A copshop cuppa

Loitering outside the austere concrete monolith that were the police headquarters, instinct told me we should be lying low. Instead, we were trying to draw attention to ourselves while hopping around on the icy pavement to keep warm. Most of the passing officers avoided eye contact. What business did two foreign civilians have at the back gates of the Beijing police headquarters?

In a gusto of metal and flying snow, a uniformed officer pulled up on her motorcycle. With swift efficiency, she swept off her helmet and scooped an official looking brown paper package under her arm. Her epaulettes and badges denoted authority, which we were in desperate need. Thus far our pleas for help in the English language had gone unanswered so grappling with my limited grasp of Mandarin, I implored her,

''Duibuqi, sorry but can you please help us.''

''What is the matter?'' her grip on the unmarked parcel tightened ever so slightly.

''My friend's camera has been stolen.''

To our surprise, rather than telling us not to waste her time, she immediately ushered us into the compound.

Swallowed into the bowels of the police command centre, we swept through a maze of seemingly identical corridors, resounding with importance. The heavy steps of booted feet resonated with the officious shuffling of papers. I'll admit that even though we were victims of crime not perpetrators, I was a little afraid. By the time we reached the officer's little concrete office, I had no idea where we were or how to navigate back to the outside world.

The desks supported stacks of papers and towering above them was a young cadet who was as nervous as he was tall. While the officer put the kettle on, she instructed the cadet to take notes for a police report. My friend recounted how her camera was snatched by a pick pocket in the markets and as he scribed, the cadet bit his fingernails and hit himself on the head when he made the occasional mistake.

Happy with the cadet's progress, the officer retired into the background. I was intrigued to see her take out a lethal looking letter opener and slice open the brown paper package. A cache of confiscated drugs? A piece of vital evidence? A weapon seized from a crime scene? I watched with baited breath like the viewer of a police reality television show. Dramatic music played in my mind as she reached in and withdrew the contents of the large parcel. a puffy, neon pink jacket with a voluminous hood lined with bright pink fake fur. She held the new purchase up to herself, smiled, nodded and slipped it on over her uniform with satisfaction.

While the female officer settled in behind her desk radiating pink, the cadet continued to help my friend make her statement. As time went on, my attempts to suppress the urge failed and I had to ask the cadet whether I could use the bathroom.

''Just around the corner,'' he said.

The female officer, momentarily stopped admiring her jacket and started laughing,

''No, that is for men only.''

The cadet giggled nervously like a school-girl.

On the way to the toilets (with a new set of directions to the women's ones) I met other officers going about their day. They did not seem to question why a young Australian was wandering their hallways. We exchanged smiles.
Later, emerging from the police headquarters, my friend was comforted and we were both warmed by hot cups of tea.

Since our brief unexpected visit to their station, the Beijing police force has come under international scrutiny. I am in no way condoning the arrest of religious worshippers and by no means claim that criticism is unwarranted. However, it is interesting to note that the international media crucifies law enforcement for their failings but their accomplishments are not met by the same fanfare. Our bumbling cadet and our female officer in her new jacket, who went out of their way to help us, are not on overseas news bulletins as the faces of modern China. The image of the Beijing police force today is of aggressive squads herding members of a congregation onto a bus. Travelling opens up new perspectives and my short personal insight into their headquarters near the Imperial City suggests to me that the character of the Beijing police force, like any human organisation, is not so black and white. In fact, when you least expect, it is bright pink.
S Hing

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