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The brutality of those responsible for the China virus revives painful memories


For many, the violent conclusion of a family game of mahjong summed up everything wrong with the local authorities who are leading China’s efforts to contain the deadly coronavirus epidemic.

In the Hubei Province incident captured on video, a gang led by a camouflaged man wearing a red armband aggressively enters a village house and brutalizes one of the residents, before pulling the mahjong table outside and tearing it to pieces .

Given China's history of government law enforcement, this could be considered a relatively minor brawl. But the overzealous brutality of petty officials touched a nerve by evoking painful memories of the state-sponsored savagery of the 1960s and 1970s. Then, Chinese leader Mao Zedong supported millions of students who broke into private homes, beating people and destroying property in the name of communism.

"This batch of red armbands behaves like bandits," said a surfer on the video. "Stopping the coronavirus is not the cultural revolution."

Law enforcement officials were among the large number of volunteers and local officials who voluntarily stood in the front line of President Xi Jinping's "people's war" against the virus. Many Chinese people have gotten into the habit of calling these local police officers "Red Guards", the names of students in the Mao era, because of their armbands and gangsters.

"Although the cultural revolution has been over for over 40 years, you can still see the bruises it has left on Chinese society," said David Zhang, a lawyer with the Mo Mooping Beijing law firm. . "Contempt for the law, violations of basic human rights and dignity – these things still exist today."

The virus that started in Wuhan infected more than 80,000 Chinese people in two months and dealt a major blow to the world's second largest economy. The epidemic, which has caught the regime off guard, constitutes the greatest threat to date for Mr. Xi's eight years of leadership, adding to the pressure for an effective popular response.

As part of these efforts to slow its spread, each Chinese village and urban residential complex was asked to apply its own prevention regime.

In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, these are generally lax. But in some areas, particularly those closer to the center of the epidemic in Hubei Province, local authorities quickly established their own fiefdoms, banning foreigners, confining people considered to be at risk of infection and publicly shaming anyone who does not follow their instructions.

In other cases filmed in recent weeks, people have been welded to their homes for "quarantine" or tied to lampposts for not wearing a face mask.

An empty crossroads in Wuhan. Cities and towns across China have decided to stop large rallies, with harsh sanctions being imposed on violators.

An empty crossroads in Wuhan. Cities and towns across China have decided to stop large rallies, with harsh sanctions being imposed on violators. © AP

Beijing has made efforts to temper law enforcement officials, a senior public security official warning of excessive and "simplistic" measures that "damage the image" of the regime. But such statements have little effect on the ground.

Local rules on how to stop the spread of the virus are established by community leaders without official supervision or advice. In an example from Hubei, an "urgent notice" warned households against eating together and even urging married couples to sleep in separate beds. In Henan province, which borders Hubei, a group of villagers were forced to recite an apology from the police after being caught playing cards without wearing masks.

Cities and towns across China have decided to stop large rallies, with harsh sanctions being imposed on violators. The day before the mah-jong fight, the city of Xiaogan prohibited all residents from leaving their homes. Anyone who did so could be detained for 10 days.

"All residents without anti-epidemic functions who are on the street will, without exception, be sent for compulsory collective study," ordered the city of Wuxue. The phrase "collective study" echoed its echoes of group sessions where the ideology of the Communist Party was transmitted, a common practice under Mao. At least five cities have adopted this approach.

China's infectious disease laws assign public health responsibility to powerful bodies such as the National Health Commission. Local governments are required to help, to some extent, to adapt to the gravity of the situation. But lawyers have criticized the wave of recent executions by untrained local officials and volunteers who have little or no legal power

"No matter how difficult the situation, local governments cannot assume the powers of the country's highest institutions," said Tong Zhiwei, a professor of law at the University of Political Science and Law. 39; East of China in Shanghai. “These are typical examples of exceeding the limits of their authority. . . They must be arrested immediately. "

The emergency response measures do not include "the imprisonment of residents of an entire district," he added.

However, the Chinese judicial authorities have emphasized on several occasions recently that failure to comply with these preventive measures could constitute a criminal offense. In one example, state media reported last week that a Shanghai court had imprisoned a man named Zhang for eight months after arguing with the policeman at his complex during A routine antivirus temperature control.

Mr Zhang, the lawyer, said that the severity of the epidemic was enough to convince local authorities to act on, or even exceed, the harshest interpretations of the guidelines. "They do not want to be blamed for not having mastered the epidemic," he said.

Nian Liu's additional report in Beijing

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