Before Jing could be executed, however, fortune handed him a reprieve. Lanzhou police arrested a dealer who admitted that he had helped officers set Jing up for a drug rap. Jing won a second trial—and the real story came out. The arresting officers had planted the heroin. They had coerced Jing's confession by shocking him with electric batons and hanging him by his handcuffed wrists until "the blood poured down my arms," Jing testified during his trial. By the time of his release last January, the cab driver had spent more than a year on death row and hadn't seen his family in 518 days. He received just $4,000 in compensation for his ordeal—less than he would have earned driving his cab. Two cops who set him up have been sentenced to four and five years in jail, but Jing remains in debt and is still waiting for his car, seized during the arrest, to be returned. "The cops ruined me only because of their own selfish goals," he says.
Not for nothing is China called a police state. Unhindered by constitutional or judicial restraints, mainland cops have long operated with virtual impunity, earning a reputation with citizens as unprincipled thugs more concerned about hitting arrest quotas and fleecing the masses than protecting and serving. But after several highly publicized incidents of malfeasance and incompetence, China's cops are undergoing a process of unexpected introspection—and even reform. Over the past several months, the Ministry of Public Security, the national police force, has banned the use of torture during the interrogation of suspects, abolished "custody-and-repatriation" rules that enabled police to detain migrant workers with little cause, and ordered city cops out of their stations and into their neighborhoods. The reform drive, Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang said in a July speech, should "resolutely stop malignant violations that offend the heavens and reason and stir up public indignation."
With concern for human rights slowly taking hold in China and a more aggressive media no longer as circumspect about reporting official misdeeds, public indignation is running high. Incidents that in the past would have been hushed up now receive widespread play in the press. Among the more spectacular recent examples: a college graduate was beaten to death in custody in Guangzhou last March after neglecting to carry identification; in May, a police chief in Shaanxi province was arrested for allegedly helping a gangster and the gangster's 14-year-old son join the force; in June, a three-year-old girl in Sichuan province starved to death after police reportedly detained her mother for drug use and ignored for 17 days her pleas that the girl be collected from their locked apartment. Small wonder that in August the Beijing-based China Newsweekly declared that "the police today face their most severe crisis of confidence."
Some of the greatest pressure for change comes not from angry victims of police abuse but from rank-and-file officers, many of whom carry out their duties faithfully under difficult circumstances. A recent year-long internal police study conducted in Shandong province showed that beat cops work an average of 11 hours a day, with only one day off every three weeks. They're often called upon for unlikely duties, such as collecting fines from delinquent taxpayers and from violators of the one-child policy. And to top it off, they're woefully paid: salaries average $100-$150 per month, according to a police-run website, newpolice.net. Police departments routinely collect fines from people detained for wrongdoing, and not just to line pockets but also to meet payroll, says Wang Taiyuan, a police officer and professor at the Public Security University in Beijing, China's West Point for cops. Morale is suffering. On newpolice.net, one disgruntled cop laments: "Police work harder than donkeys, eat worse than pigs, rise earlier than roosters, work later than whores, earn less than farmers."
Zhou plans to combat the dismal esprit de corps in part by reminding officers that they serve a greater good—witness Shanghai's police slogan: "The People Are Our Mother and Father." Shanghai has become a model for "community policing," an attempt to introduce modern, people-friendly law-enforcement methods. City leaders divided the city into a grid—10,000 households per sector—and opened a tiny office with one officer in each sector. Neighborhood officers respond not just to emergencies but to people locked out of their apartments and senile residents who get lost—a way of breaking down the distrust the public feels toward the police. "People have even called asking to have breakfast delivered," says a district chief in Shanghai. Although Shanghai's program predates Zhou, he plans at the national meeting later this year to order cities across the country to set up similar systems, says an officer involved in drafting the upcoming guidelines.
Chinese reformers argue that real improvement will come only if police subject themselves to oversight by prosecutors' offices. But Zhou has resisted this—and has even moved in the opposite direction. Unlike his predecessors, he has been named vice chairman of the party's powerful Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, which oversees judicial matters. That means everyone from the Minister of Justice to the country's top judges must gain Zhou's approval when prosecuting sensitive cases. And he has replicated the system at lower levels by encouraging local chiefs to lead their towns' political committees, giving them the power to influence the outcome of trials. "We've got judges bowing down to police chiefs," says a party official involved in judicial reform. "How can there be hope for change?"
Moreover, China's underdeveloped legal system makes a policeman's job tougher, encouraging him to make up the rules as he goes—or do nothing at all. Wang, the professor at Public Security University, travels around China lecturing cops on crowd-control techniques, including what to do when facing demonstrators. At what point should police use truncheons? Or guns? Or simply step aside and allow a march to go on? In China, the answer depends on how much pressure political leaders are under at the time. Says Wang: "The police can't make these decisions. They have to keep calling the leaders asking what to do. It would be better if China had clear laws that were uniformly enforced." Until then, China's cops will continue to inspire more fear than trust.