Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 13, 2011

Crime and Punishment; Petition

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Opening today for a one week engagement at Anthology Film Archives in New York City are two documentaries by Zhao Liang who works in an austere cinéma vérité style but who leaves no doubt about where his sympathies lie, namely with China’s poor.

Despite being filmed with the cooperation of Chinese police, “Crime and Punishment” is just the opposite of “Cops”, the long-running Fox TV reality show that depicts different police departments around the United States as a kind of grown-up boy scouts with guns. The border guards in Liang’s documentary, who are a kind of militia operating under the PLA’s authority, beat and humiliate their prisoners in the police station as if it was part of their job description. Of note is the fact that Liang was all on his own during the filming, an incredible accomplishment given the standard crew of 20 or more in most documentaries made in the West. Perhaps working on his own allowed the cops to drop their guard, or—more likely—they didn’t really care if they were shown as sadists.

One segment captures the nature of Chinese law and order in its cruelly bureaucratic splendor. They have arrested a 43-year-old man for pickpocketing a cell phone at a nearby bazaar. In the station they grow increasingly frustrated with his failure to answer their questions adequately. A typical exchange as seen in the subtitles:

A cop: “Where do you live?”

The suspect: (unintelligible).

Since I don’t speak Chinese, it was a little hard for me to understand why the man had so much trouble answering the cops clearly, especially since it made them more and more vicious as the questioning proceeded. After a few minutes, they were slapping him in the face, all to no avail. He could neither give them the answers they were looking for (who were his accomplices?) nor enunciate them clearly even if he knew the answers.

The cops eventually escalated their interrogation methods. They made him stand in a semi-squatting position until he was ready to answer their questions. As his suffering increased, he kept returning to an upright position only to be remonstrated by the cops: “Don’t you understand that you must squat?” As always, he looked at them with a quizzical expression on his face.

Eventually we learned what the problem was. A cop is seen talking on the phone. Look, he says, we have a deaf-mute in the station here and we need somebody to interrogate him.

What a commentary on the People’s Liberation Army to see such behavior. It will remind you of how the IDF treats the Palestinians or how the American troops treat Iraqis or Afghans. It is all the more disgusting since the sadism emanates from a nominally socialist police force and against its own people. Of course, the class divisions in China today are as deep as those seen in conditions of neocolonial occupation.

The film is a good reminder that China is going through a kind of “primitive accumulation” that Karl Marx explored in Volume One of Capital. After the enclosure acts, peasants were forced to go into the work force or become vagabonds and thieves. Poaching and other forms of criminal behavior were the inevitable consequence of losing one’s means of production, namely land. In China today, people retain their farms in many cases but are forced to enter the “informal economy” or to steal to stay afloat. The gendarmes in “Crime and Punishment” have the job of keeping the riffraff in line.

In one case, they arrest a sixty-four year old junkman who does not have the proper papers. They seize his donkey and cart until he can prove that he is legally allowed to pick through the rubble of old buildings to find something worth salvaging, like scraps of plastic and paper. In another case, a group of young men are beaten repeatedly until they confess that they have chopped down a few trees on a mountainside to sell in town. New Year’s is coming and they need to buy gifts for their children.

Apparently one Chinese citizen got sick and tired of police brutality and arbitrary behavior and struck back as the New York Times reported on November 27, 2008:

A 28-year-old man convicted of killing six police officers was executed by lethal injection on Wednesday morning, according to state media, ending a case that drew a surprising amount of public sympathy for the man.

The execution came shortly after the nation’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing, rejected an appeal on behalf of the unemployed Beijing man, Yang Jia, who stormed a Shanghai police station on July 1 and stabbed six officers to death.

Mr. Yang said he had been wrongly accused of stealing a bicycle and been beaten by the Shanghai police in October 2007; the police have acknowledged that they questioned him about riding an unlicensed bicycle but denied beating him. Mr. Yang wrote to the Shanghai police and demanded compensation for psychological damage. He eventually called his assault at the police station a revenge attack.

To many Chinese, he became a symbol of the little guy standing up against police harassment and government injustice. During his two trials, supporters gathered in crowds outside the courthouse in Shanghai. Some wore T-shirts with Mr. Yang’s image; some called him a hero.

Outside of Shanghai, some Chinese newspapers published sympathetic portraits of Mr. Yang.

The title of Zhao Liang’s other documentary “Petition” refers to the process in which aggrieved citizens of China can win redresses against illegal or unjust actions of those in positions of authority. Petition offices in Beijing operate as a kind of ombudsman that is the court of last resort for ordinary citizens.

Zhao Liang has been filming petitioners since 1996 who have lived in a shanty town near the Beijing railroad station in the southern part of the city. Coming from both the rural peasantry and the middle class (including one professor who was refused tenure), they stand on line to get a hearing from petty bureaucrats who are about as cold as the cops in “Crime and Punishment”. At least they don’t see slapping and cursing the petitioners as part of their job description.

That can’t be said about the “retrievers” who are sent out as deputies from the rural hometowns of the petitioners. Once the petition officers decide that they have heard enough from some peasant who has lost his land or a factory worker who was fired illegally, they call up the authorities from their hometown to get some goons to pick up the inconvenient complainer. As was the case in “Crime and Punishment”, Liang is on the spot to film the violence taking place on the streets of Beijing as the hapless petitioners are slapped and kicked into submission, then hauled off into waiting cars.

Some of the most interesting scenes in the movie show groups of petitioners who have developed real bonds of solidarity with each other discussing what has to be done in China to rid the country of the gangsters in power. They harp on the need for democracy and an end to a single-party state even if it operates in the name of socialism.

Today’s NY Times reports on the struggle of an artist very much in sympathy with the petitioners, as well as the young man who killed the six cops:

The studio would have stood at the heart of an embryonic arts cluster on the outskirts of Shanghai, a draw for luminaries from around the world.

It took two years to build, and one day to tear down.

An order to raze the studio — designed by Ai Weiwei, a protean artist who is one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese Communist Party — was issued last July. Mr. Ai took the move to be retribution for rankling the authorities. He said officials told him that the demolition would not take place until after the first day of the Year of the Rabbit, which falls on Feb. 3.

So he was shocked to discover that workers had begun knocking it down early Tuesday, Mr. Ai said in a telephone interview from Shanghai on Wednesday. Mr. Ai said a neighboring studio he had designed for a friend had also been destroyed.

“Everything is gone,” he said. “It’s all black now. They finished the job at 9 o’clock last night.”

Mr. Ai’s studio was to be used as an education center and a site for artists in residence. He had invited a group of university graduates from Oslo to come to the studio next month to study architecture with him.

Mr. Ai said he believed that his advocacy in two causes might have prompted Shanghai officials to order the razing. The first was that of Yang Jia, a Beijing resident who killed six policemen in a Shanghai police station after being arrested and beaten for riding an unlicensed bicycle. Mr. Yang became a hero among many Chinese, and was later executed. The second was the Kafkaesque case of Feng Zhenghu, a lawyer and activist who spent more than three months in Tokyo’s Narita Airport after Shanghai officials denied him entry. Mr. Ai made a documentary about Mr. Feng’s predicament.

Mr. Ai has also demanded democracy for China, criticized government corruption for playing a role in the deaths of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and stridently supported Liu Xiaobo, a political prisoner who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

Like many on the left, I viewed the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo with some suspicion especially since the man was on record as supporting the war in Iraq. While this statement was unforgivable, I feel somewhat different after having seen these two documentaries. The simple truth is that the political system in China crushes the human spirit no matter how many consumer goods, cars, and houses are now available to the population. As socialists, we must never forget that the freedom from arbitrary arrest, torture both petty and grand, the right of assembly, etc. must expand under socialism, not disappear. The discussion about China on the left tends to have an abstract quality. Nothing else will help to make the discussion more concrete and more real than these two powerful documentaries that I strongly recommend to anybody in the greater New York area.


  1. Great film reviews! Excellent political points! Bravo Louis Proyect!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 14, 2011 @ 2:12 am

  2. Thanks, Karl. Your feedback means more to me than if I got paid to write these articles for the Village Voice or the NY Times, which of course will never happen.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 14, 2011 @ 2:17 am

  3. How can I get a copy of these Zhao Liang flims or see them in LA. Great stuff. You should see a doc by film legend Heskel Wexler on called “Who Needs Sleep” (on line) he shoot with one camera all by himself.

    Comment by frankcavestani — January 14, 2011 @ 5:59 am

  4. would it be possible to do such “crime and punishment” documentary about the working of us law enforcement agencies ?
    in Germany no way!

    Comment by theo voelkl — January 14, 2011 @ 10:35 am

  5. Looks like Marxism in action, whats the problem here? Every communist regime ever was a despicable dictatorship that tortured criminals and the innocent alike. I would think an unrepentant Marxist would take joy in what the commie cops are doing (which is what they do in every other commie state).

    Comment by buzu — January 15, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  6. Wouldn’t you say that the political system in the US also crushes the human spirit if you’re not a white male? I would argue that it’s just as difficult (if not more so) for a young black male living in a low-income neighborhood to rise above his circumstances, to avoid police brutality and to have the same rights and liberties as a young white male.

    Perhaps the discussion about China is “abstract” for you but it certainly isn’t for those of us who live here. We are always being treated with condescension and arrogance by Westerners who jump at any opportunity to criticize or impose their values on us. One of the main problems in China is that colonial mentality makes people falsely believe that in order to improve the system, we must look to Western democracies. There is a false impression that countries like the US provide a wonderful life for every one of its citizens, that everything is fair and there isn’t any corruption.

    Most of the Chinese artists who are famous in the West are simply opportunists who exploit Western misconceptions and racist beliefs about the evil commies (as you can see from the comment above mine) in China. By agitating for democracy — a system of government that would spell disaster for China at this point in history — they know they can receive attention and money from Westerners who are all too happy to support the so-called “underdogs.” For us, Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize was obviously one of those situations where it was apparent that the prize was awarded as a way to humiliate the government rather than for any of his actual achievements.

    Our government has many, many flaws, and I personally believe that we should move away from Western systems of government, but considering China’s state, it’s doing its best. This is the first time China has been united since the Qin Emperor, and parts of China are still pre-Industrial Revolution. Many people are ignorant and illiterate since majority of the population is made up of peasants. Our class issues mean that it’s usually the lower-class people who end up as police or petty bureaucrats, and since these people haven’t been educated or cultured properly, it’s inevitable that they will behave in ignorant and violent ways.

    Comment by M — April 20, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

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