Sean and I were driving back from the Great Wall. It had really been a fantastic day. It was my fifth time to the Wall but first time to Jinshanling, and was quite pleased with the sparse crowds and pleasant hike. The sky out in the mountains was a shade of brilliant blue I had never known. As far as we were concerned, our biggest problem was the Beijing highway: the slow drivers clogging the left lane, the fast ones sneaking down the breakdown lane, and everyone cutting each other off in between.
We had just about hit the exit for the fourth ring road when a police car pulled up next to us, flashing its lights, and three guys in it motioned for us to pull over.
“What the…?” Sean, who had gotten his Chinese driver’s license a few months prior, had been driving the speed limit and was wearing a seat belt. By all measures, he was probably the most reasonable driver on the road.
Two police cars pulled up, one in front and one in back. Six men, two in the baby-blue police blue uniforms and four in the pale-green security officer uniforms surrounded the car. Upon command, he handed them his license, registration, rental agreement, and passport.
I could already picture the blog post in my head: Beijing Cops Pull over Foreigners for Looking Foreign. Sean asked what he had been doing wrong. They ignored him. Three officers came around to my side of the car. I opened the door.
“What’s the matter?”
“Where did you get this car?”
“My friend rented it.”
“Where and when?”
“This morning at a place near Gongti stadium.”
Thankfully they did not ask for my passport. I don’t know what they’d do with my passport number, but even if I’ve committed no crime, I don’t want anything sketchy associated with my name.
The policeman holding Sean’s four documents suddenly announced with great fanfare, “This car’s been stolen!”
They then told us to collect our things and follow the man in black. Man in black? There was a young man wearing a tight black shirt, black pants, and black shoes. I felt a surge of hate as I recognized him to be a semi-plain-clothes policeman; the type of government-sponsored thug who throws protesters in cars. I pointed at him and said, “Is this man an officer?” (or rather, the Chinese would say “Is this man a keeper of the peace?”)
No one answered. He looked away, and the main officer told us to follow the young man in all black. He had just pulled up in a big white van with blackened windows. It said “Public Security” on the side. I often see these vans around Beijing, and when I do I wonder who they’ve picked up — who is looking out those blackened windows, and what they think as they look out at the free pedestrians. Every story about a political prisoner starts with a ride in one of these vans.
We entered through the back door. Sean, then me, then the man in black. I wasn’t worried about being charged with grand theft, but I was pretty shook-up by that car. Like I was walking someone else’s Green Mile.
As we drove to Chaoyang police station, the young man in black texted and answered phone calls. “Did you eat? — no, me neither — sure, I’ll pick some up. How many bottles? — Nah, I got stuff to take care of right now. Yeah, I’m busy, I’ll see you later.”
At the police station, we exited out the back door (despite there being two side doors), and the man in black told us to not forget anything in the car, ending his sentence with the sensitive “ah” (in Chinese, ending sentences with the sound “ah” can express sympathy or concern). He tagged along as we were taken to a combination office/interrogation room, perhaps best called “soft-core interrogation room.” A sign said “Please read the report to confirm it reflects your statement accurately.” I knew then that we were not in serious trouble.
Two police sat at computers browsing the Security Bureau’s website, checking out pictures from some police officer bro-out party and reading picture comments. The guy in black kicked his feet up on a chair in the corner. Someone told us to sit down.
No one paid any attention to us for half an hour, and I took that to mean that we were just a formality. Everyone was smoking. One man even rolled his own cigarettes. I took out my yo-yo and started to do some tricks. The guy in black switched out for a younger kid in black. He was maybe nineteen years old, and the black outfit sagged on his body. He spent the first five minutes slapping his watch on the chair’s armrest.
I turned to him, “What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s broken,” he smiled.
“So why are you hitting it more?”
The police officers laughed from their desks, blowing out smoke. Things were getting annoying. Eventually someone came and wrote down our names and passport numbers (I forgot mine. I gave them my phone number instead.). Then he handed us back the car key.
“So, the car wasn’t stolen?” Sean asked.
“We’ll take care of these matters,” the policeman said.
As we walked out, I saw the original guy in black lounging in the entrance way, feet again kicked up on the counter. “Goodbye, friend.” I smiled and waved. He looked away.
When we walked into the car rental office an hour later, the lady behind the desk started cracking up. “They’re here! The customers who got arrested!”
I guess it was pretty funny, and all the easier to laugh about since we were released and refunded in full. Needless to say, it wasn’t your typical trip to the Great Wall.
This story continues onto: Thoughts on Getting Arrested