There’s an increasing trend toward thinking that the USA is a police state. You can tell that the USA totally is, though, because of videos like this and this and even this. There’s a problem with all of this, though. The USA is not even close to being a true police state. It’s far too incompetent at it to be one. It may be on the way toward becoming one, yes, but it isn’t there yet. So how do I know this? What makes me an expert on how police states work? Well, truth be told, I have no expertise on the inner workings of a police state. I do, however, have fifteen years of living in one to draw upon for their visible, outer workings. You see, I live in a bona fide, real world, living, breathing police state: the People’s Republic of China. I live, in short, in the real thing, not in the cartoonish caricature of one that people have in mind when they hear the term. And boy howdy, let me tell you, the reality of police states is vastly different from how they’re depicted in Hollywood productions and on various political commentary pages, especially those primarily inhabited by North Americans.

Police omnipresence

The typical image of the police state has policemen prominently visible wherever you turn. You can’t walk two blocks without stumbling over a police officer in this distorted view, usually one armed with some form of machine gun. And make no mistake, this can be true. It certainly was true when I visited East Berlin back in the ’80s. But, and here’s the thing, this is only true in potentially sensitive areas (or in very insecure states, but more on that below). Like East Berlin where literally hundreds of thousands to millions of western visitors enter per year. It wasn’t true for all of East Germany. And it certainly isn’t true for all of China. (Indeed it’s true for so little of China that it’s a statistical outlier if you happen to find such a spot, again in my experience.) The police, you see, don’t have to be everywhere. They just have to make you paranoid enough to think they might be. And it doesn’t take much to make people paranoid, let me tell you! By way of example, early in my stay in China I had my (English) colleague tell me in hushed tones that microphones were everywhere. She pointed to a discoloration in my wall as a site where a microphone was installed into the wall. To my eye it looked like a site where cheap construction caused a steel bolt to rust and discolour the paint, but to her eye it was definitely a microphone. Anywhere we 老外 went was bugged according to her. She even breathlessly told me about the time she and some friends found a microphone in a Santa Claus candle in a restaurant, revealed when the candle was allowed to burn too low, making its nefarious contents visible to all. Of course, at the time, I had no reason to disbelieve her. Until I heard the story again from two different people who’d never met her. And who’d experienced this in a completely different city from her. And, indeed, over the years, I’ve had seven sets of people, each swearing up down and sideways that they experienced this directly for themselves (!), tell me exactly the same story, with no detail changed but for one: where the story took place. From this I’m left with one of two options:

  1. Believing that the Chinese have a huge network of Santa Claus candles with microphones spread across the country … a network they continually screw up enough to reveal its existence; or,
  2. Believing that this is an urban legend that people have taken to heart to the point they honestly think that it actually happened to them. That these people are, in a very mild sense, delusional.

(I think the tone of this work will tell you which of the two I believe to be true.)

The truth is that, of course, there is some surveillance, but for reasons I’ll explore below it’s nowhere near as prevalent as it is in the imagination. And, indeed, I’ll go a step farther: the most-surveilled city in the world (in terms of cameras and listening devices) is not in China. It’s not in North Korea either, in fact. It’s London, UK. Western cities are far more prone to mass surveillance than is China. And if you go with computer surveillance, the undisputed champions are the good old US of A. As for other forms of police presence, I had a great opportunity this year to compare China to Canada, seeing as I’d spent most of July in Canada this summer. Leaving aside border crossings and other immigration factors (which are their own special brand of Hell no matter what country you’re in!) I saw more police presence in one month in Canada than I’d seen in the entire previous five years of living in China. In Ottawa I could literally not walk more than five blocks without seeing a squad car or an officer on foot. Even out in the boonies like Bell’s Corners I saw squad cars aplenty driving around. If police omnipresence is a sign of being a police state, then every western country I’ve ever been in (Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland, England, the USA, Italy … and more!) is a police state and, critically, has been since I was a child. By this metric, China is practically an anarchy, a rather stupid conclusion to reach thus a reasonably good disproof of the thesis.

Police control of citizen life

Another stereotype of the police state is the total control over every aspect of the citizen’s life. While this is true of some police states (North Korea leaps to mind, as does Cultural Revolution-era China), this is not universally true–nor is it even particularly common. Indeed the total control state, especially if it is paired with intense brutality as in the third video I linked to above, is usually a sign of a state that is insecure in its power. You see, the role of the police in a police state isn’t to control citizens’ lives. That’s a myth that’s almost laughable. Indeed if it weren’t such a commonly held belief I’d laugh every time I heard it. (Actually, I still do laugh. It’s just a more bitter laugh these days.) The role of the police in a police state is to protect the power structure from change. That is it in its entirety. Anything which doesn’t endanger the powers that be is unimportant to the police. Anything which does endanger the powers that be is brutally suppressed.

Going with that third video (the cartoon with the jaywalking), I laughed out loud (literally, not figuratively) when I watched it. It is such a ludicrously naive view of how police states work that it’s impossible for me to take it (and by extension its creator) seriously. Again, I stress, I live in a bona fide police state. A police state that is routinely denounced for its oppression. I also live in a state where jaywalking, despite it actually being against the law, is the norm. Nobody walks to the crossing to cross the road. You cross wherever it’s convenient for you to cross. The city sometimes puts up metal fences down roads where people jaywalk too much. When that happens, within a week the citizens have dismantled sections of that fence so they can conveniently jaywalk again. In fifteen years of living here, fifteen years of living in jaywalking central, I’ve not once seen the police do anything active about it. Occasionally, if you happen to actually have a cop outside of his comfortable, air-conditioned office, and if that cop had a bad day (perhaps a touch of indigestion?), you might find a cop ineffectually haranguing a jaywalker (who will ignore the cop nine times out of ten). I’ve never, however, seen a cop pull out a ticket book and write a ticket for jaywalking. And even on those rare occasions that a cop will get involved, while that cop is harassing one unfortunate, a hundred others will cheerfully jaywalk behind his back. The cop is just another inconvenience to be worked around like the metal fence that was so blatantly disassembled.

Other things that are blatantly illegal are openly done all around me. Prostitution is very illegal. Yet within about 300m of my home (and 500m of my son’s primary school!) are several (dozen!) small brothels who operate openly. As far as I can tell their sole interaction with the police consists of “cops get serviced for free”. Gambling, too, is horribly illegal here. Yet within just my residential compound, a collection of about 10 small apartment blocks, there are six openly-operating Majiang parlours open at all hours of the day or night. (One of them is operating in space they’ve rented from the local government office!) It’s pretty blatantly obvious that the cops don’t really care. Similarly selling food without a license is illegal, yet within a 30 second walk from my front door, when school is on, I can find dozens of different (and very tasty!) kinds of meals made from street carts. There are occasional half-hearted attempts to shut those down, but they’re gone for a week, tops, before they all return and continue flagrantly breaking the law.

On the other hand, stand at a corner and distribute leaflets supporting 法轮大法 or critiquing the Party and the cops will be on you like flies on shit. Or do anything that threatens disorder (because disorder is the wedge a lot of disaffected groups use to split the state in any country) and the same will happen. Get big enough and you may be unfortunate enough to meet the full might of the 中国人民武装警察部队 (a.k.a. the People’s Armed Police or PAP), the true enforcers of Party will in the nation. Go to Wikipedia and read between the “NPOV” lines for the horror that is this group of armed thugs.

I think the best way to summarize this delusion of the stereotypical police state is this: I have more direct, personal freedoms here in China than I ever had in Canada. So do most Chinese people. The only freedom they (we) lack is the freedom to criticize the government in public. (They don’t care what you say at home.) When I think back to the 36 years I lived in Canada or Germany, I really can’t remember any time where I stood in public and ranted about the government. I can remember, though, being fed up with only having sausages available as street food in Ottawa…

Police brutality commonplace

This is the one that is the most common. The police state obviously relies on brutality to control people, right?


A competent, stable, secure police state doesn’t need brutality to keep itself in power. It’s insecure states (of any kind!) that find the need to brutalize their citizens to ensure compliance.

About four years into my life in China I saw something unfold that amazed me entirely. The first amazing thing is that I saw a public brawl: I mean a knock-down, drag-out melee involving men and women—adults of many ages—in a parking lot. This was incredibly amazing to me since I’d not once seen anything like it. (Well, OK, that’s not strictly speaking true. I’d seen a small student riot too, but this had been provoked and understandable. More on this below.)

This is the kind of thing that had it happened in Ottawa, the police would have come in force with paddy wagons and riot gear and just arrested anybody they saw participating in the riot. This is not what I saw happen here. Yes, a van did arrive. A police mini-van. With room for at most five people aside from the pair of cops in the front. The cops came out without armour and without weapons beyond the truncheons in their belt (which were conspicuously present, but not readied). The police waded into the melee, separating combatants, yelling at them to stop, getting them to sit down at the edge of opposite sides of the parking lot. The truncheons did not get used. No guns were used. Just two cops, not particularly impressive examples of the breed physically speaking, and a bunch of authority. The riot calmed down, and then stopped.

God I wish this had happened in the era of smartphones with good cameras! I’d have filmed this for posterity! Because at this point the real amazement started. Canadian cops would have, as I said, arrested everybody they saw swinging and charged them with assault. The two Chinese cops—you know, the brutal agents of a horrific police state—patiently interviewed a bunch of people with questions that, from the little bits and snippets I could overhear and understand, consisted essentially of “who started this and why?”. What came out was that this was two wedding parties in the restaurant who’d come to blows because two guys in one wedding party were making snarky comments about the bride in the other. (Whoa, dudes. So not cool!) Everybody pointed at the two responsible. Everybody. Even those who were in that same party.

The funniest part is that those two hadn’t actually participated in the brawl that I saw. They were standing at the edges and seemingly egging it on. After the cops got all the stories, the two people who hadn’t actually swung a fist—at least that I’d seen—were the two arrested (I assume for “inciting”) and one other person who’d actually injured someone (drew blood) was also arrested. Everybody else was lectured and sent off on their way, chastened, shaken, but not charged.

I can’t even imagine that unfolding that way in any city in Canada. In Canadian law, for all practical purposes (with some exceptions) words aren’t chargeable, only actual battery is. Had this unfolded in Ottawa, everybody would likely be arrested except for the pair that had incited it … because they hadn’t actually participated in the violence.

The student riot I mentioned earlier was similarly amazing. The students were trashing (sorta—very polite trashing) their dorm over the terribly stupid restrictions they were under because of the SARS scare. Garbage and unwanted crap (like broken thermos bottles) were being thrown out the window and a lot of noise and fury were being generated. Even when the university president was driven up, upon exiting the car and walking to the dorm to “talk to the students” he was pelted with disgusting debris (used toilet paper featured prominently) and he had to flee back to his car (which was subsequently also pelted with filth) before the cops came in.

Now the cops came in numbers this time. Six of them. To tackle a dorm with about a thousand angry young men, hormones exploding around them. And they patiently and doggedly went into the building and calmed the students down. In the end five student ringleaders were arrested and never seen in the school again. A further dozen or two students (including two of mine) were later expelled from the school. But, importantly, the worst excesses of the college’s restrictions were also removed.

How does this fit into the narrative of the brutal, violently-suppressed police state? Because make no mistake, just to be absolutely clear, China is very much a vile, brutal police state!

So why am I telling you this?

I’m telling you this because yes, the USA and others are sliding into becoming police states. I’m telling you this because yes, police states are fucking evil. They need to be fought.

The problem, however, is that if you have the wrong image of what a police state is, you cannot fight it. You’re punching at shadows. All that’s going to happen is you’re going to break your fist when it hits the brick wall. To properly fight an enemy—totalitarianism in this case—you have to know what it looks like, how it works, and what motivates it. Delusional caricatures of your enemy don’t help and, in fact, can (and do!) cause immense harm to your cause.

To destroy your enemy, it turns out, you have to know your enemy.

—Michael Richter