Cold City

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Last weekend in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin police beat to death a recent college graduate. The fight between six officers and 22-year-old victim Lin Songling and three of his friends apparently started over an argument about a parking space. The news has prompted outrage both in Harbin and on the Internet (there are translated postings and some upsetting photos here on ChinaSmack and this news clip via Shanghaiist). It has raised once again questions about police brutality and official impunity in China.

For me the Harbin incident recalls an ugly experience I had in that frigid town when I was a student in 1996. On a winter weekend evening I was coming home from a club with some classmates. As our taxi passed near the Harbin train station the driver changed lanes to avoid a body in the street. We stared at each other silently until my friend Ruth spoke up and told the driver to go back. He resisted, but finally agreed. On the street we found an old woman dressed in cheap clothes. She was alive but unconscious and appeared to be suffering from exposure. We put some jackets over her considered what to do.

It was late and there wasn’t much traffic. But the sight of a group of foreigners standing around a body in the street caught the attention of the cabs that passed by, and soon a large crowd had gathered around. The drivers asked if we had hit the woman, and when explained we hadn’t, they asked why had we bothered to stop. A body in the street is not something to worry about, they implied. One of my classmates walked around the block and found a police station. He banged on the door and woke a couple officers. They dressed and eventually drove over, but were clearly not happy at being disturbed at that hour. An older Chinese-American student who spoke much better Mandarin than the rest of us asked the cops to do something. They were clearly annoyed. Then he began berating them. If it weren’t for the fact that he held a foreign passport, or that there were a group of foreigners and several dozen cabbies watching, the officers looked as if they might have left my classmate lying on the street as well. Instead they grabbed the dying woman and dragged her into a police van. They angrily drove off, though we never learned if they went to a hospital or another street to dump her.

There are clear differences between these two stories. One involves a young, well-off college student who was allegedly killed by police. The other involves a poor woman near death from exposure and possibly other conditions. In her case, the only thing the police seemed guilty of was not caring. But both cases take place in a cold city and involve even colder authorities. If there’s one positive aspect to Lin’s death, it’s that people in Harbin took to the street to ensure that the matter wouldn’t be dropped. The six cops have been detained. It’s clear that his death won’t be ignored, which is more than can be said for that woman dying on a Harbin street 12 years ago.