Friday, 8 August 2008

Dominic Lawson: If you think China is a police state, just look at us in Britain


Friday, 8 August 2008 Web

Beijing seems to have been turned into one giant Potemkin village. Everybody smiling, everybody happy. The universally joyful welcome has already drawn gasps of admiration and astonishment from visiting British sports journalists. The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, who speaks Mandarin, took the trouble to roam further afield, to a village near Guangzhou, where farmers three years ago had protested about the seizure of their land by local Communist Party officials. He was speedily surrounded by what he described as "a phalanx of young men with cropped hair, who followed me wherever I went".

Wingfield-Hayes reported that "Whenever I tried to talk to the locals, they moved in close, a look of menace in their eyes. The locals stared back, defiant but silent. They knew what talking to a foreign journalist would bring." Indeed, they did: China still has a network of labour camps and "psychiatric wards" to teach political dissidents how to love Big Brother.

So we should bear all this in mind when we watch the collective rictus of fixed grins at the Olympic Games opening ceremony today. In four years' time, however, it will be our turn to come under the scrutiny of the international media, when they arrive en masse in London to report on the Games of the Thirtieth Olympiad.

I wonder how free a country they will be visiting, and what they will make of it. The good news is that they will be reporting from a democracy, in which incompetent or merely unpopular governing parties are kicked out of office via the ballot box.

They will not find any psychiatric wards in which the "patients" are given electric shocks for the invented condition of "political monomania". However, if things continue to develop as they have done over the past few years, they will also find a country whose people have become increasingly pestered and persecuted by a distended and inflexible empire of officials.

In one week alone, there have been several reports of such behaviour, which would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Exhibit one: on 18 July it was reported that Mrs Jayne Jones was told that she had to stop accompanying her 14-year-old son, Alex, in his journey to school in a council-financed cab, until she had been "cleared" by the Criminal Records Bureau.

Alex, who is severely epileptic, has frequent convulsions, and her mother insisted that, nice as the cab-drivers are, they did not have her ability to give the boy the necessary medication if he had fits while in transit.

Merthyr Tydfil council defended their actions as follows: "For the protection of the council and all vulnerable persons in its care it is essential all those endowed with an authority, implicit or explicit, should meet the security requirements within the transport contract provisions." Ah, the language of compassion: perhaps it sounded better in the original Welsh.

Exhibit two: on 23 July it was reported that Julie Maynard, her husband and their 12-year-old son, Joshua, found their car surrounded by 10 police officers at the Channel Tunnel entry in Folkestone. For reasons which have never been explained, they were accused of "trafficking" their son – who has cerebral palsy and is autistic.

Ms Maynard and family were then taken to a detention room and warned that they could be held for nine hours under "section 7 of the Terrorism Act". They were released after "only" two hours, still with no satisfactory explanation. Subsequently, Kent Police have apologised and have paid a "substantial sum" to Joshua's school – which at least shows contrition not usually associated with bureaucracies.

Exhibit three: on 24 July it was reported that a painter and decorator called Gordon Williams was given an on-the-spot fine of £30 by Ceredigion council officials, after they observed him smoking a cigarette in his blue Suzuki van. You see, the officials had determined that this van was his "place of work" and therefore Mr Williams was breaking the new law banning all smoking in the workplace. Mr Williams protested that "I decorate houses, not vans", but nonetheless paid up, having been told that the fine would be doubled if he didn't comply swiftly.

This made me realise that, as a responsible citizen of New Britain, I should report our cleaning lady to the authorities for smoking in our home: it is, after all, her place of work. Or perhaps I should turn myself in as well, as a delinquent employer in breach of health and safety regulations.

Exhibit four: on 25 July it was reported that Haringey council officials had fined a boutique owner called Sangita Ibrahim for putting out her rubbish in black bin bags, rather than the grey sacks required by the council. The officials fined Ms Ibrahim £300 – made up of four fines of £75, one for each offending bag of the offending colour. Nicole Rosbrook, who works at the boutique, told the London Evening Standard: "The two guys who came in were incredibly rude to us – and to the customers. We were shocked, especially when they turned on the customers."

She added that "We had repeatedly asked the council for a delivery of grey bags, but it never came, so we had to use ordinary black bags. The two men actually went through the bags, leaving them open and rubbish strewn all over the pavement."

Haringey council commented that: "The notice was lawfully issued by our enforcement fly-tipping patrol who followed proper procedures."

This is known as the "we're only doing our job" defence-just one step up from "I was only obeying orders."

A friend of mine got a similar response when she was queuing at a British airport a few weeks ago and was shocked to see a security officer at the hand-luggage scanning device rudely ordering an old lady in a wheelchair, who was wearing surgical boots, to "take yer shoes off". Even if he did believe that the frail old woman might have been smuggling nitroglycerine or some other implement of terrorism in the base of her boots, this was still a repulsive way to talk to her.

When my friend remonstrated with the BAA security man, he responded, naturally, with "I'm only doing me job." The sad thing is, he was; but perhaps the outburst by another passenger might cause him to do it more politely in future.

The trouble is that, increasingly, it is only the law-abiding who are frightened of the police and other security officials; awareness of this fear encourages the enforcers of petty regulations to behave even more truculently.

So when the Olympics come to London, I hope that the international press let the world know what sort of officialdom they have encountered. Probably, however, they will be hoodwinked Beijing-style, as the great bureaucratic armies of the state smile sweetly at foreign journalists, while continuing to scowl and snarl at the captive domestic population.

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