CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 3, September 2005


A Frustrated Cat | China Heritage Quarterly


The following interview, the original title of which is Maode kunao, translated by Geremie R. Barmé, is from Sang Ye's extraordinary collection of oral histories published by Oxford University Press in Hong Kong under the title 1949, 1989, 1999. An edited English-language version of that book will be appear through University of California Press under the title China Candid: the People on the People's Republic in early 2006. This interview is not included in that volume. The translator would like to thank Miriam Lang for her comments on and revisions to this translation.

Conducted at the Science and Technology Research Centre of the Ministry of Public Security in early 1995, this 'Frustrated Cat' remarks on the situation that existed just before the Internet began making marked inroads in China, and before paper production underwent major commercial changes. Nonetheless, Sang Ye's interlocutor says much that compliments the kind of history depicted in the new Police Museum in Beijing. (GRB)

My own professional history really starts with my father. He was an old-style policeman, one of those local cops without much of an education who lived on a pittance right up until retirement. My mother was a peasant and since urban household registration status depends on your mother's profession, I was classified as a peasant too. That only changed when I went to university and was able to get an urban residence permit. There's lots of people who are ashamed to admit that they're originally from the countryside; they reckon it's too close to the soil, too unsophisticated and embarrassing. But I'm proud of my origins. I got into the city because I worked hard to go to college, so I feel I'm better than those people who were born to it.

As I said, my dad was one of those old-style policemen; he hung around the station all day and regularly did night duty as well. If he wasn't on duty you could usually find him in the police dorm blathering on to his friends, playing cards or whatever. He only came back to the village once a year on annual leave and then he'd give us a hand planting crops and fixing things around the house. He had a completely pedestrian life; even petty criminals aren't scared of cops like my dad. He was just one of those guys who kept an eye on things. He had no particular aspirations, materially or otherwise. At most he'd use his connections to buy cheap seconds of cloth, and if he was successful he was as happy as anything. But to be fair, it's people like that who live the most down-to-earth and decent lives. Nothing like the types you see around these days, vacuous and slimy characters as slippery as greased marbles. There's no comparison with my dad's generation. I never thought of what he did as being a profession, and I certainly don't think that I was following in his footsteps when I joined Public Security. But he hates it when I talk like this; he gets really agitated, but the more riled he becomes the more it proves that we're not made of the same mettle.

My field of specialization at university was fantastic: paper-making. It's dirty, smelly and noisy; all day every day you're dealing with waste water and polluted air; you work in a hot and humid enviroment; you're dealing with toxic chemicals like chlorine and softening agents; and the air is thick with dust particles. It's a major source of pollution on every level, and it seriously effects the health of people who work in the industry. That's why paper-making is regarded as being the worst major you can take in light industry universities; it's reserved for people with low entrance grades who are desperate to get a college degree no matter what. They say that in the past all the people with bad class backgrounds ended up studying paper-making, but by the time I got into college that had changed, nearly all of my classmates were from the countryside like me or from small townships. City kids wouldn't demean themselves to study it; they'd rather miss a year and take the entrance exams again or become private entrepreneurs. Anything to avoid having to come into contact with stinking paper pulp.

After studying hard for four years I was allocated a job in a paper mill. A few exceptional students were sent off to work in research institutes or got tutoring jobs in our college. They weren't really exceptional, of course; they just knew how to weasel their way through the back door and get a good job placement from the school. That's just how it goes--there's nothing you can do about it. For most of us graduating is like being put in a black box; it's even more mysterious in there than the set up out here. Nobody ever tells the truth about anything, and you can rest assured that if your old man was a dumb local cop and your mom was a peasant working in the fields you might as well forget about getting anywhere. I didn't get particularly worked up about it; I just expected that I'd be a minor technician living out my days with only waste water and humidity for company. All I hoped for was a job in a big mill in a major city; no matter how you look at it, that was better than being stuck in some hick provincial town.

Then something completely unexpected happened. The job allocation office called me in and I was introduced to two complete strangers. They were in civvies, but they said they were from the Public Security system and that the research unit they worked with was considering offering me a job. At this stage they just wanted to have a chat to see whether I might be interested. The minute I heard the words 'research unit' I said of course I'd take the job. Almost immediately I realized that I'd jumped the gun. I'd been a bit too enthusiastic and so I felt I'd made a fool of myself. Then I tried to act cool by asking where their unit was and by saying that if it was in another city I'd have to think it over. They told me that of course it was in Beijing. That was all I wanted to hear! 'Sure, I'll take it!' Then I made a big show of being really interested. When you come down to it I am still just a peasant, after all, no good at acting self-important. When I got back to my dorm, however, the penny dropped and I realized that a job with the Ministry of Public Security, an organ of the proletarian dictatorship, might mean that I would be sent to work in some labor reform camp. I'd be better off in a factory. So I went running back to the office and found that they were still there. They just laughed. 'Of course you'll be working in your own field. We can't waste a talent like yours. Don't worry; we have the best possible working conditions.' They could tell I still had my doubts, so one of them held out his hand and said, 'Come on, let's shake on it. We're schoolmates.' He pointed at the athletics field outside and said, 'When I was studying here we built that as part of our voluntary labor program.' Only when I reported in for work did I discover that he was my boss. At the time I had no idea. Talk about a loss of face!

My job assignment notice said I didn't have to report in for a few weeks so I took the opportunity to go back home. My dad said sure he'd heard that Public Security had its own doctors and a Fifth Department,1 but he simply couldn't understand what use paper analysis could be to the police. Nonetheless, he said, as long as my unit was under the ministry I was set for life, and my working environment was sure to be top class. I'd even get to sit in a proper office. He kept telling me that I'd better put everything I had into this new job.

After I got back to Beijing I went around looking for the place for ages, but in the end I gave up and went over to the headquarters of the Ministry of Public Security to the east of Tiananmen Square. The guard at the main gate under the sign for the ministry didn't even look at me and with a wave of his hand said, 'Ask at Number 40, rear gate.' The woman in the reception office at Number 40 just said, 'Western Suburbs. Go to the address on the assignment notice.' I told her I'd just been in the Western Suburbs and I couldn't find it anywhere. She laughed. 'You were looking for a sign, right? There's no sign. Just go to the right street number and, even if it isn't what you expect, walk straight in as if you own the place. It'll be the right one; take my word for it. What does a tough young lad like you have to be afraid of?'

So that's how I got here. I was given a month's wages and started out doing odd jobs for the senior comrades. Later I was sent to a police academy in the northeast for postgraduate study and when I returned I went back to working with paper. Ten years has gone by in a flash, and here I am--not young any more but not quite middle-aged either.

The Public Security network has just about every specialization you can imagine: acoustics, optics and electrics; zoology, botany and minerology; organic and inorganic chemistry; physiology and pathology. There's nothing we don't do, though we don't get involved in politics, culture or military work—those aren't part of our scientific brief. Though that's not exactly true. We do analyse weaponry, ballistics and things like that. I suppose they could be categorized as military research. But then how would you classify household registration? Is that part of culture or politics? It's not simply part of law enforcement, but we have specialists who work in that area. So you can't be too exact in the way you divide things up; even I don't know how some things are classified. Anyway, we have just about every specialization, including experts in computer viruses. Our virus protection program is even copyright.

You're right, where would you place 'cultural protection'?2 It's a form of cultural work, wouldn't you say? Especially because it entails dealing with intellectuals. As for myself, I work as part of the scientific backbone of the people's public security system. The scientific modernization of public security depends on us. Hey, when you put it that way it sounds really impressive--a glorious task even.

That reminds me, we also have phoneticians. They can tell from you accent exactly what province or region you come from—even which county you're from. Similarly, there are graphologists who look at the handwriting and syntax of a piece of writing or an envelope, or the kind of simplified characters someone uses. They can determine your educational level, your age and profession, your previous occupation, places where you've lived, where you currently reside, where you were educated, the environment in which the specimen was written, and so on and so forth. I'm not joking; experts like that are absolutely amazing. They can tell you pretty much a person's whole story just from a sample of a few dozen or a hundred or so written characters. Although they won't be able to give you a visual portrait of the person, you can use their information to circulate a description of the person. If these people were in universities they'd be professors. They could also write some pretty extraordinary books, although you'd never be able to publish anything like that for general consumption, unfortunately.

We are primarily engaged in two things: advancing the scientific work of the public security system and using that knowledge in police investigations. They're pretty much the same thing, really. But the real work is still done by policemen on the ground who work in surveillance and covert operations. That's out of my league; I'd be no good at following people or dealing with confrontational situations. Anyway, what we do is develop equipment and materials for use in investigating and solving cases. Most of the equipment is actually imported; let's face it, foreign-made things are superior. Much of our work is assigned to us by the Political Protection Branch, the Technical Branch and the vice squad. A few years back, the technical reconnaissance people were incorporated into the Ministry of State Security; it felt just like a family inheritance being divided up between brothers and the impact on us professionally was immediate, suddenly we were much weaker. We have been giving them a lot of help in building themselves up again, although things are very different now under the economic reforms. Money is incredibly tight, so while we got whatever we wanted in the past we have trouble getting anything these days. The market economy, you know, it's all about money.

I'm a firm believer in the saying, 'The net of heaven is cast wide and few can escape it.' My advice to people is just make sure you don't do anything bad. There are pitfalls everywhere. No matter how careful you are in setting up a scam or whatever it might be, there is invariably one little detail, maybe just a sheet of paper, that will fall into our hands, and it'll all come unstuck. Although to the untrained eye one sheet of paper is much the same as another, a specialist will see them as unique and different. They can be your downfall. Each piece of paper contains numerous clues—or shall we call them codes?—as to its origins.

There's no end of things that you can deduce from a sheet of plain paper, even if you limit yourself to its material composition and the manufacturing process used to produce it. First you consider the weight, and the pulp used, bleaching and coloring. Was it dyed first or later, what if any additives were used, what kind of printing mill and mesh were employed? Are there any watermarks and has there been any ferrotyping? If so, how was it done? We can go through all of these categories if necessary, and the answers will lead us to the exact mill that produced the paper. They in turn will have a record of the wholesaler, who can then direct us to the retailer, and thus in no time at all we have reduced the parameters of our investigation considerably. Since every batch of paper has its own peculiarities and the paper mills all keep records of their dyes, it's not hard to work out when a piece of paper was processed. In small township factories the situation is a bit more confusing as records aren't usually kept, but their products have a limited circulation and the other peculiarities of their products are easily identified.

If a case demands it, we don't hold back; and if it requires a co-ordinated nationwide operation then that's what we'll do. You can't haggle over the cost of such an exercise, especially if it involves political security. No one is going to say, 'This investigating into that spy ring is going to cost too much—let's not bother.' You can't afford to worry about the bottom line. Imagine if you tried to limit counter-revolutionary cases to a cost of 1,000 yuan, or, say, 500 yuan, tops for a case of espionage—it'd be ridiculous. If something is worth pursuing then you have to do it, regardless of the cost. The CIA will often spend millions on researching one person and one case. Or let's put it another way. If a case is worth pursuing, your money has been well spent even if in the end you don't solve it, because you've trained the expertise of your specialists and that's bound to come in handy in the future. Criminals generally tend to keep using the same old tricks over and over again; they're not usually particularly bright. If you have a chance to get some practice this time around then you won't have to spend so much on the next investigation. But it can happen that you think you're right but the people holding the purse-strings think you're wrong and decide to cut off the money. You might believe that you're doing something crucially important but you might end up looking thick-skinned and unreasonable. No matter how you play it, they still might not give you the money you need. It can be pretty frustrating.

But getting back to that sheet of blank paper we were talking about a moment ago. If it is formatted or has anything printed on it,3 or if it has been written on, then generally speaking that's going to save us a lot of time. You might be surprised to know that, for us, getting our hands on a sheet of paper is as good as being given the criminal's name card. You might think that when you buy yourself some letter paper or writing paper you can just scribble anything on it and get away scot free. Little do you know that it's as good as putting your neck in a noose. You should realize that all the paper in the shops has a line of numbers and characters on the bottom which contain details of the paper mill's batch numbers. Paper with patterns or water marks--except those for export--will all have similar numbers. No shop is going to sell products without this information on it. It's not because we demand it; it's stipulated by the Ministries of Light Industry and Commerce. But it's a godsend for us. I see you have your doubts. Let's take a look at a few sheets and I'll prove it to you. See here it says 'Capital Electric 897052'; or this one, 'J 9674309'. See what I mean? And like I said, if it's manuscript paper with a grid on it, or some other writing, then it's even easier to trace. Envelopes have similar details, and so do notebooks. The notebook you're using now has them; you've just never noticed. Look, I'll show you. It says 'North Print 66004-001.' Heavens, this is quite an antique. Produced in 1966 and you're still using it. It's nearly thirty years old. Of course, I can tell just from looking at it; this is what I do. 'Spectators are amused, but specialists aren't confused.' Give me moment; there should be something on it in our files. Back then the old comrades really devoted themselves to getting all the details right. Yes, here we are: your notebook was printed in Beijing, March 1966, one of 50,000 copies, and it was bound at the Xuanwu Street Bookbinding Factory. The wholesaler was the Beijing Cultural Products Company. See, pretty interesting, eh?

But my problem is that 'even the best housewife can't make a meal without rice.' We never get any really challenging cases. We're always mired in pettifogging investigations into the most trivial crap.

Of course, we're always busy. Take for example the case involving this foreign woman who was found dead in south-west China. There she was, naked as the day she was born, without a passport, plane ticket or money on her. Naturally, it was evident that it was a foreigner: those fingernails, the teeth, and the creams she'd used, people from Xinjiang don't have the style to use those products. But those are all someone else's speciality. I only know the basic details; I didn't pay all that much attention. Anyway, there was no doubt that it was a foreign corpse. Generally, in circumstances like that, you assume she'd been killed during a robbery. But she was in the wrong place. It was a very sensitive area, one of those exclusion zones marked in red on the maps by the National Defense Science and Industry Commission.4 So the local foreign affairs people were involved as well as political security. The usual first step in establishing a subject's identity is to check with the local service industry, in particular the hotels, where you ask people to try and identify a photograph of the deceased. Another method is to send out a general circular to the Special Trades Office and the hotels. If none of that produces results, there are always our consulates and embassies overseas where foreigners have to get their visas to enter China. But you're looking at needles and haystacks here; it's a pretty long shot.

While they were pursuing these avenues of investigation they brought the only piece of evidence found at the scene of the crime to us for analysis. It was a tampon that had been removed from the corpse. Right away you could tell it was of superior quality, even though it was made in China. Naturally we could tell it wasn't an import, but I won't go into the details of how we knew. Forget it; you probably couldn't understand anyways. After a fairly rudimentary analysis we were able to establish that it was manufactured at a factory outside Beijing; in fact I'd even been there. Even before we started our analysis I'd guessed it was theirs; their business is really booming. But it was a bit different from their standard product. The length of the string wasn't the same. We rang them long distance and found out that they had made a batch like that specially commissioned by China Air. I immediately requested the local bureau to send someone over to the factory to obtain a sample. No, we didn't want to put our trust in the factory mailing it to us. Who knows what might happen: someone might forget it; or it could get lost in the mail. You have to handle these things yourself. As soon as it arrived we knew it was the same as our victim's. Then we got in touch with the comrades in the southwest who had appealed for our assistance in the first place. That in itself was a major undertaking: it took several days to find them. It seems they thought we'd be working on this for ten days to a fortnight so they hadn't even finished their sight-seeing tour. Once they got back and showed the woman's photo to people working in the airline ticket offices, someone was sure to remember her and the could work out who she was from the passenger list. I don't know what came of that case; I don't follow these things up. Ninety-nine to one it had nothing to do with politics; probably just a case of a tourist running off on her own and being mugged for her money. Things are very lax these days. Who cares if it's in a C-grade security zone, or that you require special travel documents to get access to that area? People act as though rules and regulations don't exist; if some foreigner gets it into his or her head to go traipsing around there's not much you can do about it. Public security is a shambles as well. Not just in the southwest; right here in Beijing there have been cases of foreigners being mugged and murdered.

It goes without saying that they should have checked with the airlines first, but some police investigators are just thick. Who knows what they're thinking? There was a case involving a headless corpse in Beijing a few years ago. The body had been dismembered and was found scattered in a few different places. Among the things that had been used to wrap the pieces they found a few copies of [the Shanghai] Wenhui Daily . On the basis of that, the investigator decided that the case was linked to Shanghai, but after a lot of time and effort he still hadn't come up with anything. After he'd run out of ideas he brought the paper for us to study. There was nothing to study; we could tell from a glance that it was the Beijing facsimile version of the Shanghai paper. Things like that are incredibly annoying. There's only the most tenuous link to our expertise on paper and it does nothing to hone our skills. And there's no challenge in it at all. But if they come to you, you have to help out. Honestly, I don't think we're here just to deal with non-cases like that.

In reality we are concerned with cases that involve the use of paper as a vehicle for criminal activities. Cases involving political security or major fiscal malfeasance, such as the counterfeiting of currency or stocks and bonds. Even then the criminals involved in that kind of thing are pretty amateurish. Here we are, like cats on the prowl searching for our prey, and there's not a single rat with a sufficiently high IQ. It's very frustrating. I'd really like to tell all those bigshots who aspire to be rats: don't think the police are all dolts and fools. We've got good equipment, and we're smart, so give us something real to deal with. Give us a challenge; we'll take you on.

Just now I used the expression 'cases that involve the use of paper as a vehicle for criminal activities.' Sorry, it's the fashionable turn of phrase these days. Everyone talks about 'vehicles,' 'hardware' and suchlike. What I'm really talking about is counter-revolutionary posters and leaflets, anonymous letters, and communications with hostile forces and international spy networks. In reality there has been a big decline in the number of counter-revolutionary posters and leaflets in recent years. Times have changed and people have wised up; no one particularly wants to end up as a fugitive. They all want to get away with some petty scam or other; and they know that sticking up a few anti-government slogans or throwing a few leaflets about is not going to get them anywhere. Secret letters to spy networks are not so common these days either. Some people are still offering their services as secret agents to the foreign devils or the Taiwanese, but most of them are doing it to make money. They are such fricken stupid though, really. If it was that easy to make money, do you think people of that caliber would ever get a look in? Over half of these cases don't even require our involvement. The police can work out what is going on just on the basis of the obvious evidence and a bit of clear thinking.

On the eve of the second anniversary of the 1989 disturbances a few student associations in Beijing received anonymous letters denouncing the government. Some schools reported it to the relevant authorities and an investigation was launched. It turned out that all the major universities and colleges in the city had got the same letter, though some had been too lazy to report it, or hadn't had time to do so. People these days can talk themselves out of anything. After all, the central government and people in the society at large don't see the events of 1989 in the same light and that's why some schools couldn't be bothered to deal with the letters, of course; they didn't want to stir up any trouble. After a thorough investigation we discovered that only one school hadn't got the letter: the Beijing Communications University. That gave us the lead we wanted, so we went to work on them. We soon picked up the culprit. He actually forgot to send one of his letters to his own school. It's a common mistake made by the authors of anonymous letters. Either they forget or they think it'll attract attention. But you tell me, how would you feel dealing with opponents of that caliber? Dead boring, right? Of course, it took a while to work out exactly who had sent the letters, but once it had been narrowed down to the school it wasn't all that hard. It was obvious from the handwriting and the wording that it was a college student--don't forget we have all those graphology and and linguistics experts on hand. The public security people and the school office went through a list of all the students and narrowed it down to the guilty party fairly quickly. Once we'd nabbed him he was brought in for a bit of re-education, you know, lecturing and such. I doubt whether he was sentenced; at most he would have been thrown out of school. Either politically or administratively speaking it would be making far too much fuss to arrest and sentence someone like that. It's much better to resolve cases like that by using simple administrative sanctions rather than sending the fellow to trial for sentencing. The law courts would make a big deal of it; there'd be a big stink and the results wouldn't necessarily have been positive.

Letters people send to liaise with foreign or inimical powers are an even bigger waste of time. They write directly to the address broadcast on enemy radio stations. They actually think they can just put their letter in the mail and it'll go through unhindered. Many of the people who write these letters are young men living in poor, isolated country backwaters. It doesn't even occur to them that the people in public security might be listening to the radio too. Their letters are always full of miswritten words; the only thing clods like that know how to do is eat. Who the hell would want them to be a spy for them? Most cases like that never even make it to us. The writers usually put their real address on the envelope, or else they pre-arrange a rendezvous giving a place and time in the letter, expecting the enemy agents to come along, initiate them as spies and start providing them with an income. Some of the letter writers have nothing better to do than scrawl insults like 'I'll fuck your mother's cunt! We're going to liberate you whether you like it or not!' Those letters aren't allowed to go through either, because they'd tell the enemy station what type of geographical penetration they're getting in China. We're not going to give them any encouragement. Letters like that are seized during regular sorting in the post office, according to the law. No, it's not an abuse of a citizen's freedom of correspondence. Our regulations stipulate that once granted official permission we can confiscate the mail of people or addresses that are already under surveillance. I don't know about the exact process for applying for permission or the confiscation itself; that's outside my area of specialization.

So there you have it. The majority of these cases are pathetic. As for the few that require a bit of effort, they can generally be nutted out on the basis of past experience or obvious clues. Cases that demand heavy-duty physics and chemical analysis, things that call for the best and most up-to-date methods as well as all of your mental energies, cases that prey on your mind so you can't sleep and make you feel you've really won a battle when you've cracked them--those are so fucking rare it kills me.

Just try and imagine what it feels like. You're ready for a really good fight but you simply don't have a worthy opponent. Wouldn't that be incredibly frustrating? Apart from this sense of professional impotence we share in all of the frustrations of the society at large as well. Added to that is the fact that we're a research institute packed to the rafters with intellectuals, and you know what that means--it's a real snake pit. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. No, I don't want to talk behind people's backs or make trouble. Okay then, I'll give you an example from another workplace.

You know the way things are these days. Now, I'm not one of those people who is all that interested in money; as long as I have enough I'm happy. But some things really do get to you. Take this old college friend of mine. Ever since he quit his job at this county enterprise he's been entirely self-employed. He runs a few small paper factories and has this name card covered in all of the phoney titles he's given himself like 'Technical General Manager' and 'Executive Senior Engineer.' It's all a joke, of course. There is no such thing as an 'Executive Senior Engineer'; the most you can be in China is Senior Engineer, the equivalent to a senior university professor. But I guess the country needs quick-witted, enterprising types and that's just what he is. All that aside, however, the paper he manufactures is... well, I don't want to be too dismissive, but it's like that crappy old toilet paper they used to make; it's like scraps of pulp that are barely glued together. It's been dyed redder than the flag and he's got the hide to call it 'Superior-Quality Health Toilet Paper.' The red comes off on your hand and you can still smell the ink from the newspaper pulp it's made from. But wholesalers snap it up in bulk because of the discount he gives them. He's made a mint, and he's gone out and bought himself everything that opens and shuts--car, apartment, mobile phone, even one of those cordless fax machines. We don't even have one here in the research centre. Heavens knows what he sends and receives on the damn thing. And here I am earning a pittance and frustrated in my hopes of getting some real challenges in my job, of getting a chance to use the skills I've been taught. There's no rhyme or reason in any of it.

Even more than that, I think that if the general level of the Chinese nation doesn't improve then all our efforts and abilities are going to go to waste. Take the few big counterfeiting cases we've had, for example. The police down in Guangdong and Fujian have been confiscating bag-loads of conterfeit notes for ages now. Who knows how much more is out there in general circulation? Some of those fakes are such amateur jobs that you'd have to be blind... No, that's not right: blind people could tell they're phoney just by the feel of the stuff. But the problem is, when people discover they've been stuck with one of these counterfeit notes, they don't hand it in; they try passing it off as the real thing. The same's true for shops. They don't report it; they try using it so they won't be shortchanged. The only people who are really fooled are in the countryside, but that's more than enough. So now here we are with masses of counterfeit currency in circulation throughout China, even as far away as Inner Mongolia. Of course, we know that when you're dealing with counterfeit currency it's important to prevent its widespread circulation. If you compare counterfeit notes to bits of grit and the national currency to a big pot of rice, you know that if you want the rice to be edible you have to keep the grit out of it. If it does get in, you have to try and isolate it and get it out before it has a chance to get mixed through the whole pot. The situation we have now is that people don't want to be out of pocket, so they end up aiding and abetting in the distribution of fake money. People don't show any sense of public morality or patriotic duty. It's as if they weren't going to have to eat the rice with the grit in it themselves. No matter how much effort we put into studying counterfeit money and working out where it comes from, and even if they arrest the local perpetrators, it's still not going to improve the situation that much.

The technical demands of counterfeiting, if it's going to be effective, mean that in most cases they need the assistance of people overseas, though there are loners in the racket as well. Believe it or not, there are actually people who draw their own money, and they are pretty good at it as well. US dollars are easier to fake than Chinese currency; a black ballpoint pen and half a sheet of fine sandpaper and you can churn out tens of thousands of greenbacks. You can turn a dollar bill into a hundred dollar bill and then trade it on the black market. What would people working the black market know about big bills like that? They reckon they can make a quick profit so they go for it, no questions asked. Lots of people buy US dollars because US money retains its value more than other currencies. They keep them hidden at home instead of putting them in a bank. Who knows how much phoney US currency is lying under beds all over China being treated like precious treasure by its owners?

The most useful negotiable security worth counterfeiting is train tickets. Even real ones look fake, they're printed so badly. There was this graduate of the Central Art Academy who was picked up at the station because he was always going there to get refunds for tickets to Guangzhou and Shanghai. When they nabbed him he had a half a satchel full of fake tickets. The station police showed them to the station master, who said they were real tickets! The guy would have been detained for profiteering at most, but because he didn't have a record he probably would have been released after a few days of re-education.5 Then they caught him again. Same story. This time they took the tickets to the factory that prints the damn things, only to be told the tickets were all real; fakes couldn't possibly look that good. But the station officers still weren't satisfied. It simply wasn't logical; and of course they knew that the kid had studied art. That's how the tickets finally ended up here. We did a bit of a simple comparative analysis and confirmed that they were fakes that the guy had printed himself. The railway printers still wouldn't have a bar of it. They were ropable! They kept saying it was impossible unless the kid had a factory exactly like theirs. Naturally, with a case like that the procuracy wasn't willing to proceed with an indictment, so there was no way it would go to court. The only way to break the deadlock was to organize a meeting with the printers. It's not like it was in the old days. Now, when you put pressure on people, they actually fight back. So I asked them how the uppermost layer of the paper used on their tickets was applied. 'By machine, of course,' they replied. Then I told them that this kid's tickets had all been glued together using paste from a 58 fen bottle of Beihai Brand Glue. Can't you spot the difference, I asked them? To think they actually need a factory to print those things. You could fit everything you need to make them in a shoebox. In the end they had to admit that we were right; furthermore, they told us they hadn't even bothered to carry out an analysis. They'd just given them the once-over and decided that they were from their factory.

See what I mean? The masses don't take their own work seriously, and here we are applying ourselves to every case with energy and commitment for the sake of protecting them. It's tragic.

Add to this general state of sloppiness the overall social malaise in China today. You'd think we are really stupid to be taking things so seriously. I feel so incredibly conflicted. Here we are trying to uphold some standards and maintain a sense of probity and uncorruptibility, and all around us there are government officials who seem to be competing with each other in the corruption stakes, vying to see who can rip off most from the state, or get away with the most scams. Sooner or later all hell will break loose. And when that happens, all the anger that's out there will be directed at us. We'll get the blame from both the people and the government.

We're under a lot of pressure here, always shoulders to the grindstone. We have a higher death rate in terms of abnormal and premature deaths than even high-altitude workers, athough ironically we make less than the people selling rotting fish and prawns in the markets. No one appreciates us and sooner or later we'll get it in the neck. If by any chance there is a major change, it's our blood that'll be on their knives...

But all of this is too far away from the topic at hand. Maybe we should end it here. I've told you as much as I can, but I'd prefer if you didn't reveal my name. Of course, if they want to find out who spoke to you it'd be easy, but still it'd be best if you left my name out of it. There is a difference between home and abroad, after all. Anyway, the people who'll enjoy reading this don't need to know my name as well.

Copyright Geremie R. Barmé


  1. wuchu, that is Jishu zhencha chu, or the 'Deparment of Technical Investigation', charged with technical (including surveillance), forensic and CSI investigations.
  2. wenbao, short for wenhua baohu gongzuo, that is security work related to intellectuals, cultural dissidents and espionage, directed by the PSB's Wenhua baowei chu.
  3. That is formatted with squares as Chinese writing paper often was up to the mid and late 1990s. Most note paper of this kind had a line of characters in the bottom corner.
  4. Presumably in the vicinity of the satellite-launching bases in Sichuan Province.
  5. That is, being lectured and cajoled in a detention centre and required to write a lengthy self-criticism.