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What South Africa can learn from policing in China


Zakhele Mbhele is a Member of Parliament, serving on the Police portfolio committee. He is an alumnus of the University of the Witwatersrand, where he was also Chairperson of the LGBT campus society, ACTIVATE. He first worked in the development sector as a programme officer for a grant-making organisation that supports community organisations working to protect and promote the rights of vulnerable groups. He subsequently worked in the Office of the Western Cape Premier as media liaison officer.

The scale of the Chinese policing environment is impressive, given the geographical and population size of the country. Delegates from South Africa’s Portfolio Committee on Police were given a cop’s eye view of how policing works in China.

I was part of a delegation comprising members of the Portfolio Committee on Police that undertook a parliamentary study trip to the People’s Republic of China earlier this month. Our aim was to learn about the Chinese context and operational practice which could enrich the committee’s oversight work and recommendations to promote police professionalisation and to make policing more effective in South Africa.

Certainly, the scale of the Chinese policing environment is impressive, given the geographical and population size of the country. There are approximately 20-million police in China and they deal with an average of 6-million serious crimes a year (minor and petty offences are significantly larger in number). The police training university in Beijing alone has 14,000 cadets-in-training and it is only one such training institution of 38 in China (we were told that there are about 150,000 police cadets undergoing training at any given time).

The committee observed three key distinctions which can assist with making the South African Police Service more effective and efficient:

First, as we learned at the People’s Public Security University of China in Beijing, there is a strong emphasis on ensuring and maintaining a professional police service. It’s actually difficult to become a police officer in China (distinct from being a traffic officer) because a university entrance exam pass is a minimum entry requirement to become a police cadet. Following that, the police training curriculum is four years long (in South Africa it’s less than two years), resulting in police officers qualifying with a Bachelor’s Police degree. This is further reinforced with regular in-service training to refresh and update serving police officers on developments in the field.

These two factors make a world of difference in cultivating the professionalism and discipline of the police. In addition, we were told that police are seen and treated as a special kind of public official: they are better paid than most civil servants, are valued for their role in public safety and security, undergo rigorous training and are held to very high standards of ethics and professional conduct.

Second, there is an emphasis on specialisation where police officers can serve in dedicated units most suited to their interests and aptitudes, e.g. household crimes (such as domestic violence), cybercrimes, drug trafficking, etc.

Third, as we learned during our interaction with the Shanghai Municipal Police Bureau, there is extensive use and application of modern technology in police work. In the case of Shanghai, this has been spurred by necessity more than anything else – the police force in the city is short-staffed: just 50,000 officers servicing a population of more than 30-million people (in contrast, South Africa has more than three times as many police officers servicing less than twice as many people).

To compensate, they leverage CCTV surveillance (there are 106,000 CCTV cameras in Shanghai, linked to a computer system with automatic number plate and facial recognition software), artificial intelligence programmes, Big Data analytics, etc, in order to work smarter and be effective in spite of human capacity constraints.

The other striking observation about China is that it was both familiar on the surface but noticeably different in both style and substance. Modern China has adopted the form of Western civilisation, e.g. technology, architecture, science, engineering, even some TV show formats, but not the substance of Western culture. In particular, it remains a one-party state running a mixed economy with a strong state presence, self-characterised as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

I was particularly fascinated by how discipline and accountability have been maintained in governance since the late 1970s without the checks and balances on state power of liberal constitutional democracy. One would have expected the ruling elite of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) to have fallen victim to the corrupting influence of concentrated power, as per the famous saying of Lord Acton, but human fallibility seems to have been sufficiently constrained over the last almost 40 years.

Given that China is a one-party state where the key political, economic and social levers are held in the hands of a few and controlled pretty tightly, I concluded that this phenomenon must have something to do with the leadership ethic of the CPC elite. This is my theory: the party and the country’s experience of the political, economic and humanitarian disaster of ideological excesses during the Cultural Revolution gave the Communist Party leadership a deep resolve to adopt and adhere to pragmatism and meritocracy as core principles of governance.

When one considers that the current Chinese president, Xi Jinping, was a direct victim of the Cultural Revolution (his father was a high-ranking government official who was purged by Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping was banished to live and work on a pig farm during his teens and early 20s), one can appreciate how strongly he, his peers and his predecessors since the reform period starting under Deng Xiaoping are motivated to adhere to these core governance principles of pragmatism and meritocracy. That, to my mind, best explains why successful macroeconomic and trade policy and strong anti-corruption drives have been implemented in China in the absence of a liberal democratic state system characterised by separation of powers, checks and balances, independent judiciary, free media, etc.

Of course this remains China’s biggest weakness because, if a corrupt and venal faction were to capture the CPC in future (*side-eyes the Zuptas*), the whole system would go belly-up and the gains made by China over the last few decades would be quickly reversed. However, and without negating the very serious issues of authoritarianism and human rights violations in the country, this governance ethic founded on pragmatism and meritocracy is probably the biggest lesson that South Africa should take as a leaf out of China’s book. DM


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