State of surveillance

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 5:32pm

Foreigners descending on Beijing for the Olympics ought to be curious about China's police. Government claims of foiling terrorist plots may reassure some visitors about their personal security while frightening others. And the leadership's preoccupation with presenting a harmonious image to the world has recently led to widely reported arrests for many other offences that inevitably reveal the extent to which China's stability depends on its omnipresent, but largely invisible, public and secret police.

Yet China is no ordinary police state. Ubiquitous uniformed police and military immediately alert visitors to Pakistan that even countries far freer than China can be a police state. By contrast, except during the Olympics, the Chinese government, despite its obsession with security, gives the tourist, or even foreign residents, few such clues. What impresses visitors to China's cities are gleaming new buildings and people wining, dining and shopping as though there will be no tomorrow. Even many increasingly prosperous Chinese, caught up in their country's remarkable economic progress, lose sight of the generally unobtrusive operation of China's plain-clothes security apparatus.

How efficient is this apparatus? In the 1960s, when Chiang Kai-shek's dictatorship was keeping watch over Taiwan, an American congressman visiting the island shattered the conviviality of a dinner given for him by former minister of foreign affairs George Yeh by bluntly asking whether Taiwan was a police state. Yeh, a charming former English literature professor, gave a response that was more urbane than accurate. 'Well, Mr Congressman,' he said, 'you could say that we are a police state, but the fact is we're dreadfully inefficient.'

Because today's mainland Chinese police system, like Chiang's, continues to be veiled in secrecy, especially in security matters, it would be difficult to gauge its efficacy, even if we had better measurement standards. Yet it would be wise for visitors to assume that their movements in public, increasingly monitored by hi-tech equipment bought from American and other foreign companies, as well as by China's more traditional human networks, are closely followed. They should also realise that activities that are usually deemed 'private' in democratic countries receive official scrutiny in China. Although censorship of websites is well known, foreign media have not highlighted surveillance of landlines, mobile phones, faxes, e-mail and other electronic communications. And microphones and cameras hidden in hotel rooms, as well as offices, can record life's most intimate moments.

Yet in such a huge nation, with so many visitors, can a security system staffed by millions be effective? After decades of study and living in and visiting China, I have no doubt that, in matters that are the regime's highest priorities, Big Brother really is watching. This is true not only for alleged terrorists, but also for foreign diplomats, journalists and scholars, and all those who are suspected of spying, organising democratic political parties or unapproved religious groups, seeking freedoms for Tibetan and Muslim minorities, advocating free labour actions, exposing abuses against Aids victims, protesting against land or housing deprivations or birth control excesses and heading environmental pollution demonstrations. Of course, microscopic scrutiny and harsh punishments often extend to any lawyers or legal activists courageous (or foolish?) enough to assist disfavoured groups.

However, even such a comprehensive system cannot give equal attention to all behaviour thought to be 'anti-social'. Police resources are limited, in China as elsewhere. Before the crimes of counter-revolution were replaced by the more conventional-sounding 'endangering state security' and before adultery was eliminated as a crime, I asked a former Fuzhou public security officer why there were rarely prosecutions against adulterers. He said: 'If we prosecuted all the adulterers, we wouldn't have time for the counter-revolutionaries.'

So how effective is the Chinese system in dealing with relatively ordinary crimes? This month's visitors have a chance to form their own impressions by noting the extent to which they are confronted by Olympics ticket scalpers. Although scalpers are generally active at Chinese entertainment and sports events, as they are in other countries, this spring the government decided to stop them from marring the Olympics. It underlined the seriousness of this campaign by announcing that, instead of expecting a mere warning or fine, or at most a sentence of 15 days in a police detention facility, scalpers could be subjected to the notorious 're-education through labour'.

That could mean as long as three or four years in a labour camp and, as Chinese well know, this punishment is dispensed in secret by the police without the participation of any prosecutor, lawyer or judge because it supposedly is not a 'criminal' sanction. Although the decision can be challenged before a court, that remedy is seldom successful.

'Re-education through labour' recently attracted attention again when the Sichuan police, after detaining a teacher for almost a month while investigating him for posting photos of demolished schools on the internet and criticising shoddy construction, failed to find enough evidence to charge him with a crime, but nevertheless sentenced him to a year of 're-education'.

Has the deterrent effect of this Sword of Damocles proved effective against scalpers? Foreign scholars of Chinese criminal justice, often barred from empirical research in China, are eager to hear visitors' observations. But don't count on us to secure your release if you are detained for espionage.

Jerome A. Cohen is co-director of NYU's US-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York