A number of Chinese citizens -- and officers -- still don't think so.
BEIJING — Thanks to Hollywood movies, quite popular here, the average Chinese person is familiar with the image of a gun-toting policeman who yells "freeze or I'll shoot!" after an escaping criminal. But that trope also makes many uneasy.
According to a widely syndicated report dated April 4, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) has announced that "front-line" police forces across China, in particular beat cops, are "soon" to begin receiving an intensive weapons training course. The course will cover shooting, the use of riot guns, as well as batons and tear gas.
It's the latest measure to improve police response to violent incidents in the aftermath of a coordinated March 1 knife attack at the main railway station in the southern city of Kunming -- which killed 29 and left over one hundred injured -- including increased security at airports and rail stations, and public calls for a loosening of the gun regulations governing Chinese police. That's partly because social media users here have criticized the police response in Kunming after news emerged that one officer on the scene only opened fire on an assailant after members of the public asked him to.
Duan Xingyan, a police officer in central Jiangxi province whose outspokenness on social media had earned him more than 590,000 followers on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, is an advocate for armed police. "Not every policeman is a kung fu master," wrote Duan. "There should be no hesitation about police carrying guns if proper legal procedures are followed."
Unlike U.S. or Hong Kong police, most officers in mainland China do not carry guns except when on special assignment to apprehend major criminals; instead, they usually carry clubs, pepper spray, and handcuffs. According to the MPS, 790 policemen died on duty from 2006 to 2011 as a result of violent clashes or automobile accidents. On March 29, Chinese media reported that a policeman in Yidu, a city in Hubei province, died on duty after being slashed seven times in a small alleyway by alleged criminals. The officer, named Hu Qinchun, reportedly fought back with a club.
Despite the violence directed at police, a significant minority of Chinese do not welcome arming them. An online poll run by Hong Kong-based news portal ifeng showed that 41 percent of those surveyed did not support such a move, while 59 percent did. Opponents argue that China, with near-zero tolerance for private gun ownership -- the exception being civilians in hunting or pastoral areas, who can apply for a gun license -- is freer from gun crime than many countries. Handing out guns to law enforcement, they contend, may simply trigger an arms race with criminals.
Longstanding public mistrust of police forces is also a major factor. High-profile incidents of police misusing guns are unfortunately common. In October 2013, a drunken policeman in southern Guangxi autonomous regionshot a married couple at their rice-noodle store after being told the store did not serve milk tea, killing the pregnant wife and injuring the husband. In July 2011, a similar case occurred in Guigang, a city in Guangxi. In a drunken spree, the chief of a police station from the neighboring city of Laibin sprayed bullets, killing a friend dining with him and injuring a passer-by. In February 2009, a police officer in Yunnan crashed into a private car while driving. During the ensuing quarrel with the car owner's husband, the officer opened fire, pumping three bullets into the man and killing him on the spot. (The latest available reports state the Guigang killer is in detention; the other two officers were sentenced to death, but neither has yet been executed.) Tragedies like these have led some Internet users to conclude that police are best avoided. "Be safe and keep your distance from the police," wrote one Chinese web commenter.
While the divergence between Chinese netizen sentiment and official rhetoric is hardly news, the latest debate about police gun use has seen an intriguing phenomenon: A number of law enforcement officers have expressed skittishness about carrying guns themselves. "I would rather bring two more policemen than a gun," a police chief who only gave his surname, Zhang, told Hua Shang, a newspaper based in central Shaanxi province, last month. He had refused to carry a gun on a cross-country trip to chase down criminals in March 2014, even after his superiors suggested he do so to protect himself, because he thought it was "too much trouble" for him and his supervisors. Zhang said that there was one time he carried a gun on a case, and his superior called him repeatedly to ensure "nothing happened to the gun."
A common anxiety among Chinese police officers is losing their firearm. Such sentiment is starkly visible in the 2002 Chinese film The Missing Gun, which depicts the frantic search for a lost firearm. When fictitious police officer Ma Shan (played by Wen Jiang, a famous Chinese film actor and later acclaimed director) confesses to misplacing his gun, but only after 24 hours, an enraged superior tells the protagonist, "That's enough time to reach downtown if you take the bus, Beijing if you take the train, and the United States if you take the plane."
While popular sentiment may indicate otherwise, regulations on police use of guns have in fact tightened over the past decade, and harsh punishment has been meted out to police who lose their guns, regardless of why. In February 2010, a police officer in Guangxi was found lying in the street drunk, his gun gone missing. The officer was sentenced to a year in prison for negligence. In late March, a police officer in the Western province of Sichuan lost his gun and was suspended from work for 30 days.
The fear is partly due to the ambiguity of current gun use policy, which does not specify the circumstances under which police are allowed to use firearms. In an interview with Southern Metropolis Daily, a respected national newspaper, an anonymous police officer admitted that he does not carry a gun while on patrol because it imposes "too much responsibility" and he might "incur criminal liability" if he were to run afoul of gun control regulations.
There may be a need for Chinese police to rethink their approach. Last year, 449 officers died on duty, (a figure that includes death from non-violent causes, such as overwork), the highest toll in five years. One of the most-cited examples to advocate equipping policemen with guns is the Tai'an case. In January 2011, two armed suspects shot dead four policemen and injured five others in Tai'an, a city of over 7 million in the eastern province of Shandong. Reports showed that the policemen, all unarmed, went to a suspect's home to investigate a murder; as soon as the police identified themselves, two men inside opened fire.
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