Chatting with China’s security apparatus

Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan has a strange encounter with a rather Orwellian Chinese police officer, as she attempts to interview a rights attorney about the passage of a new law.

The final version of China’s new Criminal Procedure Law was released to the public on Thursday, due for passage on the closing day of the National People’s Congress in a few days.

It is one of the most high-profile pieces of legislation at the annual session of China’s legislative body, and has faced much scrutiny both domestically and abroad.

Some of the revisions have been welcomed: evidence collected under torture is now prohibited, suspects should have access to a lawyer immediately, and young offenders will now have extra protections.

However, there’s been concern about police detention of suspects, how long they will be able to hold citizens without charge, and whether or how their family’s would be informed.

Al Jazeera’s team decided to speak to rights attorney Pu Zhiqiang, known for his work representing Ai Weiwei and himself an object of frequent police surveillance, to solicit his opinion.

What happened next was not surprising, but on this day, felt particularly ironic: plainclothes police officers prevented us from interviewing Pu on camera, even as we explained to them that this new legislation would curtail their state security powers. 

The language used by the officers, who refused to identify themselves, might also be interesting to those unfamiliar with this kind of state apparatus: Orwellian, wrapped in code, and offering our crew “recommendations” that if disobeyed, could have meant some physical confrontation from the two men in sunglasses who were called up for reinforcement during the following exchange.

This took place in the private office of Pu. The officers present were from China’s guo bao – its national security/secret police ministry. They had no legal basis to be there.

Despite no prerogative to do so, we offered to allow the officers to sit in on the interview. We even offered them to record the questions we wished to ask Pu. I felt that the questions were very straightforward.

Below is part of the transcript of our exchange with them, and with Pu.

* * *

Al Jazeera English: We just interviewed a professor from Renmin University about the new Criminal Procedure Law. This is about the National People’s Congress and this law will be passed at the end of the Congress. You know this. This is to affect you, between you the police and the people. This is a straightforward report. I don’t know why you [the police] are here today and what matters you have with Mr Pu Zhiqiang, but we are here because of the National People’s Congress. Whatever beef you have with Mr Pu is your matter –

Plainclothes Officer: I’m not telling you, you can’t be here.  This is just my recommendation.

AJE: Oh! Your recommendation. Well, in that case …  I will ask Mr Pu a couple of questions on camera. Thank you.

Plainclothes Officer (PO): No, you cannot.

AJE: Huh!? Um, didn’t you just say that was just your recommendation?

PO: My recommendation is: no.

Pu Zhiqiang: On what basis are you saying this?

AJE: Well –  allow me to just show you my press card … and my press credential to attend National People’s Congress events …

PO: Everything has a bottom line.

AJE: Um, what do you mean?

PO [menacingly]: Yes, I mean it. Bottom. Line.

Pu Zhiqiang [to AJE]: Look at what’s happening in front of us!  You understand the situation …

AJE [to officer]: Please understand our situation …

PO: I understand …

AJE: Oh good. Then, the interview.

PO: No, no, no!

AJE: Are you speaking to us in your capacity as a police officer?

PO: No, I’m just saying this is my “recommendation”.

Pu Zhiqiang: Are we allowed not to take your recommendation?

AJE: Are you telling me you do not want us to report on a piece of legislation that will be passed by the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislative body?!

PO: You have your normal reporting …

AJE: Yes indeed, and this is normal, with Mr. Pu …

PO: No.

AJE: This is a law about security, terrorism, and the handling of general criminal suspects. This law can be quite an improvement on things –

PO: Yes! Indeed, it is a huge reform.  It’s a big improvement.

AJE: So … are you speaking in the capacity of a police officer?

PO: No, I’m … speaking in the capacity … as Mr. Pu’s … friend!

Pu Zhiqiang: You are not my friend. I adamantly, adamantly dispute that.

* * *

Things got heated from that point and everyone started talking at the same time, making it difficult to transcribe. But I hope readers can get a sense of how interactions frequently work between foreign journalists and security forces, even when it’s not about human rights, and when it’s about something as mundane as the introduction of a new law. The men insisted on speaking to each of us alone, in a separate room.

They wanted to “chat”. We had done nothing wrong, and Mr Pu had done nothing wrong. All we wanted was his opinion on the new criminal procedure law. The entire interview would have taken five minutes. It turned into a half-hour rigmarole.

In exasperation, Mr Pu said to me at one point, “You’re the reporter. Here you are. And this is what’s happening.You’re here to ask me whether the new Criminal Procedure Law is an improvement, well – what do you think?”