Translation: The Curse of the Security Check

Anyone who has boarded an airplane in the last 20 years knows what stands between arrival at the terminal and waiting at the gate: shoes off, laptops out, water bottles emptied …. In China, similar checkpoints also await railway and subway passengers, among others. In an April WeChat post, translated in full below, Wei Sanhe recalls the personal indignities he has witnessed and suffered himself at security checkpoints, and reflects on the station in life of the ideal security official:

The Curse of the Security Check

Wei Sanhe

1

An officer blocked the young man in front of me at the train station security check. “You have a lot of scissors in your bag,” the officer said. It was “a lot of scissors” that got my attention. I watched as the officer opened his backpack and took out a case. “For cutting hair,” the passenger said.

I stopped to watch the story unfold.

“A lot of scissors.” Actually, there were only two pairs of scissors, one the kind with teeth, you’ve seen them, I couldn’t tell you what they’re called. And there were some other small implements that seemed to have sharp, metal points.

Have you seen the latest hairdressing tools? They’ve really gotten an upgrade, and they fit into those little cases that are bestsellers on Taobao and JD.com.

The frontline security officer brought the tools to another officer who was seated, and together they began their inspection. I was about five meters away. There was an electronic display screen for a rear view, where I watched the officers turning over the hairdressing tools and examining their fine, pointed ends.

I got nervous waiting for the security girl to say something. Would the tools stay or go?

Finally, she pronounced her judgment. “You can’t bring the scissors on the train.”

She turned and escorted the young man and his tools to a counter. She told him he could bring everything else besides the scissors, but he decided to leave the whole kit behind.

Then I witnessed a “humanizing” procedure. The young lady at the counter took out a sealable paper bag, and the young man scanned its QR code. Then the security girl put the tools in the bag and sealed it.

Don’t think too hard about it. This wasn’t for fast delivery of your property to your destination. The QR scan was for leaving stuff behind and arranging when to come back and fetch it.

“When can he pick it up? Or rather, how long will they hold on to your dangerous items?” I asked this out loud.

“Speak ,” said the security girl. “I don’t understand.”

That threw me off. I thought this work would be the province of a local girl with a few day’s training, at most.

It was actually difficult work. She had to scan every single passenger from head to toe, which meant that for each person she had to raise her head, lower her head, and stoop over. Sitting duty was possibly better. I reckoned they took turns.

It would be hard work for anyone not in their prime. Even so, it couldn’t be easy for any of these women (according to my observations of subways and airports, women comprise more than half of security officers).

And here was a slight young girl who had traveled so far for the sanctuary of this work.

I switched to Sichuanese and asked again, but she didn’t answer. She was too busy. The flow of the security checkpoint depended on her.

2

My onlooking complete, I hurried to catch my train, thinking back on the many checkpoint encounters I had stockpiled in my brain.

At this very same train station, the year before last, an old friend came to visit. There had been an issue with her luggage. She’d been here before, with the same piece of luggage. It had come with her from Europe to China, and in China from to Xi’an by high-speed rail, and again from Xi’an to Chengdu through another airport check.

The problem was hair gel.

No matter how good her Chinese, she couldn’t get around the regulations. She had looked at me, hoping I would say something useful. I knew what she was thinking. It’s not surprising that most reactionary Western countries have a weak sense of the enemy—they basically have no security checks on their subways and trains. All I could do was look back at her, at a loss.

Whatever they confiscate they hold onto for just one day, and you have to come back to get it yourself.

I asked if they could hold the hair gel for a few days longer. I remembered that at the Capital Airport I once had a tube of toothpaste over 100 milliliters: When they took it, they said they’d hold onto it for a month.

But the officers at Chengdu East Railway Station thought I was talking nonsense, and they ignored me.

At that point you just have to give up. To console my visitor from far away, I explained that security is a core Chinese value, and the security checkpoint is the strictest place in China. The courtroom can be accommodating, but not here. You must understand.

3

Two years ago, I took my father to Chongqing for medical treatment. I wanted him to ride the subway, something he’d never done before. I also brought him home by high-speed rail. All this amounted to him experiencing the modern security check.

On both the subway and the high-speed rail, the security girls asked my father to take off his hat for inspection.

Both times I said, “This man is in his eighties. Even I wouldn’t take off his hat. How can we get past this?”

As you might expect, they wouldn’t make an exception. My humor didn’t even get me a grudging smile. The security girls were overworked, and they weren’t in the mood to listen to me.

When I took off my father’s hat and handed it to the inspector, I said to myself, This is just strange, and wrong.

At the same time, I understood. In my opinion, those women are the most dedicated workers in China.

4

I am quite the artful dodger at my hometown train station.

I have often wondered, Is it worth it? But I haven’t changed my ways.

Just a few weeks ago, I got into an argument with the security girls there. Objectively, I did lose my temper at them.

I had heard two villagers talking in the waiting lounge. One said his wrench had been confiscated. The other said he’d been lucky, his wrench had slipped through.

It was around the time of the spring equinox, and farm work was picking up, but these two were only now heading out to work. They were bringing along simple tools, most likely for odd jobs. One was a bit younger, while the other seemed to be in his fifties. I imagined what their lives were like, and it got to me.

It sounded like they were heading far north, where it was still cold. Their big backpacks were stuffed with things to keep warm. They looked stupefied, as if they were discussing someone else’s problems. The one whose wrench had been taken was expressionless. The lucky one looked neither happy nor worried.

I knew how they felt. They had one foot at home and the other in an indeterminable future. But they weren’t in the present, and inside they were empty.

I told them, “Wait and see. I’ll have a word with them!” They were a bit surprised. “I’m not going to get it back for you,” I said, “I can’t do that, but I am going to give them a what-for!”

I went up to security. There weren’t many passengers in this train station in the county seat, so they weren’t busy. “You took his wrench,” I said.

“According to regulations,” was her firm, indifferent reply.

“You think it’s easy for him?” I said. “Traveling so far from home at such an advanced age? You could just let it go. So what if it’s a wrench? It’s a work tool, and you took it. Now he’ll have to buy another. Not a good look for you!”

The officers were local recruits, the sons and daughters of farmers, so I tried to appeal to their hometown pride.

I may have been a tad emotional.

The girl holding the scanner was surprised, and annoyed, by my meddling. The girl at the computer said, “If we let him take it on the train, and if a fight broke out…”

“Young lady,” I said, “they’re out to make money, not trouble. Their families are waiting for their return. They want everything to go smoothly, more than you do…”

The girl holding the scanner joined in. “But what if…”

I knew we weren’t using the same logic, they and I. They wouldn’t buy my argument. So I just spoke for myself, lobbing it back to them. “What if you…”

To my surprise, they seemed to find my “what if” supremely offensive, and fired back, “What if you…”

Ha ha, it was pretty funny.

But I didn’t have time to talk nonsense with them. I had to check my ticket one last time and get to the platform. I had to change their minds right then and there.

“Police…” the girl half-shouted, half-cursed.

“Yeah, where are they?” I yelled back. “Get them over here and let’s settle this.” Meanwhile, I was thinking how less-than-ideal it would be if the police didn’t let me on the train.

The police came, and I blurted, “This young lady needs to be disciplined. She has no manners.”

That wasn’t the truth. I was the one who had escalated things. I’d been ruder than them. I had made a fuss for one reason: to make sure they remembered this incident, and hopefully, at some point, realized that they had gone too far.

The young policeman heard the story. Then he gritted his teeth and said with a blank face, “So you’re fighting injustice!”

I understood the weight of this statement: It meant I was provoking them. I said, “No, I just tried to reason with them. I mean, they could let a fellow villager keep his wrench. They’re just going to work, after all.”

I hoped that had cooled things down. “I’ve said my piece.”

The two policemen didn’t say anything. They turned off their cameras.

In the end, I escaped the trouble I’d brought upon myself, and possibly some grave consequences.

5

I come from an agricultural community. Train security checks are China’s postmodern art. When villagers from an agricultural community are asked to do “postmodern art,” it’s a train wreck, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Two years ago, on the morning of March 8, 2019, I bought a train ticket to Beijing. After passing the last hurdle—that is, when I got to the platform—the ticket inspector suddenly shouted to the vast, empty hall, “He’s one bound for Beijing!”

Two uniformed officers ran over and told me to follow them. I asked what the matter was. They said I had to go through security. I said I’d already gone through security. They said I had to do it again.

On the right side of the hall was a small door that also led to the railway platform.

A whole bunch of uniforms were standing around. There was a table. My backpack was placed on the table. One uniform deftly got to work. I still didn’t understand what was going on, but I do remember it was a woman, and that she ripped open the zipper.

I was so bewildered that I just said, “What is it? What is it?” What I meant was, Why not just ask me to open my bag?

They were also confused: This was just how it was done. It never occurred to them that they shouldn’t just randomly open someone’s bag. Hadn’t they been granted the authority?

I quickly realized that there was a second security check if you were going to Beijing at the beginning of March [around the usual time of the Two Sessions political meetings in the capital]. It was like this every year. It wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular. You simply couldn’t go without a second security check. I accepted this, of course.

I said, “I could have opened it for you, but you didn’t ask.”

That was when the trouble started. It was probably the first time they’d encountered someone like me. In the ensuing negotiations, they never got the difference between me opening my own bag, and them doing it.

“I’ll open it, you inspect it,” I said. They played along. But I had deprived them of their sacred rite to go through other people’s belongings. I’d taken the sport out of it. I took my things out one by one and placed them on the table, stealing anxious glances at the platform on the other side of the door, where the train, for now, was waiting…

What did they think, seeing me so nervous? They were in no hurry, and they weren’t even looking at the objects I had scattered before them.

The performance complete, I hurriedly packed up my things. “OK?”

They ordered me to take everything out again. They had to make another pass, because apparently when I’d been checked the first time they’d been testing their equipment.

I was running out of time. I started to sweat.

It was useless for me to worry, though, and impossible for me to get out of it.

“I’ll take it and go back through, OK? I’ll run.” No. Once a passenger has laid a hand on their bag, they have to go through another body scan. And that wasn’t the end of it. I had no choice but to let a uniform carry my bag to the door and put it through the scanner again.

That forty-ish officer, in full uniform, with a baton at his waist and jackboots on his feet, took my bag and walked slowly, leisurely, rocking to the left, swaying to the right, over to the scanner in front of the waiting room.

I watched him, my heart galloping, but I told myself there was nothing for it. I had to calm down.

He put my bag into the machine, and the conveyor belt spat it out. Then he took my bag in one hand, and once more started swaggering back towards me.

I pictured myself snatching my bag and bursting through the door. The train still hadn’t moved.

But he pressed my bag onto the table and said, “There’s metal inside.”

“Didn’t you see it just now?” I cried. “It’s a key!”

Out the “metal” came. Then it was returned to my bag, which was checked again.

The train started to move.

6

I hold no grudge against that jackbooted, baton-wielding uniform. He, on the other hand, holds a grudge against me. He has been given the authority to check people, so of course he resents the people he’s checking. How else to explain his stalling?

I couldn’t keep banging my head against the wall, and I couldn’t grab him and bang both our heads against the wall, either. Not that I didn’t want to, but because he wasn’t him. He was them, and I couldn’t handle them on my own. None of his accomplices objected to him dawdling with my bag. Every one of them was indifferent to my anxious pleas. I don’t know if they’re simply numb in their hearts, or sharing in some vicious pleasure.

I remember there were bystanders trying to get me to calm down. These are the rules, nothing to get upset over, they said. I was on a lonely island. The onlookers, security guards, everyone else who wasn’t getting on that train, they were a community.

Whatever. Back in the waiting room I gave them all a talking-to about “big principles.”

All the inspectors and janitors were folks from the county, mainly farmers who owned nearby land. Here they were in costume. Their real uniforms were waiting for them outside.

Before there was the train station, most of them worked in Guangdong. (80% of the population of our little county gave their best years to Guangdong.) I had also had a taste of Guangzhou railway stations a few decades back. They were hell on earth. Perhaps we had trampled on each other at one of those stations.

Infrastructure is being built up too quickly. Suddenly there’s a high-speed rail in my hometown. Migrant workers who had been tortured by the old trains are now inspectors at these new stations.

I ranted. They said nothing.

I mistakenly thought the security check was controlled by the county security bureau. I worked my connections (sorry people) and found the chief of public security, wanting to vent my anger and get them to change their ways. When the real uniforms appeared, it turned out they were not under public security. They say that except for foreign affairs, the railway has all the components of state machinery.

The two guys in regular uniforms were both outsiders.

The station master was alarmed. He wasn’t a local, either, but had been assigned here by the railway. A wise sixty-something, he was in no hurry. He asked to see the video, and then, with great magnanimity, brought me . “Our staff made a mistake. When you entered the station, they didn’t tell you you would need to get a second security check to go to Beijing, which cost you another check’s-worth of time.”

But in the end, no one conceded they should have gotten my consent to open my bag. This was our final disagreement.

Two years have passed, but as of last month (as mentioned above), I still “take the initiative to start trouble with security” at my hometown railway station, which just goes to show that I haven’t let this go. But I have decided that after I write this post, I will let go of my prejudice against them.

7

I can’t help but wonder what sort of person makes the ideal security officer. My conclusion is that the grassroots level masses, who have never known respect or power—the —are the ideal candidates.

Only poor people can do this work, can bear this hardship. This is understandable. Also, the grassroots masses, who have known neither power nor respect, will run away with any power they can get, automatically wielding it to inconvenience and mistreat others, and they will take pleasure from this, some modicum of psychological compensation for their respect-deficient lives.

The only power available to the downtrodden is the power of a servant.

But it is just this kind of power, the power to serve others, that can also be used to hurt others, to reward those who are as low as they are, or even lower. On top of that, they also take full advantage of “discretionary measures,” amplifying their power until it’s more than they can handle.

This profession came into being at an opportune time. There is a huge job market right now, and this is just the type of work for them. I am sure not one son or daughter of a government official is among their ranks. [Chinese]

Translation by Alicia.

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