More Thrills Than Skills – A Half-Life in Journalism, Part 109

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is to be published March 1 next year, by Kennedy & Boyd, Glasgow, and available from

Shanghai society appears to be remarkably law abiding – at least in respect of serious crime. In the middle of February 2003, a local police officer was reported as being killed and his buddy seriously injured in the course of a raid on a house of prostitution in the Pudong district of Shanghai.

My first reaction was that surely this could not be so remarkable in a metropolis of around 20 million people. In fact, this was the first recorded incident of the murder of a policeman in almost two years which seemed to me extraordinary in a city where there must inevitably be a considerable amount of crime purely on a statistical basis.

Of course, a contributory factor to this apparently innate sense of obedience has to be that murderers of policemen are almost invariably sentenced to death and sometimes shot in public. A fairly effective deterrent, perhaps. Indeed, execution is a common form of punishment for a variety of crimes. The head of a bus company in northern China cuts a sorry figure standing in the dock of the People’s Court in a shabby raincoat. He has been sentenced to death, apparently, and you feel quite sorry for him until it transpires he has misappropriated a staggering local equivalent of US$8 million.

A lot of such executions are reported in retrospect, after the event. Here there is a strong element of didacticism: pour encourager les autres. It is difficult to detect much in the way of sympathy for the wrongdoer, in sharp contrast to the west where there is now, it often seems, considerably more sympathy for the criminal than for the victim.