Police propaganda billboard advertising goals for building a “Peaceful and Healthy Society.” This photograph was taken in Taiwan in the early 2000s. Photo courtesy Jeffrey T Martin

How Law Matters to the Taiwanese Police

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Jeffrey T Martin

When the police patrolmen I knew in Taiwan reflected on their experience working as agents of law enforcement, they frequently invoked a cultural ideal of balance between three primordial qualities of human sociality: qing (sentiment), li (reason) and fa (law). It was a defining idiom of their job, an idiom pedigreed by a thousand-year-old jurisprudential tradition and expressed in modern form through textbook techniques taught in the police college. This elegant fusion of tradition and modernity within a robust symbolic triad suited the qing-li-fa idiom perfectly to the task of rationalizing the discretionary dimension of police work. Taiwan’s political liberalization had burdened the discretionary aspects of policing with a structural role in everyday politics, as the end of party-state authoritarianism exposed police to a proliferating plurality of constituencies capable of holding them to account. The situation I observed thus seemed to suggest a cultural explanation for the exemplary smoothness of Taiwan’s democratic transformation. Successful regime change was, in part at least, a consequence of the cultural resources available for holding things together as the institutional arrangements of law and the state underwent wholesale practical and symbolic transformation.

From the perspective of a broader, comparative anthropology of police, however, we might question how much explanatory power can be drawn from a single cultural idiom. Fifty years of ethnographic research on policing around the world has revealed, quite universally, that law always plays a marginal role in the discretion-heavy organization of street-level police practice. To be sure, nations that imagine their solidarity around rule-of-law ideals tend to habitually impose a retroactive normative framing of legal order in evaluating the post hoc outcomes of police action. But the in-the-event work of street policing is conducted far from the kinds of set-apart ritual arenas (eg, courtrooms, parliamentary meetings) where the outcome of an event is actually determined by its legal form per se. The anthropology of police must resist any temptation to portray police work as a site in which the state itself somehow appears in its essential form as an agency of “legitimate force.” The dynamics of policing are specific to the contexts of policing, not expressions of some fundamental quality underlying all of modern statehood. In other words, ethnographic observation of law being systematically marginalized in the contexts of Taiwanese street policing by invocation of other culturally valorized bases of social order is not necessarily evidence that those cultural values played a constitutional role in the creation of Taiwan’s newly democratic state.

Police propaganda billboard advertising goals for building a “Peaceful and Healthy Society.” This photograph was taken in Taiwan in the early 2000s. Photo courtesy Jeffrey T Martin

So what is the theoretical significance of my data? As mentioned, I believe it is specific to the particular way that Taiwanese street policing fits into its immediate political contexts. This fitness is a longue-duree historical arrangement, an artifact of the way Taiwanese modernity has taken shape through alternating waves of colonial/authoritarian repression and liberal reform. During three years of fieldwork coincident with Taiwan’s first democratic alternation in executive power (ie, the first three years of the Chen Shui-bian Administration) I observed how a neighborhood police station worked to maintain a definitively “local” social order. This was exemplified by the way the everyday routines of policing reproduced the hegemony of a group of people which the police referred to as “the locals” (difang renshi or, more wryly, “the local gentry,” difang shenshi). A patrolman explained the category to me thus; “It’s the vocational participants in local affairs … people who are a bit more enthusiastic about participating in community affairs—the temple management committees, the village or borough chief, the village secretary, the popular representatives, the ones who are routinely active in the locality. … There are even some with no formal status at all [who just] like to participate in ‘backstage work’ … you know, the advisors and the vote brokers.”

These “locals,” as practitioners of face-to-face network power brokerage, upheld a tradition of political culture with precedents stretching back through Taiwanese modernity to customs brought to the island by the Chinese who settled there in the 17th and 18th centuries. They practiced the political arts of a social formation that Professor Fei Xiaotong named the “Differential Mode of Association.” The end of authoritarianism in the 1990s changed the way this sphere of network politics was integrated into state power. No longer would a “revolutionary” party claiming to stand above the particularism of parochial interests subordinate local powers beneath its overtly political high-policing apparatus. The Leninist vanguard gave way to an open electoral system, an arena of party competition in which “the locals” rose to prominence as free agents trafficking in parochial influence. At the quotidian level of everyday life, this fostered a modality of democratic citizenship constituted by local networks of influence. Elections provided an arena through which individuals could foster and develop their connections with successful political players. These connections supplied the basis for effective participation in political decision-making processes.

The function of “the locals” in policing exemplified this network-defined form of democratic citizenship. They provided network-based political representation to clients caught up in police action. Anyone coming to the station to report a crime or mediate a dispute was well-advised to include in their entourage at least one familiar local face. People finding themselves dealing with the police in the streets used cell phones to summon local elites, if not to come to the scene and advocate for them in person, then at least to have a few words with the policeman over the phone. The advocacy of the locals was a crucial element in the process by which the consequences of police intervention were determined. Having a “big man” on hand to “speak sentiment” on one’s behalf could make the difference between gaining respect as a subject participating in political discussion, as opposed to losing control in being classified as an object for police processing. In this role “the locals” embodied the complexity of state-society relations defining Taiwanese democracy at its grass roots. They constituted a layer of organized political brokerage that served to weave state action into social life through a fabric of network connections.

Understanding how law matters to Taiwanese police requires understanding how law matters within this arrangement. When police actions were undertaken, legal considerations were of course a downstream concern, but they were only one potential consequence of the situation at hand. The primary orientations of the in-the-event action were defined not by legal concerns but by idioms of civility and virtue elaborated in a political vocabulary of guanxi (connections), ganqing (sentimental feelings), renqing (human sentiments) and other ideals, a cultural syndrome that I have taken to calling the “guanxi complex.” The guanxi complex set the terms by which the relevance of law was negotiated.

How social forces are channeled into legal institutions is a basic question of legal sociology. A cultural approach to this question examines the ideological topography of meaningful possibility through which people steer social energies towards or away from legal form. Policing is a site through which this steering process often passes. My ethnography of Taiwanese policing discovered the significance of “the locals” to this steering process, revealing one way that localized network powers matter to Taiwanese democracy. These powers are rationalized by reference to traditional idioms of civic virtue. However (contrary to my initial ideas) the cultural does not act as a sui generis sphere of causality determining the course of events. To be sure, culture may determine how virtue figures into conversations between Taiwanese police and citizens, but without the longue-duree historical arrangements situating the police station in the institutional landscape of local politics, the traditional virtues of civility would not carry the same practical meaning. The institutional and the cultural dimensions are, in other words, mutually constitutive.

Jeffrey T Martin is a cultural anthropologist working in the sociology department at the University of Hong Kong. He runs a policing seminar in Hong Kong that aspires, among other things, to contribute to the development of a comparative anthropology of policing (see www.policingstudiesforum.com).


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