Crime and Capture in a small Chinese town

by Joshua Samuel Brown, Apr 10, 2003 | Destinations: China / Yangshuo

It's early Tuesday in Yangshuo, a town on the Li River in southern China, and sun isn't quite done burning the morning fog off the surrounding spiky hills. Yangshuo is a place known to long-term China hands as an easily reached pastoral refuge, a quick plane trip from the grit, glitter and din of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Perhaps I've let the soothing burble of the Lijiang river lull me into a false sense of security, causing me to appear an easy mark to the pickpockets who work theses streets as surely as they do anyplace where haves and have-nots rub shoulders.

I'm paying for a tube of toothpaste at the market when I feel my pockets lightening. Over my left shoulder I glimpse a slim pair of fingers working their way around my cell phone.

Instinct kicks in, and my right hand snaps out and grabs the one lifting my phone by the wrist and gives it a sharp twist while my left reaches out to keep the phone from hitting the ground, I meet the gaze of my phone's would-be liberator. He is a young man, shabbily dressed in the sort of cheap brown suit jacket that is ubiquitous among China?s 200-million strong army of unemployed young men. He looks scared. "Excuse me," he says, his voice shaky.

Looking at the situation objectively, I might have seen the young man as a hapless victim of the economic liberalization set in motion by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, reforms which created untold opportunity for some while leaving others facing grim and limited prospects. Impartially viewed, this lad was merely a symptom of the malaise that has swept Chinese society since the smashing of Mao Zedong's once-sacrosanct iron rice bowl. However, it's hard to be impartial towards someone who's trying to rob you.

"Excuse me?" he repeats, and tries to pull away. This is a practical phrase in any language, useful to smooth over a variety of blunders accidental or otherwise. From a man caught red-handed stealing, it's a weak mea culpa.

"Sit down." I tell him, trying to sound authoritarian. I haven't decided what to do with the thief, and am hoping he would break down crying, promising to me and to the rapidly assembling crowd to never, ever commit another crime. But no, a swift retreat is all he seems intent on, and he pulls away from me. I catch him and get him in a headlock, and he keeps repeating "excuse me, excuse me."

"Someone is fighting with a foreigner!" Yells a woman in the crowd. "Call the police!"

Hearing this, the thief struggles harder, and I'm worried about my laptop, which is hanging on my shoulder. I figure that with so many people around, I can risk pausing long enough to hand my laptop bag to the woman behind the counter. As soon as I let him go to make the handover, the thief bolts through the crowd, knocking a guy off a bicycle in the process, and takes off without anyone trying to stop him. I run after him, calling him a rotten egg, a running dog, and even worse Chinese invectives After two blocks, he runs into a muddy lot surrounded by crumbling brick houses and disappears on the other side. Totally out of breath now, I give up and head back towards the shop, worried now about my laptop.

As I'm trotting back to the store, I bump smack into the thief, who, rather than making his way down any number of available side streets, becomes a living example of the old crime fighter's cliché by returning to the scene of the crime. Not that my comment of "Hey, It's you!" is any less of a cliché under the circumstance. He again breaks into a run, but at this point I'm too close, and corner him in a supermarket and get him into a second headlock. A minute later, the cops arrive. Yangshuo is a town that relies on tourist trade, and a crazed foreigner chasing a local through the streets yelling about having been robbed causes the ears of the local constabulary to perk up.

Chinese police tactics are, like that of the American military, based on the principle of overwhelming force, and within seconds my phone snatcher is surrounded by four burly uniforms while several people step from the crowd to relate their own version of recent events.

"A foreigner caught him trying to steal his phone and beat him up!"

"No, he tried to beat a foreigner up, but the foreigner was too strong!"

"A foreigner accused him of being a running dog, and chased him down the street"

After determining that I can speak Chinese, one of the cops asks me if I could come down to the station to make a formal statement. After grabbing my gear from behind the counter - and paying for my toothbrush - I?m in the front seat of the police van, my thief in the back, handcuffed between two cops. He looks utterly miserable, and not a little frightened. I begin to have pangs of regret for not having just let the guy go with a scolding, wondering what sort of draconian penalty his petty crime might warrant.

I call my friend Phelim, a big-time wire journalist deeply in the know of all things Chinese, on my cell phone, and ask him what the penalty for something like this might be.

"That could be serious" he says "robbing a foreigner in a tourist town. Something like that could earn him a bullet in the head."

When we get to the station, the pickpocket is escorted like a reluctant prom date through the back entrance while I walk in the front. The police station itself isn't overly intimating. The front door is wide open, and as I give my statement to a dutiful desk clerk, uniformed schoolchildren walk in and out and say "hello" to me. A muted sense of shame creeps over me at being the one signing the papers that may have dire consequences on another person. My friend's comment start playing out in my head, along with a line from the Richard Gere movie Red Corner

"And the cost of the bullet will be billed to your family."

"Excuse me" I ask the detective in charge of the case, a short, plain clothed cop whose English name is the same as my own. "I'm unfamiliar with Chinese law. What do you think will happen to the thief?"

"Caught red handed stealing a cell phone? Probably a year in prison, maybe a bit less if it's his first time" Detective Josh answers. "What would happen in America?"

I pause to think about this.

"Well, If he was white, and it were his first offence, he'd probably go free. If he was a minority, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Probably about the same as here. If he were in California, and it were his third offense, he'd probably die in prison. If he were in New York, and black, he might not make it to jail. The cops might shoot him in the back while he was running."

"Yes, I've heard that sort of thing can happen in America. Very unfair" Detective Josh replies. "Still, criminals need to be punished. Otherwise all order will break down, and then where would we be?"

My youthful anarchistic leanings aside, I am forced to agree at least partially.

"We have a saying in America..." I begin, fishing through my rudimentary Chinese vocabulary for the proper translation "don't do the crime if you can't pass the time".

"A very wise saying. Where does it come from?"

"It's from an old cop show. But the actor who made it popular is in jail for having his wife killed."

"That's a shame. Still, it's a good saying."

A few minutes later, I?m looking over a completed written statement, which I sign and, as is the Chinese legal fashion, stamp in red ink with my own thumbprint. After doing this, and having my cell phone photographed for evidence, Josh tells me I'm free to leave, and that he'll call me if anything else is needed. Before leaving, I wander into the back to use the bathroom, and catch a glimpse of my thief through the wooden door of the office where he's being questioned. Except for the fact that one wrist is handcuffed to the metal window bars, he doesn?t look much worse for the wear. There aren't any overt signs that he'd been beaten up - which I'd have heard. Gone from his face is the look of fear that he wore when I'd cornered him earlier. Now he just looks bored. He briefly meets my gaze, then looks away. His gesture tells me that my part in this drama is over.

Thanking the cops for their services, I grab my cell phone off the front desk and walk out the door, humming the Baretta theme song.

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Crime and Capture in a small Chinese town was originally featured in Cherry Bleeds magazine, April, 2003.

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