we ate every day. After a year, the Japanese surrendered. Our fatherless family – mother, my younger brother and I – were stranded once more. For six months I could only get odd jobs, and it was a major problem to feed ourselves every day. At the Spring Festival in 1946, a neighbour who lived opposite gave me an introduction to the Guomindang Yellow River Henan River Affairs Bureau. There I wiped tables and swept floors, served food and drink and generally waited on people.

Then on 22 April 1948, Zhengzhou was liberated, the Communist Party arrived, the People's Liberation Army arrived, and the GMD government offices shut down. To stay alive, I couldn't let the grass grow under my feet, so that same day I was out finding out where people were wanted. It was night-time before I found that the Zhengzhou Public Security Bureau was recruiting household registration officers. I went, but I just stood in the door. I didn't dare go in. What was the use? They wanted people who had done lower middle school and I'd only been to primary. But I needed the work! So I forced myself to go in. "Have you got your school certificate?" "It's at home, I can't find it." "Well, take the test, then!" I took the test and came third. So in November 1948, I was one of the Zhengzhou PSB's first bunch of recruits. First we started with three months of training, and then I was made a sergeant. I was seventeen years old.

XINRAN: You were running things at seventeen . . . ? This is the first time I've heard that China had sergeants that young. Could you tell me a couple of stories from each post you held? I've heard you have a remarkable memory.

JINGGUAN: Well, 1948 was a time of great upheaval, good and bad people, and people with different "historical backgrounds" were all mixed in together. At that time, the Zhengzhou PSB chief was thirty-two, the Henan county PSB chiefs were generally twenty-five years old, substation chiefs were twenty-one or twenty-two, and I was a sergeant at seventeen, and in charge of a dozen or so people. I watched over a number of streets, checking household registrations and keeping an eye on bad elements. I didn't know anything about anything. I ate my fill and did my work, and if something came up, I did my best to sort it out by following the rules.

XINRAN: Who was good and who was bad then?

JINGGUAN: We were told to ignore people like petty thieves, vagrants and prostitutes for the time being, just leave them be. We had to concentrate our efforts on counter-revolutionaries. Things were chaotic in those days, and counter-revolutionaries were being arrested almost every day. There were two thousand privately owned firearms in Zhengzhou city, and these would have been a time bomb in the hands of counterrevolutionaries.

XINRAN: And how did you define counter-revolutionary?

JINGGUAN: We were given five criteria by our chiefs: the first were bandits who held control in local areas; the second were tyrants who had guns and armed forces in the countryside; the third were counterrevolutionary core GMD members – anyone from the heads of the Youth League of the Three Principles of the People regional forces upwards counted as "core" people; the fourth were followers of reactionary religious beliefs, who wanted to restore the old regime; the fifth category were spies – GMD spies, national spies and armed spies.

XINRAN: Did you have arrest warrants then? How did you know if someone was a spy or a tyrant?

JINGGUAN: Firstly, some of them turned themselves in, and then they would be treated leniently. Secondly, we regularly went around checking households and asked in each family what each person had been doing, and noted it all down in their file. Thirdly, through ordinary people reporting offences. The local police who made the records then were uneducated people. If they didn't understand something, they wrote it down in language they understood and in characters they knew and sometimes it came out quite different. Or the person reporting it wasn't clear – they just thought once it was recorded that would be an end of it. It never occurred to them that those records could cause trouble for the rest of their lives, let alone that it might implicate their relatives and friends too.

No one understood politics in those days, not even our leaders, I think. Otherwise, why would they have got involved in all those political movements?

Checking and recording went on until 1956, then there was a new policy: Hit "army, officials, police and the law" hard.

XINRAN: And what did that mean?

JINGGUAN: "Army" – this was after 1946 and the beginning of the Third Chinese Revolutionary War – meant any GMD officers of brigadier or company commander rank and above. Quartermasters, army surgeons, majors and above weren't important – the key people were those who had committed crimes and aroused popular anger. "Officials" meant any GMD who had been leaders of township or county government and above, again depending whether they had committed crimes, were hated and had killed people. "Police" meant GMD police of patrol officer rank or above. "The law" meant GMD military police of company officer rank or above. At that time, the key criterion was whether they had committed crimes and were hated by the people, but after 1956, the policy started to become more "leftist", until it got to the Cultural Revolution and became nonsensical.

XINRAN: How did you catch counter-revolutionaries when you were a sergeant?

JINGGUAN: The first time was in February 1949, I was working in what was then Changchun Road, now called 7 February Road. People were saying that a head of a street committee was dealing in drugs. I ate my lunch but didn't take my siesta, I just ran to his house, pushed open the door a crack and looked, and there he was selling drugs. I kicked the door right open, and hauled him off to the station and banged him up. Afterwards we found out that he had been a local leader under the GMD and when the Communist Party arrived, he changed sides and became head of the street committee.

Then a month or so later, we heard someone say that another street committee head was a counter-revolutionary and had been a senior official in the GMD, but I didn't arrest him. I'll tell you why – it really didn't matter then if you'd been an official, even a senior one, even after 1946, the crucial thing was whether you had aroused popular anger or you'd committed crimes. I was young and I didn't know how to investigate properly, but then I heard that he had, so I reported back to my chief and he sent someone to the man's home town to investigate. It turned out he had committed murder, and so he was arrested. So I personally got two arrested, the first for drug-dealing – I didn't know if there were any political problems as well – the second because he was a counter-revolutionary and had murdered someone.

XINRAN: And then?

JINGGUAN: In 1950 came the CCP Central Committee 10 October instructions on cracking down on counter-revolutionaries. In November, I was station sergeant at a small-town police station. One evening, I was suddenly told that all of us station sergeants had to attend a meeting at the PSB sub-bureau at 9 p.m. to discuss the leadership's new onslaught on counter-revolutionaries. At the door of the sub-bureau, they got hold of us and made us go in, then wouldn't let us out. Midnight passed and we saw that PLA soldiers from the Guards HQ were waiting at the entrance. Our chief told us: "Station sergeants, these platoons of thirty or forty soldiers are under your orders. Here are your lists with twenty-four counterrevolutionaries on each. Go and pick them up." I went back and shouted for my household registration constables: "Each man take a list and ten soldiers, and go and make the arrests." That night five or six hundred were arrested in Zhengzhou!

XINRAN: Do you still think now that they were counter-revolutionaries?

JINGGUAN: If you go by the policies in force then, maybe they were. But some people went so far "left" that they weren't sticking to the policies and they started to make bogus arrests, and the more the campaign went on, the fiercer it got, until even Liu Shaoqi, the State Chairman, and other old revolutionaries became "counter-revolutionary". How did that happen? Because the information against them was all false.

XINRAN: So is it possible that the information you had was false too?

JINGGUAN: It may well have been. Things were chaotic then, and it wasn't easy to tell true from false.

XINRAN: Who verified the information against the detainees?

JINGGUAN: We were only in charge of making the arrests, then the detainees were handed over to a higher level, and our local station had nothing more to do with them. When I was twenty-nine, and went to the interrogation section of the PSB, then I started to deal with offenders. It was in 1964, once I was working in the courts, that I realised how many miscarriages of justices there were in China. The Supreme Court issued a communiqué about anyone appealing: once they had been sentenced and the second appeal heard, then they couldn't appeal again. At that time, there were over a hundred appeals going through the regional courts. When I audited them, I found many miscarriages of justices. For example, there was a man called Han Guangxiang, and I remember this case very clearly. He was a demobilised soldier, allocated a job in a film factory. His boss said to him: "Comrade Han, you're needed in Supplies." "Yes, sir, whatever you say." And he went. People were under a lot of pressure in those days and one day he was going on a business trip and was sixty fen short. Factory funds were low so he made it up out of his own pocket and got the factory finance department to write him an IOU, for five yuan. When it got to the end of the year, they owed him a lot of IOUs, and the head of finance says: "How about if we write you one big IOU to cover the whole sum, Han? Is that OK?" "Fine!" says Han Guangxiang. And so they wrote him an IOU for 290 yuan. In February 1958, there was an investigation into bribery and corruption, and Han was accused of embezzling public funds. This was such nonsense. He had gone to the trouble of digging into his own pocket for the factory, and now he'd got fined for corruption – a hundred yuan a year for three years. When the three years was up, Han put in appeals everywhere he could. His wife divorced him and his daughter and her husband got divorced too. He ended up begging on the streets. In the depths of an icy winter, he took his lawsuit to Beijing, and begged on the streets there. No one paid any attention to him, but at the end of 1964, I became a court chief justice, and I looked into his case. I discovered it was all rubbish, so I cleared him of any wrongdoing. But he was nowhere to be found. His original work unit had been restructured, and no one had responsibility for him any more. In those days, people like him with "black backgrounds" could never be completely cleared. I still feel bad whenever I think of that man.

XINRAN: Why do you think these miscarriages of justice happened? Was it because the police weren't well enough trained? Or the calibre of the people handling the cases was poor? Or was the system at fault?

JINGGUAN: I think – this is not what the papers say, it's just the way I see it – it was the calibre of the Party Central Committee that was the problem. It was always said that, at the lower levels of government, we went too ferociously left, but the fact is it wasn't the lower ranks. Let's just take 1958: a production team leader who reported low yields to the brigade got punished. The same with the brigades reporting low yields to the commune. And the communes to the counties, the counties to the provincial government, and up to central government. So every level told lies. You could only play up the figures, you couldn't tell the truth. The truth was "rightist".

During the 1957 Anti-Rightist movement, I was working in the municipal PSB, and all the staff came from poor or lower-middle peasant backgrounds. They were all Party members, and the poorer they were, the more "red". The atmosphere was very tense, and if you wanted to say something, no matter what, if it wasn't in line with what your bosses said, then you were a rightist attacking the leaders and the Party. The Anti-Rightist movement meant that no one dared tell the truth.

In 1958, the Henan provincial party committee secretary was honest and conscientious, while the provincial leader was just a bigmouth, but central government favoured the provincial leader, and not only removed the secretary from his job but put the leader in his place, and then called on everyone in the province, including the peasants, to criticise him. Back then, it wasn't that people didn't think, it was that they had no education, they didn't know how to think things through. You know, at the 1959 Lushan Conference, Peng Dehuai spoke the truth, and they condemned him as a rightist.

In 1969, out of the approximately 1,200 people who worked in the Zhengzhou PSB, 110 in the courts, and 80 in the procuratorate*20 – a total of around 1,400 – 360 were detained as counter-revolutionaries! I was one of them. I was asked why I had done labouring jobs for the Japanese. They called me a traitor, and no one listened when I said it was just labouring work. Why did you work for the GMD River Affairs Bureau? No one believed me when I said I wiped tables and swept the floor for them. They just mindlessly arrested anyone, and said they were going to finish the task of "arresting class enemies", but then those making the arrests wanted to stop, because they could see that they were going to end up being arrested themselves! Investigators were sent down, and the result was that all 360 of us were cleared. Not a single one was a real counter-revolutionary, it was all trumped up. The leadership said that all the evidence should be burned immediately, and we should all be cleared, so we were.

That was how bad "arresting counter-revolutionaries" was back then.

XINRAN: What were your daily duties at the police station?

JINGGUAN: By day, the household registration officers went around checking, but in reality this was just a formality. The main thing they did was to find out how many people there were in each local family, who had relatives who visited regularly. But many of those from pre-Liberation days had worked for the GMD, and carried on trading things to stay alive. And there were probably GMD spies lurking around there too! After dark, we patrolled with guns. If bad people saw the PSB on patrol, they might stay clean. We patrolled in shifts all night, but we didn't catch many thieves.

XINRAN: Did you keep an eye on temporary residents?

JINGGUAN: Of course. The rules said they had to register at the police station, and they were ticked off if they didn't: "It's wrong not to register. Just do it next time." If they didn't register next time, they got a warning. And if they still didn't? Before March 1949, they got taken to a PSB sub-bureau and were kept in an underground cell overnight, had to sign a statement and then it was, off you go, and that was that.

XINRAN: What about after?

JINGGUAN: After March 1949, generally if they were caught, they just got a talking-to. From 1953, I was transferred to the public order committee in a PSB sub-bureau. There were two main parts of public order work: the transient population, and special businesses. Special businesses meant checking places like hotels – a lot of shady types hung around there. We also had to keep an eye on all kinds of shops, because counter-revolutionaries were in and out of shops all the time. We were in charge of monitoring "key elements" of the population as well, which meant those who had done bad things, or had been locked up. We could check and verify any cases which came within the remit of local police stations, but anything major had to be passed up to a higher level. I was in charge of the community police branch, the public order offences branch and the traffic branch. Traffic was the responsibility of the municipal PSB, but they were short-staffed and got people from the sub-bureaux to do the work. Zhengzhou municipality was quite small then, and there were only forty or fifty people in the traffic branch. So each sub-bureau was allocated responsibility for certain points. For instance, we got the railway station, and did three-hour shifts from morning to evening. The rest of the time the municipal PSB took charge. There were only four or five people in the traffic branch in each sub-bureau, not like now. There are over a thousand in the traffic police branch now.

XINRAN: How good were PSB cadres then? What about your bosses, for instance?

JINGGUAN: Cadres in those days? They weren't greedy and money-grubbing, everyone got allocated supplies, ordinary clothes and ordinary food. Not like nowadays. Ordinary cadres got twenty or thirty yuan a month, not enough to buy cigarettes, it would get you a pair of shoes at most, not good quality, just ordinary ones. Our PSB head, who was head of the organisational department of the provincial committee, and the deputy head of the PSB and the intermediate courts chief justice, whom I knew too, they worked in the evenings, and sometimes did an overnight shift at the PSB, and if they got up in the night for a pee, they'd check out this and that, like parents keeping an eye on their children, and pull the quilt covers over the young officers in the station dormitory. That was what leaders were like then. We took it for granted.

XINRAN: In your résumé, you said that in 1956, you became deputy head of the PSB. What were your wages then?

JINGGUAN: Seventy-four yuan.

XINRAN: In 1957, you were transferred to the municipal PSB Section 8. What were your main duties there?

JINGGUAN: Anyone arrested by Criminal Investigation, including suspects, was sent to Section 8. Section 8 was divided up into a number of subsections. The detention centre looked after the prisoners' food and drink, hygiene, even down to the toilet paper issued every day; it also looked after them if they got ill, and provided baths, haircuts and everything. Then there was preliminary examination, interrogation and investigation. After the detainees had arrived in prison, they were passed to a prison examiner whose job was, first, to look into the detainee's circumstances and, second, to clarify the family's circumstances. If it was a counterrevolutionary charge, they had to look at the detainee's friends too.

XINRAN: And were corporal punishment and torture part of this?

JINGGUAN: They were not permitted in the rules, but in fact to a certain degree the police did connive with prisoners punishing prisoners. Some of the prisoners really were lying, but the police were not allowed to beat them, so they would drop hints to the head prisoner: so-and-so's not telling the truth, give him a helping hand! At the beginning, we really would interrogate them in a civilised way but because prisoners would reckon it didn't matter what they said, the police would still say they were lying, they simply messed around. Sometimes, the police did extort confessions. One day, I was on duty, and I heard that a prisoner had broken a pile of bowls. That sounded strange, so I got him out and asked him: "How did those bowls get broken?" He said: "They fell off my head and broke." I said: "Why did you put them on your head?" He said nothing, so I told him I was in charge of the detention centre, and if he didn't say anything then he would be punished! So he said the police examining him had said he was lying and made him stand there with a pile of bowls on his head. His neck began to ache, he felt dizzy and the bowls fell on the floor. At this, the police got the senior prisoners to beat him up. It looked like he'd taken a heavy beating, and when they'd finished with him, they made him say he'd deliberately broken the bowls.

XINRAN: So in reality there was corporal punishment and forced confession.

JINGGUAN: Oh yes. The people running the section would rely on the chief prisoners or long-term prisoners to beat up the new ones. Another way was for four or five of the older men to form a group which tyrannised the detention centre, and mostly this mafia would be chosen by the prisoners themselves. We indicated who should be godfather, and who should be in for a bad time, and then we left it to them to choose. But these godfathers became prison bullies, and everyone knew that. When there was proof, they would be punished. But the prisoners were afraid of them and protected them.

XINRAN: But the cadres in charge needed this mafia, didn't they?

JINGGUAN: That's right. Without them, the prison would be even more unmanageable. I think it's the same in all prisons.

XINRAN: How did you feel when China began to move towards the extreme left?

JINGGUAN: The move to the left began in 1956, it was ridiculously "left", frighteningly so. There were newspaper reports every day, saying that the slogan for agriculture was 1,000 pounds of grain and 10,000 pounds of vegetables per mu of land, but in fact this was impossible. Yet if you told the truth, you became a "rightist", so you couldn't, and I didn't. The leaders made their speeches and no one wanted to be a rightist. Rightism was wrong, but wasn't leftism wrong too? There were people taking care of rightism, but no one was taking care of leftism. If you were honest and conscientious, then that equalled being a rightist.

In the counties on the outskirts of Zhengzhou, 1,000 pounds of grain per mu of land was quite impossible! And 10,000 pounds of vegetables was impossible too. But especially after the Anti-Rightist movement of 1957, that was the mood. The Henan Daily published the first explosive news report in 1958: the per mu yield for wheat in Henan was 7,320 pounds. By the time of the 1958 winter wheat harvest, the papers reported that the per mu yield was 200,000 pounds! In 1959, I was sent down to a village on the northern outskirts of Zhengzhou where they had an experimental field. When they reported the yield, they had to have the signature of the inspector. I was the inspector. They were getting 470 pounds per mu. I could see that the scales were accurate, but the production team leader wanted me to report 1,000 pounds per mu. I wouldn't. In the end, the commune reported that his per mu yield was 520 pounds. If you didn't make such reports, you weren't revolutionary! There was a woman production team leader who talked such a lot of rubbish. She was eighteen or nineteen and unmarried, and she challenged them to get 200,000 pounds per mu on the experimental field, or she wouldn't get married! The old men and women in the village laughed and said: "You're going to be left on the shelf then!"

XINRAN: Generally speaking, in the counties on the outskirts of Zhengzhou, what is the per mu yield now?

JINGGUAN: Six or seven hundred pounds is normal for a wheat field. Because seeds and fertiliser are better now than they were then, that's why it's increased. Back then a lot of nonsense was talked. There was a production team leader who said he wanted to haul the 300,000 pounds of sweet potatoes grown on one mu of land to Moscow to present to Stalin. That was just rubbish, quite impossible. But no one dared contradict him.

XINRAN: The prisoners you had at the end of the fifties, what kind of people were they? Were there more criminals or more political prisoners?

JINGGUAN: In 1958, most were counter-revolutionaries, too many for the detention centre to hold. We had to commandeer warehouses and storerooms for the prisoners, not like now when there aren't any counterrevolutionaries.

XINRAN: Do you remember what kind of prisoners you interrogated?

JINGGUAN: I didn't do much interrogation because I was section head. I attended meetings with my seniors, and I managed those under me. When other officers had finished the interrogations, they reported to you, you checked everything, signed it off and passed the report up. It should have been the PSB chief who put his signature and seal on the reports, but he was busy with meetings, so he delegated it to his deputy, and when he got too busy, it got delegated to the section head, who signed it. Then it received the seal of the municipal PSB, who referred it to the procuratorate, who examined it, and referred it to the courts, who passed sentence. In fact, referring it to the judiciary was a formality; the real power was with the PSB and, in the PSB, with the policemen who did the work. The courts only knew how to deal with the big cases, like murder, arson and hold-ups. Everyone was so poor then that there was nothing to steal. Most of the work was arresting vagrants, and illegal squatting by the transient population.

Before 1980, the police had to go and interrogate a man and a woman if they'd been sitting together. And sleeping together before marriage put you in prison. If you could get someone to vouch for you, you wouldn't get a big punishment and they'd let you go. But if it was homicide, you'd get decent food, but no one would dare let you out. Not like now – if you've got support from someone senior, they get you to write a false confession, change your file and before it's sent to the procuratorate, the killing's been changed into "self-defence". So daring of them!

XINRAN: You have said a number of times that the police were poorly educated. To your knowledge, how many of the police in those days really had any legal or professional training?

JINGGUAN: None of them, not one! In the municipal PSB, only one or two of the section heads had finished lower middle school, most had just done primary. The PSB had a regulation, by the way, that the police had to have good political backgrounds, so many of them were from poor families, poor workers and the lowest peasants.

XINRAN: So their professional skills were very limited. Was their outlook as individuals influenced by their class background?

JINGGUAN: In those days, the political ethos, right from central government to the regions, was that in the countryside you relied on the peasants, and in the cities you relied on the working class. It could be summed up simply: rely on the poor. Particularly in the law enforcement agencies, people with learning or from a high-class background were not permitted.

XINRAN: Were there a lot of people with learning or from a high-class background in prison?

JINGGUAN: Yes, especially among the counter-revolutionary prisoners.

XINRAN: So how were cases investigated and decided if law enforcement officers were so uneducated?

JINGGUAN: Our leaders divided it up into several different stages, didn't they?

The first stage was the 1950 consolidation period, when the focus was on bandits, tyrants, key GMD counter-revolutionaries and Chiang Kaishek's spy network.

The second stage was 1956, defined as the "army, officials, police and the law" stage. In the GMD Army there was no criminal activity: most of the senior officers hadn't committed any crime.

Here's an example of a serious crime: someone came to Anyang to arrest a suspect on the run from his village. The suspect had killed the chairman of the village council, disembowelled him, dug his heart out and eaten it. Then he had killed the Women's Federation leader, then a dozen other people, and then he had fled. The person from Anyang contacted our local police station and our household registration officers went to the home of a relative of the suspect and were told that he was at the Dongguan Airport construction site. Anyang county PSB rushed off there, but another family member had tipped the suspect off and he'd gone again. But a dozen of us surrounded the relative's house and hid out for a few days, and eventually caught him.

XINRAN: What do you think was the most "leftist" period in China?

JINGGUAN: Most "leftist"? That was the Cultural Revolution!

XINRAN: Where were you during the Cultural Revolution?

JINGGUAN: I was Chief Justice at the Central Plains Regional Courts. There were just eight of us, and I was the only one who was "struggled against".

XINRAN: How long did that go on for?

JINGGUAN: Altogether, two months and twenty-nine days. Twice I had to stand up for more than four hours. I had no enemies – whenever people saw me they just said, "Take a bit of a rest," and no one was really brutal to me. The Cultural Revolution was a complete nonsense.

XINRAN: Why do you say that?

JINGGUAN: Haven't you heard? Liu Shaoqi's Party file describes how he was arrested in Shenyang in 1931. You didn't know, I didn't know, only Mao Zedong and Lin Biao's Special Cases Group saw the file and sent investigators to Shenyang. They swore they would prove he was a traitor.*21 There was a Mr Yang in the Shenyang GMD branch which had arrested Liu Shaoqi and after Liberation this man was given a commuted death sentence. He was in a Reform through Labour camp, and the Special Cases Group went and asked him about the Liu Shaoqi business. He couldn't remember it at first, but after a week he said they had arrested a Liu Weihuang for selling salt without a permit but there was no case to answer and they let him go. He didn't know if that was Liu Shaoqi. Liu's file recorded that name, it was one his grandfather had given him. The Special Cases Group person said to him: "How come you haven't confessed that you only released him after he had turned traitor. Liu Shaoqi's admitted it, so why are you still shielding him? I can see you don't want to go on living. If you carry on lying, tomorrow we'll take you out and shoot you." Yang cried all night, and thought to himself: I'm not happy about lying, but if they shoot me, I'll be dead. That was the first idea that occurred to him, and so he made his "confession" accordingly, and he was released. But then he reconsidered: It doesn't matter if they shoot me, but I can't frame the State Chairman! So he withdrew his statement and wrote numerous documents telling the truth, but no one dared take any notice of it.

XINRAN: I suppose you know that China's first State Chairman died in custody in Henan?

JINGGUAN: I didn't know it then.

XINRAN: When did you find out?

JINGGUAN: In 1979. A plane came from Beijing to pick up his ashes because the government was organising a memorial service for him. Before that, the Special Cases Group people came to Henan and looked everywhere for them but couldn't find them. Finally, they were found in Kaifeng – they got hold of a Mr Niu who used to be in charge of the crematorium. He said, oh yes, definitely, they had the ashes of a Liu Weihuang. He had had the feeling this man had been a top cadre, but no old army comrades or family had turned up for the cremation. The army had sent the body for cremation, but no one came to pick up the ashes. It was only ten years later that they found out that this was Liu Shaoqi.

XINRAN: So you also didn't hear about Liu's sad end in Henan?

JINGGUAN: At that time, all we heard was that Liu Shaoqi had been using the war to make a name for himself. Plus a lot of old cadres were transferred away from Beijing in disgrace. Liu Shaoqi became a "class enemy". He fell ill and they refused him medical treatment. He was in very low spirits. It was cold in Henan and there was no heating. I heard that the Special Cases Group were very cruel to him.

XINRAN: When he died, was it from illness, or starvation, or ill-treatment, do you know?

JINGGUAN: I reckon it must have been illness, because he was seventy-one then, and if he didn't die from illness then it must have been from the ill-treatment and humiliation.

XINRAN: You didn't know the details even in the PSB?

JINGGUAN: Right from the start, we were told he had died of illness.

XINRAN: Were there rumours going around within your organisation?

JINGGUAN: Yes there were, but we didn't believe them. Things like Tao Zhu*22 dying in Anhui on 22 November 1969, and we were also told that General Xu Haidong†3 had died from an illness. I saw a film which was among some classified material of the struggle sessions against Liu Shaoqi and his wife, Wang Guang-mei, in Zhongnanhai in 1968. They were dragged into the assembly room, by strapping great toughs, and they were beating him up, forcing him into the "flying aeroplane" position, grabbing him by his wisps of white hair and forcing his head up to face the camera. Then the pair of them were taken to a corner of the room, had their heads forced down and were made to kowtow to a couple of cartoons of Red Guards. Finally, Liu Shaoqi hobbled away, his face badly battered. He had obviously taken quite a beating.

XINRAN: I heard a story about Liu Shaoqi's last days, from someone who had worked in 301 Military Hospital in Henan. Liu Shaoqi had diabetes, and had a feeding tube in his nose. Before he was sent to Henan in October 1969, his nurse wanted to warn Liu Shaoqi, so she dipped a cotton bud in gentian violet and wrote in big characters on a piece of newspaper: "The Central Committee has decided to transfer you to somewhere else."

When he was being transferred, he was dirty and smelly, because he couldn't look after himself any more. The nurses gingerly stripped off his clothes, and wrapped him in a pink satin quilt which they covered with a white sheet. About seven in the evening, under the supervision of the Special Cases Group, and accompanied by the nurses and Liu's bodyguard, Liu Shaoqi was put on a stretcher, placed in the rear cabin of the plane and flown to Kaifeng.

Apparently, martial law was suddenly imposed on Kaifeng Airport and the staff had no idea what was happening. Everyone was very tense. A military aircraft touched down on the runway, and two nurses in white uniforms carried a stretcher out. The person on the stretcher was stick-thin, and all that showed was a bony face buried in an unkempt mass of hair and beard. A blanket covered the white-sheeted figure, and the stench coming from under it was enough to make you retch . . .

Liu Shaoqi's naked body was too frail to withstand the freezing conditions on the flight and he caught acute pneumonia when he arrived in Kaifeng. Soon afterwards, on 13 November, his bodyguard came to his bedside in the underground cell in the early morning and found he'd stopped breathing.

At dead of night on 14 November 1969, Liu's remains, tightly bound in cotton cloth, were loaded into a Model 69 jeep. The back of the jeep was too short, and Liu Shaoqi's feet were visible, sticking out at the back.

On the cremation certificate was written: "Names: LIU Weihuang; Profession: none; Cause of death: illness." It was signed by Liu's son, Liu Yuan. His ashes remained in the crematorium for ten years without anyone knowing.

JINGGUAN: So the State Chairman, so proclaimed in black and white in the 4 January 1965 People's Daily, became a "jobless vagrant" without ordinary people being told anything about it! When eventually his widow, Wang Guangmei, and children received his ashes in Number 1 Conference Room of the Henan Province People's Congress Hall in Zhengzhou, the staff on duty said that the grief-stricken woman clutched the bag of ashes and buried her face in them for a long time – it was enough to make the onlookers weep!*23

XINRAN: Your information mostly came from files kept by the law enforcement agencies, is that right? Was this information kept afterwards?

JINGGUAN: No, it was a real mess. First of all, the people in charge of it were uneducated, and they had the files stacked up like so many discarded bits of equipment. Those with any education looked after crime data, and they never had enough time, so how could we send them off to be archivists? Document storage was given to people who couldn't do anything else. Secondly, when officials left, retired or whatever, they cleared out all the files. Those who were well meaning but ignorant did it to clear things out for the next person in the post; those with something to hide simply burned stuff, to avoid leaving the proof in other people's hands. Besides, so many of the political movements relied on old information to punish people. Who dared to leave anything written down? Who knew if the next official might be a relative of someone you'd arrested? Anything written down was proof, and so many people had lost their lives because of characters on paper that we were all afraid. So anything that could be destroyed was destroyed, and the only things that were left were broad statements of principle and other documents that had nothing to do with one's own work. That's why, if people wanted to redress miscarriages of justice, they couldn't find the original material. If you were a good man, you had to go and prove you didn't kill someone, that's all there was to it.


The lack of original material is a disaster for modern Chinese historical records. As Mr Jingguan put it, it is not only a clearing-out when there is a regime change, it is also a by-product of the fear of taking responsibility because no one wants to assume lifelong responsibility for everything they did while in office. In the Chinese system of government and administration there is no such legal concept as "official actions entail lifelong responsibility". As a result, no matter how corrupt you are as an official, so long as you're not caught while in office, after leaving it you can rest easy and enjoy the privileges you have won for yourself.


XINRAN: After the Cultural Revolution, you were transferred to be manager of the Sanguanmiao office. Why were you sent there?

JINGGUAN: I'd done forty years of law enforcement work, and I felt very low and didn't want to do it any more. The more I did, the worse I felt and the more fearful too. Well, that's life. At the beginning of the year, I didn't want to go on, and the next month I went out into the streets and saw a new lot of big character posters. It was the anti-crime and anti-reactionaries campaign. Most of my cadre colleagues had been sent to work in communes, and the constables had been sent to work in factories. That left just ten cadres and ten constables. I thought of the cases I was handling and [holding up the thumb of his right hand] I was this one, and the other nine were no good, and I thought if I don't go back to work, there'll be even more miscarriages of justice in this district, so I went back and dealt with 174 cases that year. I relied on facts and proof. Basically I stopped at that point; the sentence was determined by my seniors in uniform, I didn't have anything to do with that.

I left the PSB after more than forty years. If I'd gone on any longer, my life would have been a few years shorter. Why? Because the work was too hard. I left the courts after more than twenty years, and if I'd stayed there longer, my life would also have been a few years shorter. Why? Because there were too many cock-ups, and these cases all involved human lives and required the greatest care.

When I gave in my notice, I was disciplined for it. You want to leave? Then you'll be demoted! I said, OK, that's fine by me. I'll leave this place that gives me sleepless nights, and have a bit of a rest, why shouldn't I?

XINRAN: Why did forty-odd years of law enforcement work give you so much pain?

JINGGUAN: No one believes you. There's a stream of political movements that punish people in law enforcement first. Every day you want to arrest bad people but you're worried about being arrested as a bad person yourself. You don't know what political wind will blow tomorrow. Tell me where else it's like this to be a policeman. People like you don't know, all you see is either the police swaggering around or the bad people we've caught, but the police in China don't have an easy life!

XINRAN: Do you think China has a healthy legal system?

JINGGUAN: What legal system? The law hardly exists. The law is the expression on your chief 's face. The law is what your bosses say. Even in 1958, at the first Chinese conference on law and politics, the head of the PSB, a man called Luo Ruiqing, said on behalf of the Central Committee that Chairman Mao had said from then on there would be no amending the law or the constitution, the law was what the Party Central Committee maintained and what the People's Daily wrote. That was what he said.

I'm an old man now, and as far as crime is concerned, I say what I know, and what I've told you is the truth about all those people's lives.

XINRAN: Do you have regrets about the life you've led?

JINGGUAN: . . . [He looks up at the ceiling, the corners of his mouth working in a great effort, exhaling a long breath through his nostrils. His body language clearly expresses the pain in his heart.] None at all! Wouldn't regret mean I'd done something wrong? I haven't done anything wrong. I couldn't determine the time when I was going to come into this world.

XINRAN: If you were born again, would you work in law enforcement in China?

JINGGUAN: Never! In every dynasty, working in law enforcement in China has always been like living in the eye of the storm, and that's hard. And it doesn't matter which dynasty, see? Everyone knows in China that when the dynasty changes, all the ministers change too. What does that mean? Well, where do the ministers from the previous regime go? If they're not demoted, they retire or they're killed! Who kills them? The emperor! "The emperor kills wrongdoers, but the ministers get the blame."

XINRAN: There's been a big increase in students studying law and law enforcement at university level, sir. So is law enforcement in a better position than it was before the reforms of the 1980s?

JINGGUAN: There's more awareness of the law and regulations than there used to be, but now that people know more, there are new problems. Central government makes policy, but the grass roots carries it out. Every time the policy is improved, it comes up against an ignorant, reckless response at the grass roots, and that's the end of it. The law is enforced by people. Take, for example, people who used to run the courts, basically us senior cadres. In 1982, at the 12th Congress of the CCP, Deng Xiaoping instigated the policy of appointing younger cadres. This policy began to work its way through the layers of government: generally speaking, the age of departmental heads in central government was not to exceed sixty-five, for deputy heads it was sixty, and central government committee members should not in principle be older than seventy. By the first half of 1983, the policy had reached provincial governments, and by the end of that year, municipal governments. By 1984, the policy had reached the regions, and affected cadres of fifty and over, and without diplomas. Most of them were demoted. Back then, most didn't have diplomas, as they hadn't completed lower or upper middle school, let alone university. Also, they had no specialist training. Court officers nowadays are basically all university graduates, starting from the 5,000 constables recruited by the PSB, all with university diplomas – and 40,000 applied, all with these diplomas, but even a university diploma doesn't necessarily get you the job – people don't exist in a vacuum, though, they come in all shapes and sizes, so how does it work? Today's courts may look on the surface as if they're run according to the law, but actually it's according to who's got power, and even more, according to who's got money. Young cadres today are pretty daring, one of them stashed away up to 200,000 yuan in bribes in a year or so, and was sentenced to eighteen years.

XINRAN: Do you think there's any hope for the law enforcement agencies in this province?

JINGGUAN: There are still problems in public security, and the calibre of the officers is very uneven. Court officers at all levels are university graduates, so they should be higher calibre.

XINRAN: So there should be some hope, then.

JINGGUAN: That depends on what you mean! At the Spring Festival 2007, I saw a film on TV about the last Qing dynasty emperor. From the first emperor, Nurhaci, to the last, Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, there were constant violent revolts. Now China's changed too rapidly, it's too extreme.

XINRAN: You've experienced life both before and after Liberation, you were in Zhengzhou's first cohort of police officers, and you've seen how public security in China has changed. What has made you happy or sad in all those years in public security? Can you tell me three of the happiest and saddest things?

JINGGUAN: The saddest? I've cried three times in my life, and shed a tear or two another three times. The first time I cried was in November 1942. It was so many days until the Spring Festival, and there was not a grain to eat. The family had split up and there was no one to look after us. We had nothing to eat or drink and I was young, and I cried. The second time I cried was when my father died before the New Year, at only thirty-eight. We had no adult male in my family, and I cried for the whole night! Another time was when the Japanese reached Zhengzhou in 1944, and we had nothing to eat for days. Then I went to be a coolie for the Japanese, and worked from first light until dark. Those Japanese were bad people and I'm a good person, but I had no money to keep us alive, all I could do was work for the Japanese. When I thought about this, I cried, I really cried . . . then when my mother died, I didn't cry so hard.

I shed a tear or two, you can't call it crying, just a tear or two, in 1952, when I had been a sergeant for three years, and the Three Antis and the Five Antis campaigns had begun. I was investigated. They said: "Your employees are corrupt, you must be corrupt too. You're not honest and conscientious." It was awful. I didn't cry, just shed a tear or two.

Another time was when the Cultural Revolution created chaos in the PSB and the courts in 1969. I couldn't see, I just couldn't see why they were getting at three of us. One of us was an old cadre who had fought against the Japanese, he was the head of the Zhengzhou PSB, he had worked as a grade-one secretary in the Soviet Union, and had carried on writing letters to people he knew there after his return. So they made him out to be a Soviet spy. The second was the chief procurator, he'd been a cadre since 1938, and in 1942 was on the run from the Japanese when he arrived in a village. He thought he was going to die, so what was he to do? He found the head of the puppet village administration, held a gun at his head and said: "If you save my life, then you save your whole family. If you don't save me, then I'll kill them all right now." The village head saved him. But the Red Guards said: "Why did you go for the puppet village head? Why not go to the peasants and Communist poor?" The third one was me. I'd worked in the police or the courts from 1948 right up until then, and hadn't done anything wrong, but hunger had forced me to be a coolie for the Japanese, and that made me a traitor. I shed a tear or two about that, but I didn't cry.

XINRAN: How many good memories do you have?

JINGGUAN: Lots of ordinary things, but not many particularly special ones.

XINRAN: How did you get to know your wife?

JINGGUAN: The first time the person who introduced us brought her to my police station, I just asked about her family background. Class background was very important then. Then we got to know each other. Sometimes she came to the police station, and if I had time, I came out to see her.

XINRAN: How did you propose to her? Do you remember?

JINGGUAN: Ha! I didn't really propose! It was understood. If someone introduced a couple, then that was what it was about, wasn't it? It wasn't like the fun and games you see on TV and in films.

XINRAN: So did you have a wedding?

JINGGUAN: Good heavens, what's the point in talking about that?

XINRAN: Oh, please. Young people today never hear about it. Teach them something about traditional customs.

JINGGUAN: There was a troupe of waist-drummers in our sector, and the police station got them in and fixed a time and a place with them. That day, I took five yuan, and got, maybe, two yuan's worth of sweets, two of melon seeds and one of cigarettes, and that was all my five yuan spent! That was a lot of money in those days. In general, a junior police officer only got eight to ten yuan per month. Everyone came and got everything ready, and then the drums rolled, bong bong bong. Back then the young men used to have a bit of fun – you had to bow to the woman, because of equality between the sexes and all that – so I made my bow, and after that, the drummers on either side beat their drums, bong bong bong. Then one of the chiefs just said: "Right, everyone eat the sweets and have a smoke and chat." It was all over in about an hour. Accommodation was tight at the police station in those days, and we had nowhere to live, so we went off for a walk for a couple of hours and then went back to my mother's house in Nandajie Street. You got three days off when you got married, but they were short-staffed and the next morning I went back to work in the police station.

XINRAN: After you got married, did you and your wife have any major fights?

JINGGUAN: Not really. We had a few minor set-tos, but not in the first ten years of marriage, we didn't have any fights.

XINRAN: What kind of person was your wife?

JINGGUAN: There were three things about her. One was that she was a good woman, and a tough one. The second thing was that she worked incredibly hard – in the factory and at home. When she got out of work, she cooked our food and sewed our clothes, and never took a minute's rest. The third thing was that she was sure of herself. It was best to do what she said – she had a bit of a temper, and she meant what she said. But she was usually right anyway.

XINRAN: When did her health problems start?

JINGGUAN: On National Day in 1975, she was in the Workers' Propaganda Team of the Zhengzhou Number 15 Middle School, and went to hospital. When they took her blood pressure, it was very high, 190 over 110, and the doctor told her to take sick leave. After six months, she gave up work and got sick pay, and in 1977, she formally retired from her job. She was only forty-three, and had to retire. It was the Cultural Revolution and our eldest girl was working in the countryside. The rules were that they could only come back to work in the city if they were needed to take a parent's place, and only for that reason. My wife was retired, so she spent her time looking after me. In 1986, she was cooking the dinner when she dropped the food. She went to hospital for a check-up and they discovered she had a minor blood clot on the brain. In 1991, she tripped and fell over in the house. When she came to, she couldn't stand – she would fall again if she tried to stand on her own. They took her to hospital, but then later she became doubly incontinent, and couldn't even sit. On 23 June 2004, after she had gone into a coma, the hospital confirmed their diagnosis that she had become a vegetable.

XINRAN: Do you live like this every day?

JINGGUAN: To start with we hired a nurse. The nurse slept on a cot in here, I slept in there and my wife slept on the outside of the double bed. If I woke up in the night and I felt her and she had wet herself, then I turned on the light and called the nurse to come and change her nappies. It's uncomfortable for her being wet down there, and we can't afford stuff like proper incontinence pads. Every day there's a huge line of washing hanging up to dry like the flag pennants on a paddle steamer that you see on TV.

XINRAN: Have you talked to your children about your life and how you feel about it?

JINGGUAN: To my children? I'd be afraid of them blabbing to the grandchildren. And they wouldn't believe that things like that had really happened to me.

XINRAN: You don't think they would understand what hardships you went through as a child?

JINGGUAN: To hell with "understanding"! They'd say, what's the point of talking about stuff like that? Can I go back to the old society? Can I relive starving to death? If I told them their grandfather died of hunger, they'd ask why he didn't eat bread. Eat bread? If he'd had a bit of corn cake, he wouldn't have starved. All they learn about nowadays is how to make money, they don't know how poor people get by. What's the use of someone who's studied if they haven't got skills? It's just the same as my grandfather and father – a bellyful of learning and they starved to death!

XINRAN: So do you think young people should study, or should learn a skill?

JINGGUAN: Studying is the foundation. All things being equal, if you haven't got an education, then you'll lose out. See how city folk are always complaining: "It's terrible, this job's too hard, that job's too hard." Zhengzhou has a migrant population of 600,000. They live in shacks, and survive on dry steamed bread and pickled vegetables, but not one of them has starved to death. Migrant workers are prepared to do dirty, hard and tiring work that city folk won't necessarily do. When it comes to the end of the year, city folk get into fights about money, but people from the countryside go back home for the holiday with their pockets bulging with money.

XINRAN: Have you talked to your children and grandchildren about your views, and does it do any good?

JINGGUAN: Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. I've got a granddaughter of twenty-three; she graduated from the Arts Institute in Chengdu last year and came home, and after a year she's still looking for work. A good job is hard to find, and she doesn't want to do one which is a bit worse. Every day she frets that no one realises how talented she is. But this world isn't made just for you. You need to go and work at something, and then look out for opportunities to do something better.

XINRAN: And have you said that to her?

JINGGUAN [looking at me as if I'm a bit strange]: Me, talk to her? She would just tell me I was completely wrong! All they study nowadays is moonshine.

XINRAN: What do they think your life has been like? [He gives a look as if to say: There's no point in asking that.] Do they know what your job is about?

JINGGUAN: They think the uniform is impressive, but they don't think we're as intelligent or know as much they do.

XINRAN: Do they think you have that "blind loyalty" of the old society, or that you're ignorant?

JINGGUAN: That's just what they think but they don't dare say it to my face. Luckily I'm still the grandfather! But they still complain about me being demoted. My youngest grandson said: "Grandad, there aren't many cadres as senior as you in Zhengzhou, why aren't you living in one of those hundred-square-metre, two-storey houses built for cadres like you?" And my old friends say: "You should count as a big cadre. How come you're still living in that dark hole of a room? How do you feel knowing there are people who haven't as many years' service as you and aren't as senior who live in apartment blocks and detached houses? Isn't that corrupt?" I say I don't feel bad, I'm not nearly as good as Eighth Route Army veterans. During the Red Army's Long March, during the fight against the Japanese, living off corn cakes, they went up to the front line in the middle of the night, and they never knew who would live and who would die. Tough times for me meant kipping down on the floor at three in the morning, but I did get three meals a day, and at least I could eat my fill. Those veterans never got enough to eat.

XINRAN: If you had enough time left, and energy and money, what would you most like to do?

JINGGUAN: Have a nice meal with my wife. After all, she might wake up at any time, no one can tell for sure. I don't want not to be at her side the day she wakes up, or she'd never stop telling me off. I've said to my two daughters, I can look after myself now, I can make my own breakfast when I get up. If you make the midday meal that's fine, but if you don't, that's fine too, I can make my own dinner, I can do simple things for myself, and it's good that I can.

XINRAN: What would you wish for your children?

JINGGUAN: They're grown up. The youngest is nearly fifty, so there's nothing more in prospect for them. They haven't benefited from me being a policeman. I've always been upright, and I have a clear conscience, but they've suffered for that. If I'd followed the crowd and used my power and influence, they wouldn't still be factory workers. Sometimes when I think about that, I feel bad . . .

Well, I must go and feed my wife, she has to have her meals on time, otherwise she might get stomach problems.


While Mr Jingguan and his youngest daughter prepared his wife's "tube food", I interviewed their elder daughter.

XINRAN: What is the strongest impression you have of your mother?

ELDER DAUGHTER: That she could not be disobeyed. There was always so much to do in the house, and she did an eight-hour shift in the factory too, and got us to school. It seemed like Mum never slept, she was always out buying food, cooking, washing, making clothes. She did the night shift, then in the morning came home and cooked and did the housework. She just slept a bit after lunch when she was doing that shift. Just an hour or two, and she'd get up and get busy looking after us and the house. Then every evening, she'd be off to work. It was really tough.

XINRAN: If your mum could hear, what would you like to say to her?

ELDER DAUGHTER: What I want to say is: "Thank you, Mum, for working so hard for us all those years. When you should have been able to put your feet up and enjoy life, you weren't able to. Your children are grown up now, but you've had no opportunity to enjoy life . . ."


At this, she started sobbing. Her younger sister came into the room for something, and seeing her tears, gave the things to her and indicated that she should go and help her father with feeding her mother. Then she turned to me.


YOUNGER DAUGHTER: "I'll answer your questions, shall I? We all have to share the burden, otherwise we wouldn't be able to bear what's happened to our mum.

XINRAN: Thank you for your understanding and your courage. Tell me, where do you work?

YOUNGER DAUGHTER: I had a job in Zhengzhou Recycling, but I was laid off. I'm at home all day, and I come here to look after my mother. I was laid off twelve years ago, and I haven't worked in all that time.

XINRAN: Do you know about your father's and grandparents' early lives?

YOUNGER DAUGHTER: I don't have any memories of my grandparents. I was only three years old when my grandmother died.

XINRAN: Do you know about the sad times in your father's youth?

YOUNGER DAUGHTER: They were so poor then. I've heard my father talk about how the family was very poor and it was all down to him to support them, because my grandfather died young.

XINRAN: Do you sometimes wish you knew more about your grandparents?

YOUNGER DAUGHTER: I don't really know, I've never thought about it.

XINRAN: How old is your child?


XINRAN: Do you think your child understands what your father's life has been like?

YOUNGER DAUGHTER: They don't understand anything. Our generation are better than they are. They just spend their time knocking back good food and drink, and they don't have a care in the world.

XINRAN: Do you think your father's life has been worthwhile?

YOUNGER DAUGHTER: I haven't thought about it. Sometimes it's unbearable.

XINRAN: What do you mean by "unbearable"?

YOUNGER DAUGHTER: . . . I can't explain it . . . Dad looks on the bright side – he always says it's much better now than in the old society, what did we get to eat back then? There's plenty to eat and drink now, so we should count ourselves lucky!

XINRAN: Do you agree with him?

YOUNGER DAUGHTER: My generation has been unlucky too, but our lives are much better than my mum and dad's were.

XINRAN: Why has your generation been unfortunate?

YOUNGER DAUGHTER: We were born during the Great Leap Forward, 1958 to 1962, the years of natural disasters and there was nothing to eat. When we went to school, it was the Cultural Revolution and education stopped. We had to work and we were sent off to the countryside. When we married and had children, they came up with the "single child" policy. My child had just started school, and we lost our jobs, across the board, everyone without a diploma or qualifications was laid off. Now we're old, and there's been a reform of pensions and medical insurance, and we don't qualify. It seems as if the whole of government policy is against our generation.

XINRAN: I'm from the generation that "got on the wrong bus" too, so I know about the misfortunes you've mentioned and understand your feelings, but I think we still have some of that "relative happiness" that your father talked about, don't you? At least we haven't come up against war and starvation.

YOUNGER DAUGHTER: That's why we've never blamed my father, even though he's been so just and honourable in his work that we never got any of the advantages in life and work that the children of most senior cadres do. We also sympathise with him. He's old and my mother's become a vegetable, and he's afraid to leave the flat because he thinks she might wake up at any time, and would be angry if he wasn't there. So he never goes out. The most he'll do is sit in the doorway sometimes. And he hasn't even got anyone to talk to!

XINRAN: All these years, he's never been out?

YOUNGER DAUGHTER: Never. He's very good to my mum. He says he didn't look after us as children, or take any interest in the housework, she handled everything. She never wanted him bothered by all that, and it wasn't easy bringing us up. Mum never got to enjoy life for a single day, she just became a vegetable. My father feels terribly sorry about that.


The flat was so cramped that, with the cameras we'd set up, there was only enough room for the person who was looking after the patient, the person who was being interviewed and me. Everyone else had to wait outside. So when I had finished interviewing Mr Jingguan's younger daughter, I went out to look for him, to say thank you and goodbye.

I went down the stairs, which were so dimly lit you could see nothing at all, and as I emerged into the brightness outside, I saw the old man seated on a rickety old chair, reading a newspaper in the sunlight. With the darkness behind him and the bright light in front, he appeared perfectly posed, a glowing figure in a monochrome tableau. Here was the retired policeman, an old man no longer valued by Chinese society today, but a witness to history who would surely be remembered and revered by China in the future.

The policewoman who had acted as go-between and set up our meeting was clearly also moved by the openness and courage of the old officer. She had said she would do everything in her power to help us in our survey of the real China of today, to help the future understand the uncertainties of today and the price paid in the past. In fact, without her help, how would I ever have found this outstanding PSB officer, since he had already been consigned to limbo?

As we said farewell to Henan, the policewoman presented me with her personal case notebook and the newspaper clippings she had put together for our survey, as a memento. I only realised after reading them that she had made me another gift too. There was a sheet of paper tucked into the back of her notebook:

Ten very sad stories: From this mountain, I cannot see our present era clearly.*24

1. I want to go home, I want my wages!

This was the last thing Yue Fuguo, a worker, said before he died. After these words, he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and lost consciousness. Thirty-six hours later, the hospital reported that he had died. Yue Fuguo had still not received the wages that were due to him. The grief-stricken widow, Yao Yufang, asked indignantly: "How could they not pay him?" (Reported in Chengdu Commercial News)

People say: When his parents named him "wealthy nation" [fu-guo], little did they imagine that he would not succeed in making even himself wealthy.

2. I will never abandon my dream of going to Beijing University.

Because her university entrance exam results had not given her the number of points required to get into university, Xiao Qian (not her real name), a seventeen-year-old from Shaanxi, threw herself from the balcony of her fifth-floor home. A week later she died, and after her death, reporters found a note in her room which read: I will never abandon my dream of going to Beijing University. Her leap, however, put paid forever to her dream. (Reported by Xinhuanet)

People ask: Are you happy, children of China?

3. What are you actually doing?

It was the small hours of 18 May 2004, and Chang Xia was still asleep, when five police officers and an informer erected a ladder and broke in through the window of her flat. A stunned Chang Xia plucked up the courage to ask them who they were. "They" wanted Chang Xia to "hand over that man who did it with you". Eventually they discovered that, apart from the uninvited guests – themselves – there was no one else there, whereupon they said, somewhat sheepishly, that they "might have got the wrong person". Still thunderstruck, Chang Xia asked again: "Who are you, and what are you actually doing?" but "they" simply swaggered out. Looking through the window, Chang Xia saw their car number plate. The fright they had given her unbalanced her mind. She mutters over and over to herself: "The car number plate, I remember it, those people, the middle of the night, they climbed in through the window, they were looking for someone, they searched my flat . . ." (Reported in Shenyang Today)

People ask: West of the Taishan Mountains, there's a saying which goes: "Wind and rain may get in, but the King of China cannot get into my house." But now there's no one to ensure people's privacy.

4. He went to the Great Wall but was drowned by the waters.

The "he" here refers to Zheng Jinshou, a young labourer from Fujian province working in Beijing. He and his girlfriend Xu Zhenjie were interrogated by the Civil Defence while meeting in the park, and were beaten up for not having their documents with them and for refusing to pay a fine for not having them. Zheng Jinshou staggered blindly off in panic and, as he was injured, ended up falling into the river and drowning. After his death, his girlfriend said: "He used to quote the saying that 'to be a real man you have to get to the Great Wall', but he went there and the waters took his life." His elder brother, Zheng Jinzi, said: "My brother was a strong swimmer, he was an athlete at school. If he hadn't been beaten almost unconscious, he definitely wouldn't have drowned." (Reported by Digital Media)

People say: To misquote Confucius: to think that the Civil Defence may take more lives than venomous snakes do!

5. I wanted that child.

When being interviewed, Ma Weihua said quietly: "I wanted that child." Ma Weihua had been arrested as a drug dealer. She was pregnant at the time and, according to the law, the death sentence could not be carried out on a pregnant woman so, without her permission, the police authorities anaesthetised her and carried out an abortion. Afterwards the police spokesman said that they suspected that Ma Weihua had become pregnant deliberately, in order to avoid the death sentence. (Reported by South Weekend Review)

People say: No comment.

6. You go to school now, Mum's got to be off . . .

When Huihui was born a girl, her father abandoned the family. For seven years, her mother endured all kinds of hardships to bring up her daughter. However, she was not a very capable worker, and life was indescribably hard. For seven years, she had not had any new clothes, for seven years, she had lived off pickled vegetables. If she did happen to buy a fish, she gave it to her daughter to eat. Even so, on Huihui's birthday every year, her mother would always buy her a birthday cake. But this year, Huihui's mother just couldn't get together the 100 yuan, so when Huihui had gone to school, her mother hanged herself. (Reported by Anhui Market News)

People say: A harmonious society, huh!

7. If you didn't force me, would I volunteer to go out and sweep snow in the streets?

Sun Fengmei is a blind girl. After a snowfall, the local area committee asked Sun Fengmei to "volunteer for snow-sweeping" under threat of removing her minimum living standard benefit from her. When news of this got out, they changed their tune and said that even if she didn't, they still couldn't take away her benefit. At the same time, they absolutely deny that they ever said she had to sweep snow or they would remove her benefit. But Sun Fengmei asks: "If you didn't force me, would I volunteer to go out and sweep snow in the streets?" (Reported by Shengyang Daily)

People say: It seems as if "volunteering" is often used as the opposite to its real meaning.

8. I'm wearing my best clothes.

Putting on his convict's uniform, Ma Jiajue said: "I'm wearing the best clothes I've ever had." Police officers who heard him say this could not help shedding a tear. Ma Jiajue was a murderer, but the law could not take into account how he had grown up. When his school grant was not approved, Ma was so poor that he did not dare go to school because he had no shoes to wear. His schoolmates remembered that, after this, his character completely changed, and he stopped talking to anyone. (Reported by Souhu Cultural News)

People ask: Don't the poor also have their dignity?

9. By the time you read this, son, I won't be alive any more . . .

"Son, when you read my letter, I won't be alive any more, because I'm not capable of getting you into school, and I can't face you. Only with my death can I truly apologise to you . . ." When the son of Sun Shoujun, a Liaoning peasant, received his school placement letter, his father had no money to send him. So he left a suicide note to him and killed himself. (Reported by Xinhuanet)

People say: Don't say stuff like if you don't go to university, you can still make a good life for yourself. Even comedian Stephen Chow's screen characters know everyone's desire to go to school gives you a way of deceiving people.

10. I could have put up with it for three more days.

Guan Chuanzhi is a miner. He was trapped in a mine shaft during a mining accident, where he survived for seven terrible days. The first thing he said when his rescuers brought him out into daylight was: "I could have put up with it for three more days." (Reported by Nanjing Morning News)

People ask: Brother miners, good brothers, how long will you have to put up with this?

Will Chinese law become the sticking point in China's progress to a democratic future? I know a lot of Chinese people are asking, and waiting, but we need many more Chinese people who will work hard for the law, like old Mr Jingguan.

On 30 December 2006, I had just edited the second draft of China Witness to this point, when I got a phone call from the BBC World Service World Today programme, asking me to join a discussion on some news from the Xinhua News Agency in China:

On 1 January 2007, the Supreme People's Court is to implement a policy requiring ratification by the Supreme People's Court of all death sentences handed down by lower courts. This is a historically significant step in the development of Chinese criminal law, not only for China's criminal justice work, but also for the progress and development of the Chinese legal system.

With regard to criminal cases, China operates a system of the Court of Second Instance being the Court of Last Instance. Judicial review of death sentences falls outside the First and Second Instance system, and there are special procedures set up which are targeted at death penalty cases. After New China was established, the policy of retaining and strictly controlling the death sentence was implemented and the ratification system for death sentences was set up. In 1954, regulations on the organisation of the People's Courts were issued and these decreed that death penalty cases must be ratified by the Supreme People's Court and the Higher People's Courts. In a decision made at the fourth session of the First People's Congress in 1957, all death-penalty cases were thenceforth to be decided or ratified by the Supreme People's Court. Between 1957 and 1966, all death penalties were ratified by the Supreme People's Court.

During the Cultural Revolution, the People's Courts came under heavy attack, and the system of ratifying death sentences ceased to operate except in name. In July 1979, the second session of the Fifth National People's Congress passed the Chinese Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Law, revising the organisation of the People's Courts. It was decreed that all death sentences other than those passed by the Supreme People's Court, must be approved by the latter. However, in February 1980, not long after the Chinese Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Law had been passed, another decision was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, with the aim of meting out swift and severe punishment to criminal elements who had seriously jeopardised the social order: the Supreme People's Court thereby authorised Higher People's Courts to handle some death-sentence cases for a limited period. Following further reforms of the organisation of the People's Courts, and repeated delegation of authority, this system has persisted up to the present day.

My first reaction was to telephone Mr Jingguan. I hoped I would hear him say: Finally the Supreme Court has reclaimed the right to confirm the death sentence, and removed it from the hands of muddled and incompetent judges who indiscriminately execute the innocent! But when I called him, just before the Spring Festival in 2007, to send him and his family season's greetings, and we talked about the new legislation, the old policeman said: "These are just words on paper, miles away from the heads of the people who deal with the cases. It's only when everyone is capable of understanding the significance of those words that people will understand the law, and the law enforcers will no longer dare persist in their reckless ignorance. How many people has China tortured? How many 'Clear Sky Baos' are there?"

From the first Qin emperor of China, and the first law to operate on the principle that "the nine clans bore responsibility for the misdemeanours of their members", to a China, two thousand years later, which has just emerged from political adversity, the ghostly wails of the countless wrongly accused, victims of corrupt local officials who use their power to trifle with human lives, echo down the centuries. In two thousand years of Chinese history, for all our boasting about our ancient political and judicial system, there has only been one great judge, the Song dynasty's Justice "Clear Sky Bao", known to every Chinese for his uncompromising honesty. Just one.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!