December 7, 2001

Sweep 'Em off the Streets

We all stopped and watched the balloon vendor as he scampered wildly to escape the cops. He insisted in keeping his balloons, chair and air pump with him as he escaped and I yelled (in English because I was excited) for him to forget that stuff and just get away. As if that were possible for an ex-peasant turned itinerant shoe shining balloon vendor. Well, we all (the Stickmen, vendors, truck drivers and I) chuckled and exclaimed when one of the cops went down, tripping over something like they do in the movies, and we all sighed and turned away when they caught him and he began bowing and begging.

I guess selling balloons by the roadside is illegal. Or perhaps he didn't have an ID card, or perhaps he had no danwei – violations of sacred law back in the day, but commonplace these days, after Opening Up.

China has been real busy promoting virtue and prohibiting vice these days. No one is sure how many executions it takes to accomplish these two enormous tasks, but the PRC has reportedly reached 2000 over the past six months. According to the China Daily, "the crackdown has resulted in the solving of 27,951 criminal cases, including 161 homicides and 2,394 robberies and … more than 21,300 criminal suspects have been arrested, including 12,556 people who migrated here and 1,100 runaways who have hidden for a period of time or even years." The Beijing Morning Post reported back in June that the Public Security Bureau had already suffered 40 officers killed and more than 1500 injured.

Who these criminals were and what they did to deserve to die is any foreigner's guess. Politicians and their wives are not exempt from the crusade to end evil in China, but they are also not the favorite targets, no matter what CCTV claims.

The victims are the millions of destitute migrant workers who arrive in a city with a relative or three and take up some backbreaking honor-less trade that no one else will do. Carrying stuff, sweeping streets, collecting garbage, shining shoes, etc. The lucky or well-to-do open up noodle or cigarette stands.

The farmers sell fruit. I've seen old women hauled off and their produce and basket confiscated because they were on the wrong side of the street. Old men have their baskets and garbage-picking tongs taken away as they pitifully protest and plead with the tough guy cop. Motorcycle drivers are in constant fear of being pulled over because they don't have the right license to be carrying passengers, or to be in this district or they don't have the ID card required to be in the city at all.

Every bridge in Chongqing is an oasis of dread for cabbies and truck drivers carrying building supplies and motorcycle drivers. Cops clad in riot gear now patrol the bridges and check randomly for proper identification. The suburbs are crawling with tough guy-cops walking the streets and smoking. Looking tough. Not many people are worried, because the majority of the city's inhabitants have the proper ID, but a "crackdown" always makes club owners and poor people uneasy.

Except for poor peasants who are trying to make a buck, the other favorite victim is the Internet Bar, that wretched hive of scum and villainy. Thousands have been closed down, including a reported 17,000 in the past week. All for lacking the necessary controls on pornographic websites and violent and/or porno games.

What a joke this is. The most popular game right now involves terrorists and cops chasing each other around and blowing each other up. Kids can link up all over the web and kill each other – like Quake or Doom. Another popular one with the older crowd is strip Mahjong. I wrote a column next to a city official (District Land Steward, I found out) who kept winning. Needless to say it took me a while to finish my article. So, yeah, porno and violence exists in the Internet Bar. Kids spend all day playing games and chatting (OICQ is the other favorite pastime) and drinking tea and smoking packs and packs and packs of cheap cigs. Not exactly a place I want my little sister to hang out in.

But the joke of it all can be found on any street in Chongqing or any other Chinese city for that matter. Pink lights illuminate my walk home at night. If it weren't for them, I might lose my way. And if it weren't for the cop-house that sits directly under the pink light, well, I might have to fear a mugging or other some assault from an overzealous madame.…

And the joke continues in any bar or club in China. Girls who accompany you and drink with you and play games and such are a time-honored tradition and no crusade against vice is gonna keep the bankers, politicians, businessmen and cops and soldiers from honoring this tradition. A girl can be had in most clubs for the right amount of money (not much) and that's OK with the cops, but those cyber-babes – evil incarnate.

Some of the clubs have had to cut down on the number of stripper acts per week, but they all just grin and say, "It'll be over soon," and then its business as usual. An official in the US Embassy in Chengdu told me everything in China was run by caprice and money. So imagine what a crusade against vice must look like.

A complex of bars with foreign employees in Kunming were raided in September by a heavily armed squad of screaming Chinese cops because, "Chinese girls are being seduced by foreigners, drugs are everywhere and nobody has the right ID." Clubs down the street (empty ones, which points toward the real motive behind the raid) offer prostitutes at the front door and "head shaking" drugs upstairs.

The "Strike Hard" campaign is having results. The kind of "national unity" needed in times such as these with an economic revolution moving into another phase and a social revolution expected to follow right on its heels. Strike Hard was timed perfectly to rid China's WTO bid of potential critics: those peasants and urban poor who stand to lose the most and gain the least from China's transition into the world's factory.

Text-only printable version of this article

Sascha Matuszak is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily, and elsewhere. His exclusive column (usually) appears Fridays.

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