Primo Levi’s The Truce is a beautiful book that contains many insights into the human condition. For those who have not had the good fortune to read this masterpiece, it describes the year or so period over which Primo Levi recovered from his experience of Auschwitz and his return to Italy. Having been rescued by the Russians, Levi necessarily spent his time recovering in refugee camps and transit centres in the Soviet Union. In additional to his remarkable insights into the nature of humanity, Levi also gives us a unique picture of Russia under Stalin. Unlike most western writers of the time, he was not writing about his time in Russia in order to criticize or applaud communism; his experience was entirely tangential to it, and although thankful to his Soviet liberators and potentially a sympathizer (since a leftist during the war), he had no particular broader political motives for his book. This is about as unbiassed a snapshot of Soviet life as you could hope to get at the time, and it is remarkable for one common theme : chaos. Contrary to our image of communist life as regimented, strictly controlled and highly authoritarian, his experience of the Soviet Union was one of chaos, easy movement, rules flouted, and a kind of free-floating easiness of life that one wouldn’t expect in this putatively rigid society. One could argue that this was a consequence of the immediate confusion of the post-war era, but I don’t think this can be all of the reason: we know that the Soviet Union launched vicious crackdowns in its territories when the war was over, and very efficiently looted East Germany; surely if they had wanted to they could have run their refugee camps, railway stations and behind-the-lines towns with an iron fist. But they didn’t, and this surprised me when I read the book. One doesn’t associate chaotic and disordered, highly transient and quite libertine lifestyles with an immediate post-war Stalinist state.

Recently I have been reading a book called Passage to Manhood: Youth Migration, Heroin and AIDS in Southwest China, by Shao-hua Liu, which is a book about the development of heroin addiction and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in minority Nuoso people in Sichuan province, China. The book is based on ethnographic research carried out by Liu during 2005-2009, and describes the particular social and cultural context in which heroin addiction spread through this community. It’s billed as a work of “medical ethnography” and it certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard. It’s a very interesting read! Although the fieldwork was conducted in the 2000s, much of the discussion concerns past events in the lives of the research subjects, and many of these past events focus around criminality: historically the Nuoso have entered manhood by looting neighbouring Han Chinese areas and taking slaves, and as modernity overtook their communities this practice shifted from looting neighbouring areas to going on journeys to large cities and engaging in petty crime in places like Chengdu, Xi’An, or even Beijing. The book contains accounts of some of these activities.

This is interesting because it gives us an insight into the interaction of criminals from an ethnic minority (supposedly discriminated against in China) with China’s public security officials. China is supposedly highly authoritarian and has a strong police force, large prison population, etc. So one would expect that there would be a fairly robust response to Nuoso criminality, and some evidence of the pervasive nature of Chinese authoritarianism. In fact, we read more of the same kinds of thing as Levi described. For example, in one passage we discover that an area of Han Chinese in Chengdu got permission from the police to set up an extra-judicial police force to patrol their areas and prevent Nuoso from entering them unless they had identification. You would think that a strong central state would prohibit private groups from this sort of thing, unless (perhaps) they were officially-supported militia. But compared to the states dealings with the Han Chinese, when they interact with Nuoso criminals things really get chaotic. Let us consider three examples.

The Mummy Clause

In one instance, a mother was arrested for drug dealing in Yunnan province and sent to a detention centre. The mother had a baby of several months who she was nursing, and so her family petitioned the local Communist Party to let her go for a year so she could nurse her baby. They did, on the condition that she return to detention after a year. At the end of that year she absconded and returned to drug dealing in Chengdu. The story does not contain any suggestion that the police were able to follow her. This is an example of an informal judicial arrangement being made for an ethnic minority mother – is it consistent with our expectation of a strong Chinese security apparatus?

Public Cremation

In Nuosu theology, it is very important to cremate the body of a dead person, and to return at least some of their skeleton and ashes to the family so that their three souls can gain proper rest. Of course, for homeless Nuosu drug users in big cities far from their homes, this is very difficult. Many Nuosu died of drug overdose and had to be cremated in the cities where they died, but this often cost far more than even a wealthy Nuosu could afford. In one account, a Nuosu man describes his experience of burning the dead in the parks of Xi’an:

One time, in the middle of a cremation on the fringes of Xi’an City, policemen suddenly arrived and accused me of being a murder. I told them, “I didn’t kill him. He was my own brother! We Yizu [minorities] do this to teh dead all the time.” I showed the policemen the dead man’s hukou[registration card]. I thought it might be needed, so I had brought it with me from Limu. I also gave the policemen the telephone number of the Zhoujue County Police Station. They made a call to the Zhaojue and realized that we Yizu do cremate the dead this way. So they didn’t arrest me but warned me not to burn bodies this way anymore.

So this is the fearful Chinese police in action. They catch you burning a body in one of China’s major cities, and they ask you not to do it again, and decide not to investigate a murder, after calling a rural police station and being told that this sort of thing happens. Can you imagine if you tried burning a body in a bit of scrubland on the edge of the city you currently live in, and the police caught you? Would it be sufficient to say “I can’t afford a crematorium”? If an Aboriginal man tried to do a customary burning of a body on the outskirts of an Australian city, would he be let off with a caution by passing cops? I think not!

Anti-drug Campaigns

The author also describes the initial efforts by Chinese police to break up drug dealing in the Nuosu towns. Having initially left it to the local Nuosu elders (“lineage groups”) to resolve the problem – itself not the sort of behaviour one associates with a state that is oppressing minorities –  the police finally started acting on the increasing problems that were being experienced in these towns. In one instance they broke up a group of youths who were watching tv in front of a school. The Nuosu being interviewed tells us

Everybody ran and hastily threw the drugs behind the TV set. The police arrested a five-year-old boy who happened to pick up a small packet of drugs! His lineage headmen complained to the police about their arrest of an innocent kid and finally were able to take him back home.

What happened to the terrifying police? Where are their powers of arbitrary detention? What about using the kid as a hostage to enforce good behaviour by the barbarian minority?! What about swapping the kid for a drug dealer, or sending the lot of them to work camps? And just precisely how official and intimidating and well-organized could this raid possibly have been, when everyone was able to run and throw their drugs behind the TV. Imagine if the police in your country did a drug bust, and your level of terror of them was sufficiently low that throwing your drugs behind a communal tv would be sufficient to get you out of trouble.

I’ve seen COPS, and I don’t think that things would have panned out quite the same way for a group of young men from an American minority in the same situation.

This is not the kind of thing one expects of a society with a strong police state, where untold hordes of people are supposedly shuffling around in re-education camps, while those who are “free” yearn for the real freedoms of the west. In fact, the USA has a much higher rate of imprisonment than China, and debate about whether China has a more punitive public security system than the US centres around the numbers of unofficial prisoners (the shambling hordes in the work camps) and the treatment of minorities. This book suggests to me that the Chinese handling of (non-political) crimes is much less punitive than the US, and more chaotic and based on individual discretion (not always a good thing) and that there is a lot of confusion in its public security apparatus. It also suggests to me that their system of handling minorities is not as oppressive as some commentators would have us believe.

As ever, nothing of what we’re told by our friends in the media can be trusted…