Official police accounts on Douyin, the Chinese version of social media app TikTok, have been publishing light-hearted videos showing arrests, prison cells and interrogation equipment set to catchy music, while uniformed officers pose and gesture in rhythm.

Douyin, or TikTok, is one of the most downloaded apps in the world.

It is owned by the Chinese Internet technology company ByteDance, and allows users to edit and add music to short videos. It is full of dance clips, comedy and viral challenges.

Douyin is aimed exclusively at Chinese consumers, so it is more strictly regulated by the Chinese government, and the content can vary significantly from what you find on TikTok.

Recently, for example, there has been a wave of viral videos featuring Chinese police.

In this video posted on Douyin, an officer gestures in time to the music, in front of a police car and a prison cell. The text at the end reads, “If you want to test the law and suffer the consequences, then come and sit here.”

This video posted on Douyin shows a series of arrests set to catchy music. Text appears on the screen reading, “Look how many suspects we arrested.”

These videos were posted on the official, certified Douyin accounts of police stations, public security bureaux and courthouses, all of which fall under the auspices of the Ministry of Public Security or the Ministry of Justice. On both TikTok and Douyin, it is hard to determine when videos were posted.

The official Douyin account of the Sanming Intermediate People’s Court, Fujian province.

In this video, traffic police stop a car with too many passengers. One of the passengers insults and threatens the police. The second part of the video then makes fun of the passenger, who is now begging the police to arrest him.

A starring role for a controversial interrogation device

Some of these videos feature a “tiger chair”, which was classified as a torture device in a 2015 report by the NGO Human Rights Watch. The seat has rings used to immobilise a detainee and keep them in an extremely uncomfortable position. According to Human Rights Watch, Chinese police sometimes torture detainees by leaving them in this chair for several days.

The United Nations has recommended these chairs be banned. But Chinese authorities have defended using them, saying that they are a “protective measure to ensure that suspects don’t escape, hurt themselves or attack personnel.”

Video posted on the Douyin account of the Public Security Bureau In Shiyan prefecture (central China).

Video posted on the Douyin account of the Public Security Bureau in Jishishan prefecture (west China).

Video posted on the Douyin account of a police station in Wenfeng (east China).
It’s impossible to know whether the people strapped into tiger chairs are actors or real detainees. However, the scenes show that the use of such devices is “common and normalised”, according to Marc Julienne, a researcher who studies domestic security in China.

“This lack of respect is nothing new”

Lu Haitao, our Observer in Beijing whose name we have changed, was not surprised to see the police post such videos on Douyin.

This lack of respect towards people who have been arrested is nothing new. The police have been putting criminals on display for years. It’s common for police to parade them around in trucks for the public to see.

Sometimes, people are tried in public spaces, including sports fields, schools or stadiums. It’s seen as a way to educate people and warn them that that are better off obeying the law.

As of January 2019, there were nearly 1,200 official accounts belonging to institutions that fall under the umbrella of the Ministry of Public Security or the Ministry of Justice. Together, these accounts publish more than 10,000 videos a month, according to Sixth Tone, a news site specialising in China. The Public Security Bureau in the eastern province of Hebei actually runs a competition to establish who can garner the largest number the views and thus be crowned the “King of Douyin”.

Police departments across China are using social media strategically to promote “the spirit of police sacrifice", according to local authorities.

“This doesn’t look like an official campaign”

Other kinds of content released by Chinese officials on Douyin include clips of crime prevention, comedy sketches performed by actors and videos humiliating people who are in debt.

Researcher Marc Julienne says the wide variety shows it is not part of a coordinated strategy with a clear objective:

I think that local police departments are simply using Douyin to play out humorous rivalries among themselves, often in regrettably bad taste. There is a lot of police bravado in these videos and they come off looking impressive and sure of themselves. But the aesthetics of the videos haven’t been carefully constructed, which would be the case if this were an official campaign run by the Ministry of Public Security or one of its provincial branches.

There have been coordinated online campaigns in the past, like the one that was launched after the Kunming attack on March 1, 2014. After that attack, it was decided that police patrols should be armed to prevent terrorist attacks, whereas in the past officers weren’t usually armed. Many officers hadn’t fired a shot since police school and were afraid of carrying a lethal weapon. So several different Offices of Public Security created posters and started sharing images online that portrayed the police as strong, professional and sure of themselves. These posters had similar aesthetics to large-budget films and were of much better quality than those being shared on Douyin.

This 2014 poster shows a police officer in Zhejiang province.


Article by Pierre Hamdi (@PierreHamdi)

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