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Police officers on duty in a railway station in Wuhan
Police officers on duty in a railway station in Wuhan
Zhou Dongxu

BEIJING — China's Ministry of Public Security has weighed into a national debate about citizens filming police actions with an attention-grabbing video of its own.

The video, released last month, confirms the public's right to film or photograph police with the caveat that citizens must "not affect the execution of normal law enforcement." It also explains that police should "consciously accept and be accustomed to this supervision by camera" and not forcibly "interfere with the filming."

There is no law in China expressly forbidding the public from filming law enforcement. And yet, as many observers point out, individual police officers often prevent citizens from doing so — either for reasons of confidentiality or just to exert control. To safeguard their interests, in other words, police stubbornly resist the idea of being filmed.

That's why the Ministry of Public Security video is such a big deal, say people like Zhang Chao, an associate professor at the Henan Police Academy. "Now there's a relative standard, a guideline establishing where the boundaries lie" for both the public and the police, he explains.

At the same time, Zhang Chao expects that some police will ignore the rules and continue forcing people to put their phones and cameras away. There are certain aspects about the video, furthermore, that could be open to interpretation. As many academics have noted, the stipulation that citizens "not affect the execution of normal law enforcement" leaves plenty of gray area.

To properly enforce the principle of transparency among police, the state ought to issue a handbook as well, along with more specific regulations clarifying when filming is and isn't allowed. More detailed rules wouldn't just benefit the public, but ultimately would be in the interest of law enforcement too.

Allowing the public to film police actions makes law enforcement more accountable, and poses a direct challenge to their propaganda machine. But it can also present police in a good light provided they carry out their functions in accordance with the law. It serves as a powerful incentive, therefore, for law enforcement to perform professionally and appropriately.

In today's information age, the roles and definitions of media are constantly evolving. Police must adapt to the new situation. "Reforming the way the police operate forces the traditional system to improve," says Zhang Chao.

The Ministry of Public Security video is a major first step. What remains to be seen is how much courage and wisdom the police down on the street demonstrate in honoring the policy decision from the top.

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