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Gun-toting police officers seek a little public respect
By Doug Young

THIS week I wanted to take a look at the more serious issue of guns, which have made several appearances in the headlines these last few days.

The series of stories on the topic began with the high-profile destruction of hundreds of confiscated real and fake guns, highlighting Shanghai’s efforts to rid the city of these weapons that are both unnecessary and dangerous in the hands of ordinary citizens. Days later, the city also detailed new plans to arm hundreds of police officers with guns.

It’s hard to say if the timing behind these stories is related, though I suspect that their release so close together was designed to show the city is taking the problem of violent crime very seriously. That’s not too surprising, especially after the horrific attack by separatists from Xinjiang last month that left more than 30 dead in Kunming.

From a broader perspective, the arming of police officers with guns also touches on the more abstract topic of authority in China, and the lack of respect many people often have toward officials in uniforms. In that context, perhaps this arming of Shanghai’s policemen could earn them a bit more respect that is often lacking from city residents.

As someone who comes from the US where guns are relatively common, I personally find the scarcity of guns in China quite refreshing. In the US it seems like gun accidents and shooting attacks are constantly in the news. I remember regularly writing stories on such topics during my days as a reporter in Los Angeles in the 1990s.

It’s far less common to see such news in China, which is why the recent reports about Shanghai’s mass destruction of confiscated guns caught my attention.

According to the reports, Shanghai police have seized 258 guns, 905 gun replicas and more than 190,000 bullets so far this year, and put the weapons on a very public display for the media before destroying all of them. Just days later, a second series of reports came out saying 1,000 of the city’s more than 4,000 patrol officers would start carrying guns. Those reports assured citizens that Shanghai wouldn’t suddenly turn into the Wild West, pointing out that newly armed officers would get extensive training and would have to write up reports every time anyone pulled out a gun, even if they didn’t fire it.

This kind of development seems reasonable and was probably inevitable due to the huge growth in Shanghai’s population, which has included a massive influx of people from other parts of the country. This huge new mobility means that many people in communities often don’t know each other, making it much easier for criminals to come and go without attracting attention.

Arming police officers also touches on the lack of respect that many people have for authority here in China these days. Personally speaking, I would never want to be a policeman in China due to the way that average people treat such officers.

It’s not uncommon to see people commit flagrant traffic violations right in front of police and other uniformed officials — something that would rarely happen in the US or Western Europe.

Many Shanghai residents regularly ignore the ubiquitous traffic assistants that stand on many of the city’s busiest street corners, often jaywalking or crossing against red lights even when they are told to stop.

Little respect

What’s more, any policeman or other law enforcement authority who tries to stop someone for breaking the law is often met with fierce resistance and sometimes even violence from offenders. A few instances of such resistance made headlines last year when groups of people attacked subway security staff who had stopped them for fare jumping.

I’m not sure why many people in China have so little respect for these uniformed officials. I suspect the attitude has its roots in a deeper mistrust of authority, and also the broader knowledge that they’re unlikely to be punished for their disrespect. That’s certainly far different than in the pre-reform era, when legal processes were murky and police could detain and harass ordinary citizens with little or no explanation given.

I don’t know if arming patrol officers with guns will help to restore some respect to Shanghai’s police and to uniformed authorities in general. I hope that it does, as I often sympathize with the many uniformed officers who seem to get regularly ignored and even taunted by ordinary citizens.

I do think these newly armed patrols might get more respect after they start carrying guns, which are just a little intimidating to ordinary people. But it may take longer for this broader group of uniformed police, traffic officers and guards to truly win back respect from local citizens.

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