China, The Surveillance State
The beginning of the Beijing Olympics brought out ' expert' opinions about the surveillance state known as China. In the following, some of those articles are have been collected here.
For example, Naomi Klein wrote:
As for those Chinese citizens who might go off-message during the games -- Tibetan activists, human right campaigners, malcontent bloggers -- hundreds have been thrown in jail in recent months. Anyone still harboring protest plans will no doubt be caught on one of Beijing's 300,000 surveillance cameras and promptly nabbed by a security officer; there are reportedly 100,000 of them on Olympics duty.
The Los Angeles Times reported:
In Beijing, two taxi drivers who asked not to be identified while discussing confidential matters displayed a pair of black button-sized devices just to the left of their steering wheel linked to the vehicle's navigation system. They said the devices allow a central monitoring station to listen to anything inside the taxi. One driver said that besides listening in on passengers, officials can hear any griping he might do about the Communist Party, which could result in punishment.
What is not covered is the opinion of the Chinese people? Since there is no polling of these types of issues in China, the public opinion is unknown. But I suggest (and therefore this is a personal opinion) that a couple of points can be made.
The first point is that the public does not feel that the information being collected has any real impact on them. One reason why they feel this way is the sheer amount of information. In Beijing, there are allegedly 300,000 surveillance cameras. During a 24-hour period, there are 24 x 300,000 = 7,200,000 hours of recorded video. Who is going to watch them? 100,000 security officers can put the tapes on fast-forward and zip through them. But if they spend all their time watching surveillance tapes, they won't have time to arrest protests, troublemakers, counter-revolutionaries and "splittists." In Beijing, there are 80,000 taxicabs. During a 24-hour period, there are 24 x 80,000 = 1,620,000 hours of recorded audio. Who is going to listen to them? For this reason, information seldom flows back to affect the lives of the majority of the population. Of course, the information collected may be used against diplomats, business people and activists. However, this is a very small fraction of the total population and very much removed from the daily really of ordinary folks. Is it plausible that most citizens don't care.
The second point is that the surveillance cameras actually make the citizens feel safer. Here is a case in Hong Kong. It began with an assault case in August 2006.
(The Guardian) Hong Kong police are searching for three men who savagely clubbed a pro-democracy politician with batons and baseball bats in a crowded McDonald's. The assault on Sunday - in a territory with low levels of violent crime - left Albert Ho, vice-chairman of the Democratic party and a member of the legislature, with a broken nose and head wounds. According to witnesses, the attackers burst into the packed restaurant while Mr Ho and a Democratic party colleague, Howard Lam, were sitting at a table. "Three muscular men, wearing caps and jeans, sprinted towards us," Mr Lam told the South China Morning Post. "They were very well organised."
The Hong Kong public was very upset over this incident, and they demanded the police must solve the case.
(Sing Tao) The Hong Kong Island major crime unit and CIB detectives obtained more than three hundred reels of video tapes from the traffic monitoring system and commercial buildings in the neighborhood as well as several hundred mobile telephone records. After cross-checking and verifying, they locked onto the target suspects. A comparison against the closed circuit television tapes from the border control check points showed that the suspects had fled into the mainland. Thus, the Hong Kong police referred the information to the mainland Chinese public security bureau. Later, one suspect returned to Hong Kong whence he was put under constant surreptitious surveillance but not arrested. When the suspect thought all was clear, he called the others and two more returned to Hong Kong. The police then arrested three men and one woman in Hong Kong. The fourth male was arrested in Zhongshan by the public security bureau which tracked down his telephone. This individual has admitted that he committed the assault on behalf of someone as a debt collection effort. The police do not exclude the possibility that he is saying this because he was paid to protect the mastermind behind the scene.
Thus, the surveillance information came into use after an incident. Prior to that, nobody had any reason to pay any attention to the three hundred reels of video tapes. It was only after the fact that it became crucial to solving the case. This is well-known to people, and therefore has a deterrent effect.
In the case of the more recent explosions on the two Kunming buses, citizens also wanted the police to solve the case. That case has not been solved as yet, possibly because the city of Kunming does not have an extensive system of surveillance cameras. If this were put to the citizens to decide whether to have these surveillance cameras, what would they choose? Is it reasonable that some of them might want it?
You may think that "Big Brother"-like survillance is evil and you want to put a stop to it (or prevent it from ever being implemented). Then you need to address the two points above. How do you convince people that the surveillance affects them personally in a way that they can feel and touch? And how can you address the apparent 'safety' being provided via surveillance.
(Rolling Stone) China's All-Seeing Eye. By Naomi Klein. May 29, 2008.
Thirty years ago, the city of Shenzhen didn't exist. Back in those days, it was a string of small fishing villages and collectively run rice paddies, a place of rutted dirt roads and traditional temples. That was before the Communist Party chose it ¡X thanks to its location close to Hong Kong's port ¡X to be China's first "special economic zone," one of only four areas where capitalism would be permitted on a trial basis. The theory behind the experiment was that the "real" China would keep its socialist soul intact while profiting from the private-sector jobs and industrial development created in Shenzhen. The result was a city of pure commerce, undiluted by history or rooted culture ¡X the crack cocaine of capitalism. It was a force so addictive to investors that the Shenzhen experiment quickly expanded, swallowing not just the surrounding Pearl River Delta, which now houses roughly 100,000 factories, but much of the rest of the country as well. Today, Shenzhen is a city of 12.4 million people, and there is a good chance that at least half of everything you own was made here: iPods, laptops, sneakers, flatscreen TVs, cellphones, jeans, maybe your desk chair, possibly your car and almost certainly your printer. Hundreds of luxury condominiums tower over the city; many are more than 40 stories high, topped with three-story penthouses. Newer neighborhoods like Keji Yuan are packed with ostentatiously modern corporate campuses and decadent shopping malls. Rem Koolhaas, Prada's favorite architect, is building a stock exchange in Shenzhen that looks like it floats ¡X a design intended, he says, to "suggest and illustrate the process of the market." A still-under-construction superlight subway will soon connect it all at high speed; every car has multiple TV screens broadcasting over a Wi-Fi network. At night, the entire city lights up like a pimped-out Hummer, with each five-star hotel and office tower competing over who can put on the best light show.
Many of the big American players have set up shop in Shenzhen, but they look singularly unimpressive next to their Chinese competitors. The research complex for China's telecom giant Huawei, for instance, is so large that it has its own highway exit, while its workers ride home on their own bus line. Pressed up against Shenzhen's disco shopping centers, Wal-Mart superstores ¡X of which there are nine in the city ¡X look like dreary corner stores. (China almost seems to be mocking us: "You call that a superstore?") McDonald's and KFC appear every few blocks, but they seem almost retro next to the Real Kung Fu fast-food chain, whose mascot is a stylized Bruce Lee.
American commentators like CNN's Jack Cafferty dismiss the Chinese as "the same bunch of goons and thugs they've been for the last 50 years." But nobody told the people of Shenzhen, who are busily putting on a 24-hour-a-day show called "America" ¡X a pirated version of the original, only with flashier design, higher profits and less complaining. This has not happened by accident. China today, epitomized by Shenzhen's transition from mud to megacity in 30 years, represents a new way to organize society. Sometimes called "market Stalinism," it is a potent hybrid of the most powerful political tools of authoritarian communism ¡X central planning, merciless repression, constant surveillance ¡X harnessed to advance the goals of global capitalism.
Now, as China prepares to showcase its economic advances during the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, Shenzhen is once again serving as a laboratory, a testing ground for the next phase of this vast social experiment. Over the past two years, some 200,000 surveillance cameras have been installed throughout the city. Many are in public spaces, disguised as lampposts. The closed-circuit TV cameras will soon be connected to a single, nationwide network, an all-seeing system that will be capable of tracking and identifying anyone who comes within its range ¡X a project driven in part by U.S. technology and investment. Over the next three years, Chinese security executives predict they will install as many as 2 million CCTVs in Shenzhen, which would make it the most watched city in the world. (Security-crazy London boasts only half a million surveillance cameras.)
The security cameras are just one part of a much broader high-tech surveillance and censorship program known in China as "Golden Shield." The end goal is to use the latest people-tracking technology ¡X thoughtfully supplied by American giants like IBM, Honeywell and General Electric ¡X to create an airtight consumer cocoon: a place where Visa cards, Adidas sneakers, China Mobile cellphones, McDonald's Happy Meals, Tsingtao beer and UPS delivery (to name just a few of the official sponsors of the Beijing Olympics) can be enjoyed under the unblinking eye of the state, without the threat of democracy breaking out. With political unrest on the rise across China, the government hopes to use the surveillance shield to identify and counteract dissent before it explodes into a mass movement like the one that grabbed the world's attention at Tiananmen Square.
Remember how we've always been told that free markets and free people go hand in hand? That was a lie. It turns out that the most efficient delivery system for capitalism is actually a communist-style police state, fortressed with American "homeland security" technologies, pumped up with "war on terror" rhetoric. And the global corporations currently earning superprofits from this social experiment are unlikely to be content if the lucrative new market remains confined to cities such as Shenzhen. Like everything else assembled in China with American parts, Police State 2.0 is ready for export to a neighborhood near you.
Zhang Yi points to an empty bracket on the dashboard of his black Honda. "It used to hold my GPS, but I leave it at home now," he says. "It's the crime ¡X they are too easy to steal." He quickly adds, "Since the surveillance cameras came in, we have seen a very dramatic decrease in crime in Shenzhen."
After driving for an hour past hundreds of factory gates and industrial parks, we pull up to a salmon-color building that Zhang partly owns. This is the headquarters of FSAN: CCTV System. Zhang, a prototypical Shenzhen yuppie in a royal-blue button-down shirt and black-rimmed glasses, apologizes for the mess. Inside, every inch of space is lined with cardboard boxes filled with electronics parts and finished products.
Zhang opened the factory two and a half years ago, and his investment has already paid off tenfold. That kind of growth isn't unusual in the field he has chosen: Zhang's factory makes digital surveillance cameras, turning out 400,000 a year. Half of the cameras are shipped overseas, destined to peer from building ledges in London, Manhattan and Dubai as part of the global boom in "homeland security." The other half stays in China, many right here in Shenzhen and in neighboring Guangzhou, another megacity of 12 million people. China's market for surveillance cameras enjoyed revenues of $4.1 billion last year, a jump of 24 percent from 2006.
Zhang escorts me to the assembly line, where rows of young workers, most of them women, are bent over semiconductors, circuit boards, tiny cables and bulbs. At the end of each line is "quality control," which consists of plugging the camera into a monitor and making sure that it records. We enter a showroom where Zhang and his colleagues meet with clients. The walls are lined with dozens of camera models: domes of all sizes, specializing in day and night, wet and dry, camouflaged to look like lights, camouflaged to look like smoke detectors, explosion-proof, the size of a soccer ball, the size of a ring box.
The workers at FSAN don't just make surveillance cameras; they are constantly watched by them. While they work, the silent eyes of rotating lenses capture their every move. When they leave work and board buses, they are filmed again. When they walk to their dormitories, the streets are lined with what look like newly installed streetlamps, their white poles curving toward the sidewalk with black domes at the ends. Inside the domes are high-resolution cameras, the same kind the workers produce at FSAN. Some blocks have three or four, one every few yards. One Shenzhen-based company, China Security & Surveillance Technology, has developed software to enable the cameras to alert police when an unusual number of people begin to gather at any given location.
In 2006, the Chinese government mandated that all Internet cafes (as well as restaurants and other "entertainment" venues) install video cameras with direct feeds to their local police stations. Part of a wider surveillance project known as "Safe Cities," the effort now encompasses 660 municipalities in China. It is the most ambitious new government program in the Pearl River Delta, and supplying it is one of the fastest-growing new markets in Shenzhen.
But the cameras that Zhang manufactures are only part of the massive experiment in population control that is under way here. "The big picture," Zhang tells me in his office at the factory, "is integration." That means linking cameras with other forms of surveillance: the Internet, phones, facial-recognition software and GPS monitoring.
This is how this Golden Shield will work: Chinese citizens will be watched around the clock through networked CCTV cameras and remote monitoring of computers. They will be listened to on their phone calls, monitored by digital voice-recognition technologies. Their Internet access will be aggressively limited through the country's notorious system of online controls known as the "Great Firewall." Their movements will be tracked through national ID cards with scannable computer chips and photos that are instantly uploaded to police databases and linked to their holder's personal data. This is the most important element of all: linking all these tools together in a massive, searchable database of names, photos, residency information, work history and biometric data. When Golden Shield is finished, there will be a photo in those databases for every person in China: 1.3 billion faces.
Shenzhen is the place where the shield has received its most extensive fortifications ¡X the place where all the spy toys are being hooked together and tested to see what they can do. "The central government eventually wants to have city-by-city surveillance, so they could just sit and monitor one city and its surveillance system as a whole," Zhang says. "It's all part of that bigger project. Once the tests are done and it's proven, they will be spreading from the big province to the cities, even to the rural farmland."
In fact, the rollout of the high-tech shield is already well under way.
When the Tibetan capital of Lhasa was set alight in March, the world caught a glimpse of the rage that lies just under the surface in many parts of China. And though the Lhasa riots stood out for their ethnic focus and their intensity, protests across China are often shockingly militant. In July 2006, workers at a factory near Shenzhen expressed their displeasure over paltry pay by overturning cars, smashing computers and opening fire hydrants. In March of last year, when bus fares went up in the rural town of Zhushan, 20,000 people took to the streets and five police vehicles were torched. Indeed, China has seen levels of political unrest in recent years unknown since 1989, the year student protests were crushed with tanks in Tiananmen Square. In 2005, by the government's own measure, there were at least 87,000 "mass incidents" ¡X governmentspeak for large-scale protests or riots.
This increased unrest ¡X a process aided by access to cellphones and the Internet ¡X represents more than a security problem for the leaders in Beijing. It threatens their whole model of command-and-control capitalism. China's rapid economic growth has relied on the ability of its rulers to raze villages and move mountains to make way for the latest factory towns and shopping malls. If the people living on those mountains use blogs and text messaging to launch a mountain-people's-rights uprising with each new project, and if they link up with similar uprisings in other parts of the country, China's dizzying expansion could grind to a halt.
At the same time, the success of China's ravenous development creates its own challenges. Every rural village that is successfully razed to make way for a new project creates more displaced people who join the ranks of the roughly 130 million migrants roaming the country looking for work. By 2025, it is projected that this "floating" population will swell to more than 350 million. Many will end up in cities like Shenzhen, which is already home to 7 million migrant laborers.
But while China's cities need these displaced laborers to work in factories and on construction sites, they are unwilling to offer them the same benefits as permanent residents: highly subsidized education and health care, as well as other public services. While migrants can live for decades in big cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, their residency remains fixed to the rural community where they were born, a fact encoded on their national ID cards. As one young migrant in Guangzhou put it to me, "The local people want to make money from migrant workers, but they don't want to give them rights. But why are the local people so rich? Because of the migrant workers!"
With its militant protests and mobile population, China confronts a fundamental challenge. How can it maintain a system based on two dramatically unequal categories of people: the winners, who get the condos and cars, and the losers, who do the heavy labor and are denied those benefits? More urgently, how can it do this when information technology threatens to link the losers together into a movement so large it could easily overwhelm the country's elites?
The answer is Golden Shield. When Tibet erupted in protests recently, the surveillance system was thrown into its first live test, with every supposedly liberating tool of the Information Age ¡X cellphones, satellite television, the Internet ¡X transformed into a method of repression and control. As soon as the protests gathered steam, China reinforced its Great Firewall, blocking its citizens from accessing dozens of foreign news outlets. In some parts of Tibet, Internet access was shut down altogether. Many people trying to phone friends and family found that their calls were blocked, and cellphones in Lhasa were blitzed with text messages from the police: "Severely battle any creation or any spreading of rumors that would upset or frighten people or cause social disorder or illegal criminal behavior that could damage social stability."
During the first week of protests, foreign journalists who tried to get into Tibet were systematically turned back. But that didn't mean that there were no cameras inside the besieged areas. Since early last year, activists in Lhasa have been reporting on the proliferation of black-domed cameras that look like streetlights ¡X just like the ones I saw coming off the assembly line in Shenzhen. Tibetan monks complain that cameras ¡X activated by motion sensors ¡X have invaded their monasteries and prayer rooms.
During the Lhasa riots, police on the scene augmented the footage from the CCTVs with their own video cameras, choosing to film ¡X rather than stop ¡X the violence, which left 19 dead. The police then quickly cut together the surveillance shots that made the Tibetans look most vicious ¡X beating Chinese bystanders, torching shops, ripping metal sheeting off banks ¡X and created a kind of copumentary: Tibetans Gone Wild. These weren't the celestial beings in flowing robes the Beastie Boys and Richard Gere had told us about. They were angry young men, wielding sticks and long knives. They looked ugly, brutal, tribal. On Chinese state TV, this footage played around the clock.
The police also used the surveillance footage to extract mug shots of the demonstrators and rioters. Photos of the 21 "most wanted" Tibetans, many taken from that distinctive "streetlamp" view of the domed cameras, were immediately circulated to all of China's major news portals, which obediently posted them to help out with the manhunt. The Internet became the most powerful police tool. Within days, several of the men on the posters were in custody, along with hundreds of others.
The flare-up in Tibet, weeks before the Olympic torch began its global journey, has been described repeatedly in the international press as a "nightmare" for Beijing. Several foreign leaders have pledged to boycott the opening ceremonies of the games, the press has hosted an orgy of China-bashing, and the torch became a magnet for protesters, with anti-China banners dropped from the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. But inside China, the Tibet debacle may actually have been a boon to the party, strengthening its grip on power. Despite its citizens having unprecedented access to information technology (there are as many Internet users in China as there are in the U.S.), the party demonstrated that it could still control what they hear and see. And what they saw on their TVs and computer screens were violent Tibetans, out to kill their Chinese neighbors, while police showed admirable restraint. Tibetan solidarity groups say 140 people were killed in the crackdown that followed the protests, but without pictures taken by journalists, it is as if those subsequent deaths didn't happen.
Chinese viewers also saw a world unsympathetic to the Chinese victims of Tibetan violence, so hostile to their country that it used a national tragedy to try to rob them of their hard-won Olympic glory. These nationalist sentiments freed up Beijing to go on a full-fledged witch hunt. In the name of fighting a war on terror, security forces rounded up thousands of Tibetan activists and supporters. The end result is that when the games begin, much of the Tibetan movement will be safely behind bars ¡X along with scores of Chinese journalists, bloggers and human-rights defenders who have also been trapped in the government's high-tech web.
Police State 2.0 might not look good from the outside, but on the inside, it appears to have passed its first major test.
In Guangzhou, an hour and a half by train from Shenzhen, Yao Ruoguang is preparing for a major test of his own. "It's called the 10-million-faces test," he tells me.
Yao is managing director of Pixel Solutions, a Chinese company that specializes in producing the new high-tech national ID cards, as well as selling facial-recognition software to businesses and government agencies. The test, the first phase of which is only weeks away, is being staged by the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing. The idea is to measure the effectiveness of face-recognition software in identifying police suspects. Participants will be given a series of photos, taken in a variety of situations. Their task will be to match the images to other photos of the same people in the government's massive database. Several biometrics companies, including Yao's, have been invited to compete. "We have to be able to match a face in a 10 million database in one second," Yao tells me. "We are preparing for that now."
The companies that score well will be first in line for lucrative government contracts to integrate face-recognition software into Golden Shield, using it to check for ID fraud and to discover the identities of suspects caught on surveillance cameras. Yao says the technology is almost there: "It will happen next year."
When I meet Yao at his corporate headquarters, he is feeling confident about how his company will perform in the test. His secret weapon is that he will be using facial-recognition software purchased from L-1 Identity Solutions, a major U.S. defense contractor that produces passports and biometric security systems for the U.S. government.
To show how well it works, Yao demonstrates on himself. Using a camera attached to his laptop, he snaps a picture of his own face, round and boyish for its 54 years. Then he uploads it onto the company's proprietary Website, built with L-1 software. With the cursor, he marks his own eyes with two green plus signs, helping the system to measure the distance between his features, a distinctive aspect of our faces that does not change with disguises or even surgery. The first step is to "capture the image," Yao explains. Next is "finding the face."
He presses APPLY, telling the program to match the new face with photos of the same person in the company's database of 600,000 faces. Instantly, multiple photos of Yao appear, including one taken 19 years earlier ¡X proof that the technology can "find a face" even when the face has changed significantly with time. "
It took 1.1 milliseconds!" Yao exclaims. "Yeah, that's me!"
In nearby cubicles, teams of Yao's programmers and engineers take each other's pictures, mark their eyes with green plus signs and test the speed of their search engines. "Everyone is preparing for the test," Yao explains. "If we pass, if we come out number one, we are guaranteed a market in China."
Every couple of minutes Yao's phone beeps. Sometimes it's a work message, but most of the time it's a text from his credit-card company, informing him that his daughter, who lives in Australia, has just made another charge. "Every time the text message comes, I know my daughter is spending money!" He shrugs: "She likes designers."
Like many other security executives I interviewed in China, Yao denies that a primary use of the technology he is selling is to hunt down political activists. "Ninety-five percent," he insists, "is just for regular safety." He has, he admits, been visited by government spies, whom he describes as "the internal-security people." They came with grainy pictures, shot from far away or through keyhole cameras, of "some protesters, some dissidents." They wanted to know if Yao's facial-recognition software could help identify the people in the photos. Yao was sorry to disappoint them. "Honestly, the technology so far still can't meet their needs," he says. "The photos that they show us were just too blurry." That is rapidly changing, of course, thanks to the spread of high-resolution CCTVs. Yet Yao insists that the government's goal is not repression: "If you're a [political] organizer, they want to know your motive," he says. "So they take the picture, give the photo, so at least they can find out who that person is."
Until recently, Yao's photography empire was focused on consumers ¡X taking class photos at schools, launching a Chinese knockoff of Flickr (the original is often blocked by the Great Firewall), turning photos of chubby two-year-olds into fridge magnets and lampshades. He still maintains those businesses, which means that half of the offices at Pixel Solutions look like they have just hosted a kid's birthday party. The other half looks like an ominous customs office, the walls lined with posters of terrorists in the cross hairs: FACE MATCH, FACE PASS, FACE WATCH. When Beijing started sinking more and more of the national budget into surveillance technologies, Yao saw an opportunity that would make all his previous ventures look small. Between more powerful computers, higher-resolution cameras and a global obsession with crime and terrorism, he figured that face recognition "should be the next dot-com."
Not a computer scientist himself ¡X he studied English literature in school ¡X Yao began researching corporate leaders in the field. He learned that face recognition is highly controversial, with a track record of making wrong IDs. A few companies, however, were scoring much higher in controlled tests in the U.S. One of them was a company soon to be renamed L-1 Identity Solutions. Based in Connecticut, L-1 was created two years ago out of the mergers and buyouts of half a dozen major players in the biometrics field, all of which specialized in the science of identifying people through distinct physical traits: fingerprints, irises, face geometry. The mergers made L-1 a one-stop shop for biometrics. Thanks to board members like former CIA director George Tenet, the company rapidly became a homeland-security heavy hitter. L-1 projects its annual revenues will hit $1 billion by 2011, much of it from U.S. government contracts.
In 2006, Yao tells me, "I made the first phone call and sent the first e-mail." For a flat fee of $20,000, he gained access to the company's proprietary software, allowing him to "build a lot of development software based on L-1's technology." Since then, L-1's partnership with Yao has gone far beyond that token investment. Yao says it isn't really his own company that is competing in the upcoming 10-million-faces test being staged by the Chinese government: "We'll be involved on behalf of L-1 in China." Yao adds that he communicates regularly with L1 and has visited the company's research headquarters in New Jersey. ("Out the window you can see the Statue of Liberty. It's such a historic place.") L1 is watching his test preparations with great interest, Yao says. "It seemed that they were more excited than us when we tell them the results."
L-1's enthusiasm is hardly surprising: If Yao impresses the Ministry of Public Security with the company's ability to identify criminals, L-1 will have cracked the largest potential market for biometrics in the world. But here's the catch: As proud as Yao is to be L-1's Chinese licensee, L-1 appears to be distinctly less proud of its association with Yao. On its Website and in its reports to investors, L-1 boasts of contracts and negotiations with governments from Panama and Saudi Arabia to Mexico and Turkey. China, however, is conspicuously absent. And though CEO Bob LaPenta makes reference to "some large international opportunities," not once does he mention Pixel Solutions in Guangzhou.
After leaving a message with the company inquiring about L-1's involvement in China's homeland-security market, I get a call back from Doni Fordyce, vice president of corporate communications. She has consulted Joseph Atick, the company's head of research. "We have nothing in China," she tells me. "Nothing, absolutely nothing. We are uninvolved. We really don't have any relationships at all."
I tell Fordyce about Yao, the 10-million test, the money he paid for the software license. She'll call me right back. When she does, 20 minutes later, it is with this news: "Absolutely, we've sold testing SDKs [software development kits] to Pixel Solutions and to others [in China] that may be entering a test." Yao's use of the technology, she said, is "within his license" purchased from L-1.
The company's reticence to publicize its activities in China could have something to do with the fact that the relationship between Yao and L-1 may well be illegal under U.S. law. After the Chinese government sent tanks into Tiananmen Square in 1989, Congress passed legislation barring U.S. companies from selling any products in China that have to do with "crime control or detection instruments or equipment." That means not only guns but everything from police batons and handcuffs to ink and powder for taking fingerprints, and software for storing them. Interestingly, one of the "detection instruments" that prompted the legislation was the surveillance camera. Beijing had installed several clunky cameras around Tiananmen Square, originally meant to monitor traffic flows. Those lenses were ultimately used to identify and arrest key pro-democracy dissidents.
"The intent of that act," a congressional staff member with considerable China experience tells me, "was to keep U.S. companies out of the business of helping the Chinese police conduct their business, which might ultimately end up as it did in 1989 in the suppression of human rights and democracy in China."
Pixel's application of L-1 facial-recognition software seems to fly in the face of the ban's intent. By his own admission, Yao is already getting visits from Chinese state spies anxious to use facial recognition to identify dissidents. And as part of the 10-million-faces test, Yao has been working intimately with Chinese national-security forces, syncing L-1's software to their vast database, a process that took a week of intensive work in Beijing. During that time, Yao says, he was on the phone "every day" with L-1, getting its help adapting the technology. "Because we are representing them," he says. "We took the test on their behalf."
In other words, this controversial U.S. "crime control" technology has already found its way into the hands of the Chinese police. Moreover, Yao's goal, stated to me several times, is to use the software to land lucrative contracts with police agencies to integrate facial recognition into the newly built system of omnipresent surveillance cameras and high-tech national ID cards. As part of any contract he gets, Yao says, he will "pay L-1 a certain percentage of our sales."
When I put the L-1 scenario to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security ¡X the division charged with enforcing the post-Tiananmen export controls ¡X a representative says that software kits are subject to the sanctions if "they are exported from the U.S. or are the foreign direct product of a U.S.-origin item." Based on both criteria, the software kit sold to Yao seems to fall within the ban.
When I ask Doni Fordyce at L-1 about the embargo, she tells me, "I don't know anything about that." Asked whether she would like to find out about it and call me back, she replies, "I really don't want to comment, so there is no comment." Then she hangs up.
You have probably never heard of L-1, but there is every chance that it has heard of you. Few companies have collected as much sensitive information about U.S. citizens and visitors to America as L-1: It boasts a database of 60 million records, and it "captures" more than a million new fingerprints every year. Here is a small sample of what the company does: produces passports and passport cards for American citizens; takes finger scans of visitors to the U.S. under the Department of Homeland Security's massive U.S.-Visit program; equips U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan with "mobile iris and multimodal devices" so they can collect biometric data in the field; maintains the State Department's "largest facial-recognition database system"; and produces driver's licenses in Illinois, Montana and North Carolina. In addition, L-1 has an even more secretive intelligence unit called SpecTal. Asked by a Wall Street analyst to discuss, in "extremely general" terms, what the division was doing with contracts worth roughly $100 million, the company's CEO would only say, "Stay tuned."
It is L-1's deep integration with multiple U.S. government agencies that makes its dealings in China so interesting: It isn't just L-1 that is potentially helping the Chinese police to nab political dissidents, it's U.S. taxpayers. The technology that Yao purchased for just a few thousand dollars is the result of Defense Department research grants and contracts going as far back as 1994, when a young academic named Joseph Atick (the research director Fordyce consulted on L-1's China dealings) taught a computer at Rockefeller University to recognize his face.
Yao, for his part, knows all about the U.S. export controls on police equipment to China. He tells me that L-1's electronic fingerprinting tools are "banned from entering China" due to U.S. concerns that they will be used to "catch the political criminals, you know, the dissidents, more easily." He thinks he and L-1 have found a legal loophole, however. While fingerprinting technology appears on the Commerce Department's list of banned products, there is no explicit mention of "face prints" ¡X likely because the idea was still in the realm of science fiction when the Tiananmen Square massacre took place. As far as Yao is concerned, that omission means that L-1 can legally supply its facial-recognition software for use by the Chinese government.
Whatever the legality of L-1's participation in Chinese surveillance, it is clear that U.S. companies are determined to break into the homeland-security market in China, which represents their biggest growth potential since 9/11. According to the congressional staff member, American companies and their lobbyists are applying "enormous pressure to open the floodgates."
The crackdown in Tibet has set off a wave of righteous rallies and boycott calls. But it sidesteps the uncomfortable fact that much of China's powerful surveillance state is already being built with U.S. and European technology. In February 2006, a congressional subcommittee held a hearing on "The Internet in China: A Tool for Freedom or Suppression?" Called on the carpet were Google (for building a special Chinese search engine that blocked sensitive material), Cisco (for supplying hardware for China's Great Firewall), Microsoft (for taking down political blogs at the behest of Beijing) and Yahoo (for complying with requests to hand over e-mail-account information that led to the arrest and imprisonment of a high-profile Chinese journalist, as well as a dissident who had criticized corrupt officials in online discussion groups). The issue came up again during the recent Tibet uproar when it was discovered that both MSN and Yahoo had briefly put up the mug shots of the "most wanted" Tibetan protesters on their Chinese news portals.
In all of these cases, U.S. multinationals have offered the same defense: Cooperating with draconian demands to turn in customers and censor material is, unfortunately, the price of doing business in China. Some, like Google, have argued that despite having to limit access to the Internet, they are contributing to an overall increase of freedom in China. It's a story that glosses over the much larger scandal of what is actually taking place: Western investors stampeding into the country, possibly in violation of the law, with the sole purpose of helping the Communist Party spend billions of dollars building Police State 2.0. This isn't an unfortunate cost of doing business in China: It's the goal of doing business in China. "Come help us spy!" the Chinese government has said to the world. And the world's leading technology companies are eagerly answering the call.
As The New York Times recently reported, aiding and abetting Beijing has become an investment boom for U.S. companies. Honeywell is working with Chinese police to "set up an elaborate computer monitoring system to analyze feeds from indoor and outdoor cameras in one of Beijing's most populated districts." General Electric is providing Beijing police with a security system that controls "thousands of video cameras simultaneously, and automatically alerts them to suspicious or fast-moving objects, like people running." IBM, meanwhile, is installing its "Smart Surveillance System" in the capital, another system for linking video cameras and scanning for trouble, while United Technologies is in Guangzhou, helping to customize a "2,000-camera network in a single large neighborhood, the first step toward a citywide network of 250,000 cameras to be installed before the Asian Games in 2010." By next year, the Chinese internal-security market will be worth an estimated $33 billion ¡X around the same amount Congress has allocated for reconstructing Iraq.
"We're at the start of a massive boom in Chinese security spending," according to Graham Summers, a market analyst who publishes an investor newsletter in Baltimore. "And just as we need to be aware of how to profit from the growth in China's commodity consumption, we need to be aware of companies that will profit from 'security consumption.' . . . There's big money to be made."
While U.S. companies are eager to break into China's rapidly expanding market, every Chinese security firm I come across in the Pearl River Delta is hatching some kind of plan to break into the U.S. market. No one, however, is quite as eager as Aebell Electrical Technology, one of China's top 10 security companies. Aebell has a contract to help secure the Olympic swimming stadium in Beijing and has installed more than 10,000 cameras in and around Guangzhou. Business has been growing by 100 percent a year. When I meet the company's fidgety general manager, Zheng Sun Man, the first thing he tells me is "We are going public at the end of this year. On the Nasdaq." It also becomes clear why he has chosen to speak with a foreign reporter: "Help, help, help!" he begs me. "Help us promote our products!"
Zheng, an MBA from one of China's top schools, proudly shows me the business card of the New York investment bank that is handling Aebell's IPO, as well as a newly printed English-language brochure showing off the company's security cameras. Its pages are filled with American iconography, including businessmen exchanging wads of dollar bills and several photos of the New York skyline that prominently feature the World Trade Center. In the hall at company headquarters is a poster of two interlocking hearts: one depicting the American flag, the other the Aebell logo.
I ask Zheng whether China's surveillance boom has anything to do with the rise in strikes and demonstrations in recent years. Zheng's deputy, a 23-year veteran of the Chinese military wearing a black Mao suit, responds as if I had launched a direct attack on the Communist Party itself. "If you walk out of this building, you will be under surveillance in five to six different ways," he says, staring at me hard. He lets the implication of his words linger in the air like an unspoken threat. "If you are a law-abiding citizen, you shouldn't be afraid," he finally adds. "The criminals are the only ones who should be afraid."
One of the first people to sound the alarm on China's upgraded police state was a British researcher named Greg Walton. In 2000, Walton was commissioned by the respected human-rights organization Rights & Democracy to investigate the ways in which Chinese security forces were harnessing the tools of the Information Age to curtail free speech and monitor political activists. The paper he produced was called "China's Golden Shield: Corporations and the Development of Surveillance Technology in the People's Republic of China." It exposed how big-name tech companies like Nortel and Cisco were helping the Chinese government to construct "a gigantic online database with an all-encompassing surveillance network ¡X incorporating speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television, smart cards, credit records and Internet surveillance technologies."
When the paper was complete, Walton met with the institute's staff to strategize about how to release his explosive findings. "We thought this information was going to shock the world," he recalls. In the midst of their discussions, a colleague barged in and announced that a plane had hit the Twin Towers. The meeting continued, but they knew the context of their work had changed forever.
Walton's paper did have an impact, but not the one he had hoped. The revelation that China was constructing a gigantic digital database capable of watching its citizens on the streets and online, listening to their phone calls and tracking their consumer purchases sparked neither shock nor outrage. Instead, Walton says, the paper was "mined for ideas" by the U.S. government, as well as by private companies hoping to grab a piece of the suddenly booming market in spy tools. For Walton, the most chilling moment came when the Defense Department tried to launch a system called Total Information Awareness to build what it called a "virtual, centralized grand database" that would create constantly updated electronic dossiers on every citizen, drawing on banking, credit-card, library and phone records, as well as footage from surveillance cameras. "It was clearly similar to what we were condemning China for," Walton says. Among those aggressively vying to be part of this new security boom was Joseph Atick, now an executive at L-1. The name he chose for his plan to integrate facial-recognition software into a vast security network was uncomfortably close to the surveillance system being constructed in China: "Operation Noble Shield."
Empowered by the Patriot Act, many of the big dreams hatched by men like Atick have already been put into practice at home. New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., are all experimenting with linking surveillance cameras into a single citywide network. Police use of surveillance cameras at peaceful demonstrations is now routine, and the images collected can be mined for "face prints," then cross-checked with ever-expanding photo databases. Although Total Information Awareness was scrapped after the plans became public, large pieces of the project continue, with private data-mining companies collecting unprecedented amounts of information about everything from Web browsing to car rentals, and selling it to the government.
Such efforts have provided China's rulers with something even more valuable than surveillance technology from Western democracies: the ability to claim that they are just like us. Liu Zhengrong, a senior official dealing with China's Internet policy, has defended Golden Shield and other repressive measures by invoking the Patriot Act and the FBI's massive e-mail-mining operations. "It is clear that any country's legal authorities closely monitor the spread of illegal information," he said. "We have noted that the U.S. is doing a good job on this front." Lin Jiang Huai, the head of China Information Security Technology, credits America for giving him the idea to sell biometric IDs and other surveillance tools to the Chinese police. "Bush helped me get my vision," he has said. Similarly, when challenged on the fact that dome cameras are appearing three to a block in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Chinese companies respond that their model is not the East German Stasi but modern-day London.
Human-rights activists are quick to point out that while the tools are the same, the political contexts are radically different. China has a government that uses its high-tech web to imprison and torture peaceful protesters, Tibetan monks and independent-minded journalists. Yet even here, the lines are getting awfully blurry. The U.S. currently has more people behind bars than China, despite a population less than a quarter of its size. And Sharon Hom, executive director of the advocacy group Human Rights in China, says that when she talks about China's horrific human-rights record at international gatherings, "There are two words that I hear in response again and again: Guantánamo Bay."
The Fourth Amendment prohibition against illegal search and seizure made it into the U.S. Constitution precisely because its drafters understood that the power to snoop is addictive. Even if we happen to trust in the good intentions of the snoopers, the nature of any government can change rapidly ¡X which is why the Constitution places limits on the tools available to any regime. But the drafters could never have imagined the commercial pressures at play today. The global homeland-security business is now worth an estimated $200 billion ¡X more than Hollywood and the music industry combined. Any sector of that size inevitably takes on its own momentum. New markets must be found ¡X which, in the Big Brother business, means an endless procession of new enemies and new emergencies: crime, immigration, terrorism.
In Shenzhen one night, I have dinner with a U.S. business consultant named Stephen Herrington. Before he started lecturing at Chinese business schools, teaching students concepts like brand management, Herrington was a military-intelligence officer, ascending to the rank of lieutenant colonel. What he is seeing in the Pearl River Delta, he tells me, is scaring the hell out of him ¡X and not for what it means to China.
"I can guarantee you that there are people in the Bush administration who are studying the use of surveillance technologies being developed here and have at least skeletal plans to implement them at home," he says. "We can already see it in New York with CCTV cameras. Once you have the cameras in place, you have the infrastructure for a powerful tracking system. I'm worried about what this will mean if the U.S. government goes totalitarian and starts employing these technologies more than they are already. I'm worried about the threat this poses to American democracy."
Herrington pauses. "George W. Bush," he adds, "would do what they are doing here in a heartbeat if he could."
China-bashing never fails to soothe the Western conscience ¡X here is a large and powerful country that, when it comes to human rights and democracy, is so much worse than Bush's America. But during my time in Shenzhen, China's youngest and most modern city, I often have the feeling that I am witnessing not some rogue police state but a global middle ground, the place where more and more countries are converging. China is becoming more like us in very visible ways (Starbucks, Hooters, cellphones that are cooler than ours), and we are becoming more like China in less visible ones (torture, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, though not nearly on the Chinese scale).
What is most disconcerting about China's surveillance state is how familiar it all feels. When I check into the Sheraton in Shenzhen, for instance, it looks like any other high-end hotel chain ¡X only the lobby is a little more modern and the cheerful clerk doesn't just check my passport but takes a scan of it.
"Are you making a copy?" I ask.
"No, no," he responds helpfully. "We're just sending a copy to the police."
Up in my room, the Website that pops up on my laptop looks like every other Net portal at a hotel ¡X only it won't let me access human-rights and labor Websites that I know are working fine. The TV gets CNN International ¡X only with strange edits and obviously censored blackouts. My cellphone picks up a strong signal for the China Mobile network. A few months earlier, in Davos, Switzerland, the CEO of China Mobile bragged to a crowd of communications executives that "we not only know who you are, we also know where you are." Asked about customer privacy, he replied that his company only gives "this kind of data to government authorities" ¡X pretty much the same answer I got from the clerk at the front desk.
When I leave China, I feel a powerful relief: I have escaped. I am home safe. But the feeling starts to fade as soon as I get to the customs line at JFK, watching hundreds of visitors line up to have their pictures taken and fingers scanned. In the terminal, someone hands me a brochure for "Fly Clear." All I need to do is have my fingerprints and irises scanned, and I can get a Clear card with a biometric chip that will let me sail through security. Later, I look it up: The company providing the technology is L-1.
Under Surveillance: Q&A With Naomi Klein
How did that trip to China come about and what was it like to be able to report on the security industrial complex of China while being in the heart of it?
The story came out of an interview that I did with [Rolling Stone Managing Editor] Will Dana when he asked me about how China fits into the series in my book, The Shock Doctrine. In my book I'm looking at homeland security as a global industry. I didn't see this just as a China story, I'm worried about how this is going to affect the kind of surveillance that is being put in place in the U.S. and Canada and all over the place. I just said, "You should really send someone to Shenzhen to do this story." So he said, "Well, you should do the story."
In terms of getting access to the companies, it was really hard because that New York Times series that Keith Bradsher did that was so great had real ramifications for the security industry in China. The commerce department announced that they were going to have hearings or take submissions on whether these companies are actually in violation of the law that prevents the export of technology that can be used for policing to China. Through various contacts I found out about Thomas Lee, who is not from mainland China, his family is in Hong Kong, but he is fluently trilingual and also a great photographer. The main thing I needed was someone who could translate for me, so Thomas and I went together and muddled our way through and got some pictures as a bonus.
I was particularly curious as to how you found Pixel Solutions as the licensee of the L-1 technology.
It was a fluke. A local contact in Guangzhou, when I told them that I was investigating the surveillance industry, told me that they knew somebody who worked in that industry and I got Yao Ruoguang's phone number. After many days of getting shut down, we were literally sent on wild goose chases. Because in Shenzhen the factories don't give out their addresses, you get an address for its corporate headquarters, which is different from the factory. There's a lot of secrecy around the locations of factories because people don't want to be called out with a sweatshop story, everybody talks about the Nike problem. And every taxi driver, no matter how skilled they are, no matter how long they've lived in the city, routinely gets lost because it's just impossible to navigate because the city is building so quickly. A whole new neighborhood would crop up while you weren't paying attention and all of the landmarks will change. It's really quite something how many times we got lost.
We were calling and calling China Security and Surveillance and there was another one, China Public Security. These were the big ones that weren't returning our calls. Finally, one company gave us the address of their factory and then it turned out that they had just lied and we were driving around and realized they gave us a fake address to get us to stop calling. So that's the way it was until we got to Yao. Yao is chatty. He studied English in the U.S. He's a very unlikely security executive. He got into it because he was in the business of taking photographs of school kids. It was a phenomenon he had seen in the United States and the way he told it to me, in China, before he started doing it, it wasn't a practice to take school pictures. He thought this was a great idea and he brought it back to China. Because of this, he [started up a] company that had developed a lot of software for storing large numbers of photographs. He came into it from a commercial standpoint and then when the market for these high-tech ID cards opened up and then the facial recognition software, it was a logical extension of the photography work. But he's not a spook, he doesn't have that mentality. A lot of people in the surveillance field are ex-police, ex-military and they're a lot cagier. Yao has a commercial photography business and he'd be just as happy to talk to you about making fridge magnets of two-year olds as talking about facial recognition software.
I was struck that here you are in the middle of this Marxist/Stalinist city and the people you're talking to seem so eager to get their story out, and then you call the company in New Jersey and you get hung up on.
[Laughs] Well, because the Chinese companies are really into breaking into the U.S. homeland security market and more than that, the big trend is to get your company broken into the NASDAQ and understanding that, in order for that to work, they have to have some profile in North America. I think that's why these particular security companies opened up the door for me. Once I met Yao, he introduced me to several other colleagues who introduced me to other colleagues. And then suddenly, after banging our heads on the wall after being sent on all these wild goose chases, it changed completely and we kept getting handed over to another security executive where a black car would pull up with leather interior and we would just get in. We would be driven somewhere and we wouldn't know where we were going and it would be another factory at another company. At one point I started to get worried because even though I wasn't misrepresenting who I was, these companies were talking to me because they thought it would be good for their business, to have an article in a high-profile American publication. I was a little alarmed that these surveillance companies seemingly hadn't discovered Google, because it doesn't take all that much to find out that I'm quite critical of this whole thing.
In reporting on this, did you feel like someone was watching you?
Well, we were being photographed all the time, going in and out. Obviously there are cameras everywhere in the surveillance-camera factories and headquarters. I was given sort of VIP treatment. There was this excitement about the idea of having a Western journalist come and visit. After I visited Aebell, I told them that I really wanted to go see a factory and that's how I ended up at FSAN, because FSAN makes the cameras for Aebell. We were in Guangzhou and the head of Abell called his friend in Shenzhen and said, "There's a journalist that I think can help us, will you show her around the factory tomorrow?" And the owner of the factory showed up at our hotel the next morning and drove us to the suburbs, to his factory. The first thing he had said to me was that he was sorry that he hadn't gotten any notice because he would have made a sign welcoming me to the factory, which is what they do for guests. So I had a terrible flash of a sign saying, "Welcome, Naomi Klein."
Could you explain the link between U.S. taxpayers who are subsidizing technology and the crackdown on public dissidence in China.
The homeland security economy is not a free market. It relies almost entirely on government contracts. In the '90s you had all these startups, indentured capitalists trying to get in on the Internet boom; post-9/11 you had the same kind of phenomenon with security startups trying to get a piece of the venture capital. But the venture capital was coming from the government now, it was our money, taxpayer dollars and limitless amounts of it because the Bush administration has shown itself willing to spend far into the future to pay for the so-called War on Terror. So this is an interesting business model that they have, which is entirely dependent on who you know and political contacts and lobbying, and if you become one of the favorite companies you get access to a huge amount of taxpayer dollars to develop the technology.
One of the companies vying for these government dollars after September 11th and before was Identix, a company selling facial recognition software. In 2006, the field of biometrics consolidated greatly with the creation of this company called L-1, which represented a merger of two of the largest biometrics companies as well as a buy-up of a half a dozen smaller companies to create this mega-biometric company that would be sort of one-stop shopping, fingerprinting, iris scanning, facial recognition, and it would sell themselves that way. [Identix's head] had been getting grants from the Pentagon, I believe since 1994 as an academic researcher. Obviously these are tools, that if they work, represent a powerful law-enforcement tools and applications in warfare. So there's always a great deal of funding for this type of research. The technology that ultimately was sold through L-1 to Yao's company benefited from all of these years of public financing of taxpayer dollars.
It was striking that Pixel Solutions bought it for so little. I was surprised by that, but the more I think about it, it makes sense. The company can afford to sell it at these fairly low consumer prices seeing that so much of the overhead was paid with public dollars. When you look at the situation where Yao decides to compete in what's called "The 10 million faces test" which is being organized by the Chinese central police to see which private company has the best facial recognition software. It's a very intensive practice where each company has to sync up their software with the government's database with apparently 10 million faces and then they're given photographs, fed into their system and they have to show that their software matches for that photograph quickly and accurately because facial recognition software is notorious for making mistakes, for making false IDs. L-1 brags that they've had technological breakthroughs and that they've narrowed the number of false IDs and that's the trajectory.
The money comes from taxpayers, it funds research and development from the earliest stages, from when it's still an academic project then it gets turned into a private company, then the company merges and becomes a mega-company until that company sells for a very low amount, technology that was very expensive to produce, and then that local Chinese company hands the software over directly to the Chinese police and syncs up their system.
Who is doing all of this watching? Local police? Central government?
It's mostly local and provincial police. The idea of Golden Shield ¡X this is certainly the obsession of the FBI at home ¡X is integration, it's system integration and this is where all the money is and this is where all the focus is, it's not just a Chinese phenomenon. The analysis, for instance, of what went wrong on September 11th within the security field is that the attackers were on the radar, I believe of the CIA, but there wasn't information sharing, there wasn't integration. A lot of cases, this failure to integrate systems, to integrate databases has been blamed for criminals slipping through the cracks. In China, the goal of Golden Shield is that yes, you will have local police and provincial police doing the watching, but they would be tapped into a national database, a black list, and China keeps a very active black list that ultimately, you would be able to access every time your national ID card is swiped. No matter where you are, your ID card is swiped at various entry points into the country, into the workplace, wherever you install a checkpoint. If you have system integration, then a national list is integrated with a local watchdog.
What is the darkest impact of having that list? When I was in Hong Kong I met a quite prominent human-rights activist from China, a pro-democracy activist of the '89 generation who spent many years in jail and then was released and was trying to live his life in China. He had just left mainland China because he was being denied his national ID. So they were using the new technology to drive him out of the country. Every time he went to an Internet cafe, he needed a special ID. The Internet cafe takes your national ID and then issues a card for you that's linked to your national ID, so every time you're logged onto the Internet, you're scanned and if you're on a list an alarm will go off somewhere because the alarm is linked in to local police. It's clear that it's not just the cameras feeding directly into local police; it's the computer themselves.
Internet cafes used to be a place in China where people could use the Internet with some degree of anonymity and that's really been eroded. And what this activist has been telling me was that even though he has stuck it out in China through all of these years of difficulties, because of this new technology he can't function. He was facing constant harassment. And the Chinese government would really rather people like that not be in the country. It was interesting though, because he was quite optimistic. I was like, "Do you think this technology can eliminate dissent in China, eliminate activism in China?" and he said, "No, there's just too much of it. What it can do is make life for people like me impossible, but that's because I'm high-profile and they already know me and they're already looking for me." But the real activism is happening at the village level and it's not known activists, it's this explosion of dissent of people losing their farmlands and villages to some new export zones, some new shopping malls. With 87,000 protests in one year, this is why all this new technology is being implemented. But he was quite optimistic about the limits of this technology to control that level of dissent. He said they can get rid of the high-profile trouble like me because they're looking for us, but they can't deal with this level of mass dissent.
Can you speak to complicity of U.S. business in these efforts?
That's always been the story in China: the mean government made us do it. That's also been the excuse around labor standards in China. "We would love to pay our workers more and treat them better" but you blame the local contractor and say, "This is just the way things are done in China." The context for this is that originally, the technology companies and the media companies claimed that they were going to bring democracy to China. This was the 1989 discourse, totalitarian regimes cannot survive the influx of Western media technology. Remember when fax machines were supposed to end communism? There are people that still claim that fax machines ended communism. And Rupert Murdoch very famously announced that satellite television would bring the downfall to the communist state and he very quickly changed his tune and started agreeing to censoring broadcasts in order to get access to this huge market.
So now we're in a situation where it isn't just that the companies are willing to make the compromises, it's that they are actively seeking opportunities for great profit that involve directly partnering with the state to put the people under surveillance, so it isn't just a surveillance tax or a tax that's part of doing business. In China, it is the business and it's a booming business and it's booming very quickly. It's definitely important to understand that this process has accelerated in the past year because of the Olympics. A huge amount of security systems in China right now are being installed by Western companies in the name of securing Beijing and other cities against terrorists during the Olympics. Human-rights activists have been raising the alarm for quite some time, saying, "Yes, these network surveillance cameras that companies like GE and Honeywell are selling in Beijing are going to stay after the Olympics and they will be used for domestic purposes." These warnings have really fallen on deaf ears and I think the reason for that is really quite cynical: it's just too big a market.
I was curious in terms of Honeywell and GE, do they have this more benign usage because they're being used for the Olympics and therefore not care?
It's in the name of the Olympics, but it's all outlasting the Olympics. I don't know whether they are avoiding it. What's clear is that the ban is not being enforced. All of these examples are on the line. There is a substantial lobbying effort under way from the security and surveillance industry, which has become very, very powerful in the United States, to not deny them this fast-growing market. They're using all of the usual excuses: if we don't go in, the Europeans will go in and this is an important way of closing the trade deficit between the U.S. and China. These are the arguments that are carrying the day. There is almost no investigation going on at all in any of this.
The most troubling point of your piece is that we've seem to be becoming almost a bit China-tised ourselves in terms of these technologies being implemented in our homeland.
This is what makes it all so blurry, that they're becoming more like us and we're becoming more like them. I think this urge to know as much as possible about what people are saying and writing and doing, this is something the police around the world share. They generally want as much information about people as possible. The way I put it in the piece is that there seems to be this global middle ground emerging, not to say that we are like China now, but you do have a glimpse of catching the future and of course it's the future that we've imagined many, many times in every Hollywood movie.
That's one of the weirder parts of this story ¡X this is new, but at the same time, there's this feeling of deja vu. We saw it in CSI, we saw it in 24. We treat surveillance as mass entertainment; this is the plot line of almost every hit drama at the moment, you leave a trace everywhere, you're being watched at all times. For some reason, we think it's normal to draw our entertainment from the idea that we're under constant surveillance. Films like The Bourne Ultimatum, the first 20 minutes you see the CIA able to commandeer the eyes as they call it of every camera in London networked and locate people on their cellphone, using GPS monitoring. This is the high-tech dream. One of the things that I think is interesting is that Cisco is one of the sponsors of 24. They have their logo all over 24. They're also the company that built China's great firewall.
Has the horse left his barn? Are there policy implications to bringing this under control? Are we beyond this? Is there a real contrast between what's going on in London, Shenzhen and America?
There was just a story that came out in The Guardian last week about how despite the half a million CCTV cameras in London ¡X and London is the world's most watched city, Shenzhen will soon surpass them ¡X it has no impact on crime, which is pretty damning. Now what do the surveillance industry and the police have to say about that? Well, because we haven't integrated the systems enough. We need to have more facial recognition software and more surveillance and more technology because people know that the cameras aren't working so they're losing their deterrence. There's kind of a surveillance arms race that sets in. The reason why I concentrate on this as an economy is because we tend to be suspicious of whether arms companies might be in a conflict of interest. There's a conflict of interest when these security companies get involved in funding think tanks. It's interesting that General Electric has become one of the leading players in the Homeland Security sector and in the CCTV camera sector and in selling to China as well as making a great deal of equipment in American airports. They also own several of the major news networks. They are in the fear business, I think that presents some potential conflicts of interest that we should be discussing because these are companies that do better the more afraid we are, the more imperiled we feel, the more distrustful we are of one another.
Any other thoughts to leave readers with?
It's a very difficult time for China. It's been difficult timing that this piece came out in the midst of this horrific tragedy. It's not a time for China bashing. I hope people don't read the piece as China bashing; I really didn't want to go to China and do another piece about an evil communist police state. I think this is as much about us as it is about China.
(Huffington Post) The Olympics: Unveiling Police State 2.0. By Naomi Klein. August 7, 2008.
So far, the Olympics have been an open invitation to China-bash, a bottomless excuse for Western journalists to go after the Commies on everything from internet censorship to Darfur. Through all the nasty news stories, however, the Chinese government has seemed amazingly unperturbed. That's because it is betting on this: when the opening ceremonies begin Friday, you will instantly forget all that unpleasantness as your brain is zapped by the cultural/athletic/political extravaganza that is the Beijing Olympics.
Like it or not, you are about to be awed by China's sheer awesomeness.
The games have been billed as China's "coming out party" to the world. They are far more significant than that. These Olympics are the coming out party for a disturbingly efficient way of organizing society, one that China has perfected over the past three decades, and is finally ready to show off. It is a potent hybrid of the most powerful political tools of authoritarianism communism -- central planning, merciless repression, constant surveillance -- harnessed to advance the goals of global capitalism. Some call it "authoritarian capitalism," others "market Stalinism," personally I prefer "McCommunism."
The Beijing Olympics are themselves the perfect expression of this hybrid system. Through extraordinary feats of authoritarian governing, the Chinese state has built stunning new stadiums, highways and railways -- all in record time. It has razed whole neighborhoods, lined the streets with trees and flowers and, thanks to an "anti-spitting" campaign, cleaned the sidewalks of saliva. The Communist Party of China even tried to turn the muddy skies blue by ordering heavy industry to cease production for a month -- a sort of government-mandated general strike.
As for those Chinese citizens who might go off-message during the games -- Tibetan activists, human right campaigners, malcontent bloggers -- hundreds have been thrown in jail in recent months. Anyone still harboring protest plans will no doubt be caught on one of Beijing's 300,000 surveillance cameras and promptly nabbed by a security officer; there are reportedly 100,000 of them on Olympics duty.
The goal of all this central planning and spying is not to celebrate the glories of Communism, regardless of what China's governing party calls itself. It is to create the ultimate consumer cocoon for Visa cards, Adidas sneakers, China Mobile cell phones, McDonald's happy meals, Tsingtao beer, and UPS delivery -- to name just a few of the official Olympic sponsors. But the hottest new market of all is the surveillance itself. Unlike the police states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, China has built a Police State 2.0, an entirely for-profit affair that is the latest frontier for the global Disaster Capitalism Complex.
Chinese corporations financed by U.S. hedge funds, as well as some of American's most powerful corporations -- Cisco, General Electric, Honeywell, Google -- have been working hand in glove with the Chinese government to make this moment possible: networking the closed circuit cameras that peer from every other lamp pole, building the "Great Firewall" that allows for remote internet monitoring, and designing those self-censoring search engines.
By next year, the Chinese internal security market is set to be worth $33-billion. Several of the larger Chinese players in the field have recently taken their stocks public on U.S. exchanges, hoping to cash in the fact that, in volatile times, security and defense stocks are seen as the safe bets. China Information Security Technology, for instance, is now listed on the NASDAQ and China Security and Surveillance is on the NYSE. A small clique of U.S. hedge funds has been floating these ventures, investing more than $150-million in the past two years. The returns have been striking. Between October 2006 and October 2007, China Security and Surveillance's stock went up 306 percent.
Much of the Chinese government's lavish spending on cameras and other surveillance gear has taken place under the banner of "Olympic Security." But how much is really needed to secure a sporting event? The price tag has been put at a staggering $12-billion -- to put that in perspective, Salt Lake City, which hosted the Winter Olympics just five months after September 11, spent $315 million to secure the games. Athens spent around $1.5-billion in 2004. Many human rights groups have pointed out that China's security upgrade is reaching far beyond Beijing: there are now 660 designated "safe cities" across the country, municipalities that have been singled out to receive new surveillance cameras and other spy gear. And of course all the equipment purchased in the name of Olympics safety -- iris scanners, "anti-riot robots" and facial recognition software -- will stay in China after the games are long gone, free to be directed at striking workers and rural protestors.
What the Olympics have provided for Western firms is a palatable cover story for this chilling venture. Ever since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, U.S. companies have been barred from selling police equipment and technology to China, since lawmakers feared it would be directed, once again, at peaceful demonstrators. That law has been completely disregarded in the lead up to the Olympics, when, in the name of safety for athletes and VIPs (including George W. Bush), no new toy has been denied the Chinese state.
There is a bitter irony here. When Beijing was awarded the games seven years ago, the theory was that international scrutiny would force China's government to grant more rights and freedom to its people. Instead, the Olympics have opened up a backdoor for the regime to massively upgrade its systems of population control and repression. And remember when Western companies used to claim that by doing business in China, they were actually spreading freedom and democracy? We are now seeing the reverse: investment in surveillance and censorship gear is helping Beijing to actively repress a new generation of activists before it has the chance to network into a mass movement.
The numbers on this trend are frightening. In April 2007, officials from 13 provinces held a meeting to report back on how their new security measures were performing. In the province of Jiangsu, which, according to the South China Morning Post, was using "artificial intelligence to extend and improve the existing monitoring system" the number of protests and riots "dropped by 44 per cent last year." In the province of Zhejiang, where new electronic surveillance systems had been installed, they were down 30 per cent. In Shaanxi, "mass incidents" -- code for protests -- were down by 27 per cent in a year. Dong Lei, the province's deputy party chief, gave part of the credit to a huge investment in security cameras across the province. "We aim to achieve all day and all-weather monitoring capability," he told the gathering.
Activists in China now find themselves under intense pressure, unable to function even at the limited levels they were able to a year ago. Internet cafes are filled with surveillance cameras, and surfing is carefully watched. At the offices of a labor rights group in Hong Kong, I met the well-known Chinese dissident Jun Tao. He had just fled the mainland in the face of persistent police harassment. After decades of fighting for democracy and human rights, he said the new surveillance technologies had made it "impossible to continue to function in China."
It's easy to see the dangers of a high tech surveillance state in far off China, since the consequences for people like Jun are so severe. It's harder to see the dangers when these same technologies creep into every day life closer to home-networked cameras on U.S. city streets, "fast lane" biometric cards at airports, dragnet surveillance of email and phone calls. But for the global homeland security sector, China is more than a market; it is also a showroom. In Beijing, where state power is absolute and civil liberties non-existent, American-made surveillance technologies can be taken to absolute limits.
The first test begins today: Can China, despite the enormous unrest boiling under the surface, put on a "harmonious" Olympics? If the answer is yes, like so much else that is made in China, Police State 2.0 will be ready for export.
(The Wall Street Journal) Beijing Taxis Are Rigged For Eavesdroppiong. By Shai Oster and Gordon Fairclough. August 6, 2008.
Tens of thousands of taxi drivers in Beijing have a tool that could become part of China's all-out security campaign for the Olympic Games. Their vehicles have microphones -- installed ostensibly for driver safety -- that can be used to listen to passengers remotely.
The tiny listening devices, which are connected to a global positioning system able to track a cab's location by satellite, have been installed in almost all of the city's 70,000 taxis over the past three years, taxi drivers and industry officials say.
As with digital cameras used in cities such as London, Sydney or New York, the stated purpose of the microphones is to protect the driver. But whereas the devices in other countries can only record images, those devices in Beijing taxis can be remotely activated without the driver's knowledge to eavesdrop on passengers, according to drivers and Yaxon Networks Co., a Chinese company that makes some of the systems used in Beijing. The machines can even remotely shut off engines.
Whether these microphones are used to spy on riders is unclear. Asked if police could listen in on conversations in taxis, a Beijing police official declined to comment, saying that such matters were "confidential" and that they were "not supposed to release such details to the public."
China has launched a massive operation to protect the Games. Monday's deadly attack in Xinjiang on a police station underscored Beijing's worries that terrorists will attack the Olympics. The government says it has deployed about 110,000 police, troops and volunteers in Beijing to ensure security.
But Chinese authorities are also determined to thwart protesters or human-rights activists who might try to embarrass the government. Taxi drivers have been told to watch for suspicious behavior and odd packages. Security experts say there is little likelihood that all conversations in taxis are monitored. But the presence of microphones in a place most would consider private is a reminder that there are many ways for Chinese authorities to monitor people.
The U.S. State Department has warned visitors to the Olympics that no place is safe from eavesdropping. "All visitors should be aware that they have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public or private locations," the department said on March 20.
The State Department notice explains that all hotel rooms and offices "are considered to be subject to on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times. Hotel rooms, residences and offices may be accessed at any time without the occupant's consent or knowledge."
Security experts say that all phones in China can be tapped, including cellphones, which send out signals that can be used to track location. That capability can be crippled only by removing the battery. Ahead of the Games, Beijing has also been blanketed by surveillance video cameras, while neighborhood committees (residents' representatives to the government) have also been called in for the effort.
Similar GPS systems with microphones have been rolled out in other parts of China, where taxi drivers have been recruited in the broader security effort.
In the northeastern city of Shenyang, site for some Olympic soccer matches, police have recruited 38,000 taxi drivers as "intelligence agents," according to China's Xinhua news agency. Their cooperation is important because drivers travel widely and meet many people, said Liu Juntao, an official with Shenyang's transportation department, according to Xinhua. Police there are offering citizens a reward of 500,000 yuan, or roughly $73,000, for valid tips about any potential terror plots or planned sabotage by dissidents.
Several Beijing taxi companies declined to comment on the security aspect but said that the GPS helps track taxis and that the microphones will be used for translating services. About a dozen taxi drivers said the microphones were installed about three years ago, when newer cabs were built without protective metal cages around the drivers. Cabbies can turn on the system and alert their dispatch centers by touching a discreet button near the steering wheel.
Activists say they are concerned about the ability to listen to conversations with the devices, which appear unique to China. "This seems to suggest an effort by the police or other security forces to eavesdrop on conversations of passengers, rather than for the immediate safety and security of the taxi driver," said Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch.
One Beijing taxi driver said he would be uncomfortable if the device in his vehicle could snap pictures of the riders. "I wouldn't want to take a photo of my passengers without their knowledge," said the driver, wearing the new shirt and tie the drivers are required to don during the Olympics. "Wouldn't that violate their human rights?"
Yaxon Networks, based in Xiamen in Fujian province, says on its Web site that its devices allow the police or a service center to "judge if the driver is in danger" through remote surveillance or wiretapping. If it is necessary, the service center can immobilize a taxi remotely by "cutting off the oil or electric supply," the company adds.
As part of its security mobilization, China's military has deployed 34,000 soldiers in Beijing and other cities hosting Olympic events, Senior Col. Tian Yixiang, a senior official at the Olympic security command center told reporters Friday. The military says it has deployed antiaircraft missiles near Games venues and has dedicated 74 jets, 47 helicopters and 33 ships to Olympic security duties.
"Generally speaking, Chinese strengths really lie in pre-empting threats rather than in crisis management or emergency response in the event that there really are any incidents," said Bonnie S. Glaser, an expert on Chinese security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private Washington think tank. She mentioned China's use of the microphones in taxis at a news conference in Washington in advance of President George W. Bush's arrival in Beijing on Thursday.
(Los Angeles Times) Beijing Olympics visitors to come under widespread surveillance. By Mark Magnier. August 7, 2008.
The blocking of human rights websites in China leading up to the Olympics is part of an information control and surveillance network awaiting visitors that will include monitoring devices in hotels and taxis and snoops almost everywhere.
Government agents or their proxies are suspected of stepping up cyber-attacks on overseas Tibetan, human rights and press freedom groups and the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement in recent weeks. And China is spending huge sums on sophisticated surveillance systems that incorporate face recognition technology, biometrics and massive databases to help control the population.
China has installed about 300,000 cameras in Beijing under an estimated $6.5-billion, seven-year program dubbed the Grand Beijing Safeguard Sphere. Although face recognition software still can't process rapidly moving images, China hopes that it can soon electronically identify faces out of a vast crowd.
"China is trying to project a picture and a narrative about the Olympics," said Nicholas Bequelin, Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. "By limiting journalists, shutting down the Internet, arresting activists, it's hoping to control the message."
The world's most populous nation has legitimate concerns, as seen this week in an attack in the far western province of Xinjiang that killed 16 police officers. Few expect the security infrastructure to be even partially dismantled, a step Greece took after hosting the 2004 games.
Critics said these systems give China more advanced tools in its bid to control domestic critics, activists and media. In recent months China has recruited thousands of Beijing taxi drivers and hundreds of thousands of neighborhood busybodies to keep an eye on foreigners and its own citizens.
"Everyone feels they're entering a police state, which by the way it is, duh," said Sharon Hom, executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China. "So they've got people reporting down to the lowest neighborhood level, which is not new, overlaid by state-of-the-art technology. It's the best of the old and the new."
Another technology that raises concern involves the new identity cards China is phasing in for its 1.3 billion citizens. The cards, developed with help from Plano, Texas-based China Information Security Technology, carry radio signal devices and a chip that records not only a person's height, weight and identification number, but also health records, work history, education, travel, religion, ethnicity, reproductive history, police record, medical insurance status and even his or her landlord's phone number.
Near the Second Ring Road in downtown Beijing, Wu Naimei, 74, sat on a folding chair fanning herself. "If we see any suspicious people, we call the police and report on them," the retired subway worker said, adding that she can't define a suspicious person but knows one when she sees one. "We are happy to help protect our motherland, assist the nation and help our leaders relax."
The West might have a stronger argument in questioning China's potential for intrusive surveillance if it weren't moving rapidly in the same direction. London is believed to have the largest number of closed-circuit TV cameras of any city in the world. Many countries have seen vast troves of personal data lost or stolen. Financial records and phone calls are now routinely monitored.
The difference is that Western countries have better checks on police power, some human rights activists said, even as they expressed concern that the U.S. could soon be using technologies developed in China.
"Every country wants to avoid abuse of police power," said Xu Zhiyong, a lecturer at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. "It's getting better in China, but we still have a ways to go."
In addition to blocking online information about corruption and human rights violations, the government is suspected of collecting information on visitors' Internet search activity.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said late last month that foreign-owned hotels in China were under pressure to sign contracts authorizing police to install hardware and software to monitor their guests' Internet activity. Hotel managers contacted in Beijing declined to comment.
This followed a State Department warning in March that "all hotel rooms and offices are considered to be subject to on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times." Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang quickly called the U.S. report irresponsible and denied that China employed more surveillance than normal.
In Beijing, two taxi drivers who asked not to be identified while discussing confidential matters displayed a pair of black button-sized devices just to the left of their steering wheel linked to the vehicle's navigation system. They said the devices allow a central monitoring station to listen to anything inside the taxi. One driver said that besides listening in on passengers, officials can hear any griping he might do about the Communist Party, which could result in punishment.
The Danish women's soccer team caught two men spying on its members in September during a FIFA World Cup meet in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Lars Berendt, the group's communication director, said in a telephone interview from their headquarters in Brondby. Berendt said team members were in a hotel room having a tactical meeting when they noticed some movement behind what turned out to be a one-way mirror. In an adjoining room, they found two men, at least one of whom wore a hotel badge, and they held them until police arrived.
Berendt said the hotel denied any knowledge of the incident, and the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, said it was a matter for local authorities. Chinese police haven't commented on any investigation. "We're not holding our breath," Berendt said.
The state-run New China News Agency quoted fans as saying the Danes were just sore losers.
Security experts say company executives attending the Olympics are being advised to bring computers that have been wiped clean and to safeguard their smart phones. In extreme cases, they are also weighing the laptop to the gram to test whether ultra-light hardware devices have been added. But a Western security consultant for one Olympic sponsor who asked not to be identified given the sensitive nature of his work said many of these fears were overblown, and that Chinese police had better things to do than spy on every "self-important corporate executive."
Li Wei, a counter-terrorism expert with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a semiofficial research organization, said most Chinese surveillance was in line with that of other Olympic host nations and didn't dangerously compromise privacy.
Still, experts such as Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center and author of a recent report on Chinese surveillance, believe that China is pushing the envelope. "With Internet controls, there are ways around," Rotenberg said. "But with surveillance technologies, you're getting into the fabric of the state."
(SCMP) State of surveillance. By Jerome A. Cohen. August 7, 2008.
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.