Cute Policing
by Tong Lam (photo © Tong Lam)

A lot has been said on the rise of China’s soft power in the international arena. What is less often discussed is the rise of police soft power in urban China in recent years. Indeed, although policing has always been a central component of the government’s penetrating apparatus of social control, Chinese police forces have recently begun to adopt a softer image in certain contexts. For example, residents of Chongqing still vividly recall the young, heavily made-up female traffic cops introduced by the former local party chief Bo Xilai. Similarly, when Bo was the mayor of the city of Dalian in the 1990s, he also instituted the idea of having young and good-looking female police officers patrolling the city center on horseback, a practice that has apparently outlasted Bo’s political career.

Indeed, while many observers have associated the use of young female police officers with Bo’s peculiar populist policies, the idea of cultivating a benign image for the police has become routine in Chinese cities. Generally, the emergence of a neoliberal economy since the 1990s has resulted in a fundamental restructuring of China’s social and economic landscape. In urban areas, this involves the growing disparity between middle class residents and migrant workers who do physical labor and perform service functions. Meanwhile, the gentrification of city neighborhoods has also led to the creation of new urban spaces dedicated to leisure and consumption.

Yet, these newly created public spaces (or, more accurately, these privatized public spaces) are never really designed for the masses in the broad sense. On the contrary, the highly visible presence of security guards, police officers, and various forms of surveillance apparatuses, such as closed-circuit television cameras, in these spaces is part of the neoliberal regime of social inclusion and exclusion, of the sort described so famously, with reference to California’s biggest metropolis, in the Mike Davis classic City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. In this context, the urban poor and “undesirables,” such as migrant workers, are made to feel unwelcome in what are purportedly “public” spaces. At the same time, the constant presence of the panoptic gaze does not just reassure the rich elites and middle class citizens of their safety, it also helps to instill a sense of fear and insecurity among them, making them appreciate the role of the state in maintaining law and order. 

The rise of cute-looking police surveillance apparatuses is therefore part and parcel of contemporary China’s strategy of constructing a “socialist harmonic society” in an increasingly tension-ridden society. And while comparable cute-looking surveillance apparatuses can be found in other East Asian societies such as Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, they should also be seen as part of a larger global trend of masking the ever penetrating state power with softer and more benign images.

Recommended Reading

Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953  by Janet Y. Chen (Princeton University Press, 2012): a study of how the Chinese urban poor were managed by the government in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution by David Harvey (Verso 2012): a critique of the historical relationship between global capitalism and the city, and a discussion of how to create alternatives to the current system.   


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