Last week for the National Day holiday I left Yilong to visit Jiuzhaigou 九寨沟, an enormous national park in northwestern Sichuan near the province’s border with Tibet. Getting to the park was an adventure in itself. Between travelling to the park and back my friends and I spent two full days of bus travel on winding mountain roads with frequent stops for construction, some of which had been necessitated by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. At times the road to the park was completely torn up and down to one lane both ways, and we were forced to stop on the side of the road to allow traffic from the other direction to pass through.
On our way back from the park, however, we encountered an entirely different type of delay. Boarding the bus after our first rest stop, three hours after leaving Jiuzhaigou park, I heard two women sitting several rows behind me having a heated discussion, and overheard one of the women call the other “impolite” (“你没有礼貌!”). As the bus pulled away, the discussion rose in volume and before long the two women were batting at one another. They continued to swing and scratch at one another as other passengers intervened, pulling the two women away from one another. Even when the arm rest of a bus seat was broken off in the scuffle the bus driver refused to get involved, continuing to drive as if nothing had happened. One of the women tried to continue her assault, attempting to climb over the passengers now between her and her target, until a stocky man from a back row approached and brandished a police badge as he stood between the two combatants. Amidst continued shouting he switched seats with the first woman and eventually calmed her down.
From what my friends and I gathered from the shouting, the fight had started quite innocuously. One woman had bumped into the other as the bus went over a pothole, and neglected to apologize, inciting a rebuke from the second woman. Later, one woman had accidentally spilled bread crumbs on the leg of the other, and similarly refused to apologize. Refusing to back down when confronted about this offense, the fight had quickly escalated.
This sort of public display of outrage, while not exactly common, is I think not as out of the ordinary in China as it is in the US. Certainly I have never seen a tiff between strangers escalate to violence in the US, but this is the second time I have seen one in China. Last summer I saw two women on a subway in Beijing tear at each other because one refused to give up her seat for the other woman’s son. My other companions on the trip also confirmed that they had each seen similar incidents at least a few times in Beijing.
Our bus continued in awkward relative silence for another hour and a half before stopping at a roadside café for lunch. The first woman exited the bus, and as she approached the café the second woman exited as well, picked up a sharp stone from the ground and ran at the second woman. Only the combined efforts of several other passengers kept the fight from resulting in serious damage, and kept the two women apart from each other long enough for the police to be called. About a half hour later several police officers appeared in a pickup truck and called the two women in to sit down across from one another at a table in the café. We and the rest of the passengers were then left to wait at the rest stop for another hour and a half as the police mediated the conflict. Both women issued written statements, and it was decided that one woman would pay a reparation fee of 100 RMB to the other. Another forty-five minutes was spent arguing over who would pay to repair the broken bus seat.
I am not particularly familiar with the Chinese legal system, and was astounded that a conflict like this could be resolved, punishments and all, by the police themselves with no court hearing and no intervention of lawyers. This kind of on-the-spot legal judgment is apparently standard. Another Chinese friend currently studying law informed me that Chinese police officers generally have the power to administer legal recourse for cases involving between 50 and 200 RMB of damage.
The trip in total took us twelve hours, nearly the amount of time that it takes to fly to Beijing from the United States. While the delay was frustrating, it afforded a fascinating look at a legal system drastically different from the one that I am used to.