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I’ve been to China several times now as a journalist and I can tell you that there is one group of people I have always tried to avoid – the police. They tend to shout at you when you are in the wrong place – say trying to visit a political dissident – or they bang on your car with their fists or thrust their hands aggressively into the camera lens.

I’ve half-wondered whether I should offer them some media training because they often end up looking like demented bar-bouncers.

china sparks2 The Chinese police turning to protest

But I’ve had a bit of education on our last trip to Tan Cheng, a town in China’s central Shandong Province. It turns out that some of China’s policemen are pretty normal – with the same hopes and fears as anyone else. More surprisingly perhaps, they are deeply worried about how they are governed in China and anxious for the future of their country.

As you will see in our film from Shandong, our unusual encounter began at the local train station. We were whisked away by officers who wanted to tell us a story about corruption in the local force. They told me how they’d been cheated out of millions of dollars by their police chief, who had organised a “low-cost accommodation scheme” for local cops in conjunction with a developer. Shortly before the officers were due to move in, the bureau chief doubled the price of the flats. Half of the 280 policemen involved lost their “low-cost flats” – and their savings when the police chief refused to return the money they’d already put down.

The policemen were stunned. Officer Chen Zhou told me they didn’t think this sort of thing could happen to them; “how could (the police chief) just trick us and put our money in his pocket? At first we protested and asked for our money back but our case was suppressed by officials. We were just ignored.”

I got the feeling they have been on quite the journey since then – one of frustration and enlightenment.

First the frustration:

Mr Chen told me they’d complained about the situation to every official they could get their hands on. When that didn’t work, they tried using China’s petitioning system – a sort of last chance saloon where people take their grievances (usually against the state) to the national petitioning office in Beijing.

Still, it is very rare for the petitions office to solve anything in China – and just getting through the front door can be a challenge. The officers told me they’d been up to Beijing six times to register their case and on each occasion, the local authorities in Tan Cheng caught wind and sent local police to bring them back.

The whole experience has left them pretty disillusioned, both with their superior officers and with the country’s political system.

China is a one-party state and the party – the Communist Party – is supposed to look after the people’s interests. With little transparency or accountability however, corruption has thrived and Mr Chen and his police colleagues have now experienced this in a deeply personal way.

There is a pungent irony here too – part of their everyday workload involves stopping protestors and petitioners from challenging the government but they now they find themselves in the same shoes. “As policemen, we are the main enforcers of social stability in this country, but when we become petitioners, I think this shows how far corruption has gone in this country”  said Mr Chen.

As for enlightenment, well that comes from knowing one’s country in a new and more truthful way and for these men, the feeling doesn’t come about at the expense of hope. They all expressed confidence in the country’s new leader, Xi Jinping, who took the reins the recent Communist Party Congress last month. In his opening remarks to the nation, Mr Xi warned that corruption could doom the party and the nation if it wasn’t dealt with.

It is going to be difficult to do anything about corruption in places like Shandong but men like Mr Chen and his colleagues will not back down. On one level, they are simply trying to get their money back, but they are also agents of change – people in uniform who say enough is enough.

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