Proposed changes to China’s policing law would grant officers greater discretionary power to use firearms in cases involving public and national security, a step that some activists contend could diminish human rights protections.
China last week published draft amendments to its Police Law of 1995. A notice on the Chinese Public Security Bureau’s website said public comment would be accepted through December.
One amendment, Article 31, proposes that police be allowed to use firearms against suspects of public and national security offenses under certain circumstances: if suspects ignore their warnings and try to flee or resist arrest, or when officers face life-threatening assault.
Analysts say such provisions align with those enshrined in China’s controversial counterterrorism laws passed in late 2015. One measure permits police to use weapons in “emergency circumstances” on people committing violent acts, where their warnings prove ineffective.
Another revision, Article 32, would prohibit police from using weapons against pregnant women or children, or at places where inflammable explosives or radioactive materials are stored.
The proposals set a clearer boundary for country-level police to use firearms, but ends up allowing authorities to show discretion in determining which circumstances concern public and national security.
China's legislature, the National People’s Congress, is expected to approve the draft law.
Li Xiangyang, a human rights lawyer from Shandong province, told VOA that while its “new restrictions are minor,” the draft “in general expands the police’s discretionary power, which will create room” for police to attack human rights activists.
Li also expressed concerns over the proposed law’s enforcement, because police serve those in power and have often abused their powers.
"Amendments to the policing law will not make a difference," Li added. "Let me say this: As long as the authoritarian rule in China remains, the rule of law won’t be honored no matter how progressive the country’s laws have been revised."
Some rights defenders fear police could gun down dissidents, whom they sometimes define as terrorists or mobs. Rights activists say the measures could give police legal justification to use – or abuse – their power.
Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong, shared similar concerns.
He said the draft law would let police further censor news coverage of natural or manmade disasters. Under current law, officers responding to such disasters can cordon off disaster sites, blocking individuals’ or vehicles’ access for safety reasons. But under the draft revision, Poon said officers also could clamp down on disseminating news about such disasters via the internet.
"When necessary," according to Article 29, local police will be further allowed to "implement internet controls if an approval is secured by a province-level public security bureau.”
In 2009, China cut off internet access to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province, hoping to stem the flow of information about ethnic unrest and police intervention that left at least hundreds dead. It was the deadliest protest since the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations.
The country’s new cybersecurity law, adopted in early November and slated to take effect next June, already gives Chinese authorities the right to block internet access during public-security emergencies.
Poon said the draft measures provide no checks and balances on expanded police powers. Already, he said, Chinese police officers who commit abuses can operate with impunity because the country lacks an independent judicial system.
For example, Poon said, police rarely are held accountable for acts of torture because of the way they work with courts in China. It’s hard for the judiciary to investigate charges of illegal evidence obtained through torture, because that challenges police authority, he added.
"Because of the imbalance of power between the public security, the prosecutors and also the court, it’s very often very unlikely for the prosecutors, the procuratorate to investigate such claims" of tortures or forced confessions, Poon told VOA.
But Zhan Zhongle, a professor of Beijing University’s Law School, lauded the draft, saying it would uphold the principle of minimum harm on citizens as police perform their duties.
He said the legislation should ensure the rights of all parties.
“While giving the police discretionary power, the law should also take into consideration in three regards: firstly, the police’s authority and responsibilities, secondly, personal and property safety of all parties involved, as well as public security,” Zhan said.
In other words, he agreed that the armed police should have a certain level of discretion in using firearms. But the law should be clarified to prevent them from overstepping their power, which risk citizens’ rights.
Upon seeing the draft, some Chinese netizens responded approvingly while others reacted with harsh words. A Weibo user wrote that police are “now licensed to kill,” while another questioned why the draft doesn’t require that police keep a video record to document their actions and reduce the possibility of abuse.