The Magazine


What are the Chinese police doing in New York?

Aug 13, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 45 • By ELLEN BORK
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IT’S A FAIR BET THAT in his 30 years of policing, Zhao Zhifei, the deputy commissioner of China’s Hubei Province Public Security Bureau, had never been sued. Then he came to New York. On July 18, Zhao was served at his Manhattan hotel with a $50 million civil suit under federal laws that allow foreigners to be sued for crimes against humanity and violations of international law. The suit, filed by a relative of two members of the spiritual group Falun Gong who allegedly died at the hands of Hubei police, charges that Zhao is the second ranking official in Hubei province’s "610" bureau, named for June 10, 1999, when the Chinese government established a special office to destroy the Falun Gong.

The Falun Gong’s lawyer said he didn’t know what Zhao was doing in New York. I do. Zhao and 22 other senior police officers from Hubei were attending a seminar 40 blocks uptown at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. For two weeks, the group attended classes at John Jay’s 10th Avenue campus. The syllabus lists, among other topics, crowd management, corrections issues, and organized crime. In addition, the group took field trips to Rockefeller Center to observe a private security operation, to the New York police laboratory, and to the federal prison in Brooklyn. One day, they drove out to Connecticut to see the famous forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee, of O.J. Simpson fame.

At the end of the program, the officers posed for pictures in front of Chinese and American flags in John Jay’s soaring atrium and received certificates of completion mounted on plaques. The certificates were signed by Robert J. Louden, a 21-year veteran of the New York Police Department who administers the program for John Jay, and Lawrence N. Ding, the middleman who brings the cops over and sees that John Jay College is paid through a company called Forerunner International. According to Ding, the Chinese government ultimately pays the fees. This is the fifth Chinese police group he’s brought to John Jay. Two more groups are planned in the next several months.

"Do you think everyone in jail is guilty?" asked the instructor in a class on the use of DNA in criminal prosecutions. The cops looked puzzled. The instructor moved on. He mentioned the statute of limitations, eliciting a buzz of confusion from the audience, unfamiliar with this due process guarantee. Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought. But the instructor was simply explaining that DNA allows police to indict a DNA sequence, obviating the need to identify a suspect and holding open the possibility of later prosecuting someone for the crime, should a suspect with the right DNA be identified after the statute of limitations has expired.

In the sessions I attended there were only passing references to defendants’ rights and the legal basis for police conduct and investigative techniques. Louden told me that he viewed training Chinese police no differently than training police from democracies or emerging democracies. The fact of China’s political system, which subordinates police and courts to the Communist party—that’s "not an issue," he told me. "As an academic institution we deal with any and all comers." As for whether instructing Chinese police brings up questions of the difference between the American and Chinese systems, he said not particularly. "Someone will say something about Tiananmen Square, and they answer, ‘What about what happened to Rodney King?’"

I sat next to Zhao one day and chatted with him during the breaks about what his men got out of the course. "It is crucial for police to be aware of what [techniques] are available and how it impacts on our work," he said through a translator. As for differences between American and Chinese policing, "some things are the same, some things are different." What about political crimes? I asked, and he replied, "We do not have political crimes."

The next day, Zhao was served with the suit, and he did not appear for the last day of the course, though Ding wouldn’t say where he was. After the farewell ceremony, Ding and his group headed off down I-95. To Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, he said, though he was careful not to say exactly what they would be doing.

I don’t know where they went. Neither, apparently, did top officials at the State Department, despite the fact that U.S. consular officers in China had approved visas for the group. According to a senior State Department official, the visit by the Hubei cops "caught everybody by surprise. Nobody here was aware they were coming" or what they were doing.