The Catch-22 of protests and surveillance

By: spambot on 19 August 2008
Posted in China, Asia

The Washington Post points out that “in an age of cellphone cameras and YouTube,” Chinese police have exercised restraint in using physical force to stop foreign protesters. So far, foreign-led protests have even achieved a fair measure of media coverage, though some question the effectiveness of these tactics and the organizations whose websites remain blocked in China (including Reporters Without Borders and Students for a Free Tibet).

For Chinese citizens there will likely be no YouTube moment. The foreigners that unleashed surprise protests at media-saturated zones, such as Tiananmen Square and the Olympic green, have been fed KFC and deported. Chinese citizens seeking to abide by the government’s self-initiated requirements for lawful demonstrations have found that this process exists only as a trap to identify themselves to authorities.

According to Human Rights Watch, applications to protest in the designated zones (four parks around Beijing) are subject to police approval. Many activists under surveillance don’t even get to the steps of the police station and are prevented from traveling to Beijing. The experience of Nicholas Kristof notwithstanding, at other times foreign journalists who accompany Chinese applicants in order to provide some form of protection have not been allowed to film or interview inside the station. In contrast, police do not stop filming video or snapping photos of applicants. The ones who are taken away, frequently by local government officials who forcibly escort them back to their hometowns, can manage only a few phone calls, if that, to notify others that they are in trouble. In this context, it is somewhat remarkable that 77 applications have been completed at all.

Apparently, this double standard resulting in a surveillance trap is merely China’s own way of exercising democracy. The Associated Press quotes BOCOG official Wang Wei:

"Many problems have not been solved, not even by the United Nations, and some want them to be solved during the Olympic Games, putting pressure on the International Olympic Committee and the Beijing Olympic Committee," Wang said.

"This is not realistic," he added. "We think that you do not really understand China's reality. China has its own version and way of exercising our democracy."

For all the plainclothes policemen in these protest-free parks, the 300,000 security cameras and tens of thousands of microphones in GPS-rigged taxis, blogger Roland Soong of EastSouthWestNorth suggests Beijing residents may reasonably be less concerned about their city’s upgraded surveillance apparatus. He argues that if police “spend all their time watching surveillance tapes, they won't have time to arrest protests, troublemakers, counter-revolutionaries and ‘splittists.’”

At least some surveillance measures seem temporary. Taxi drivers have reportedly been enrolled to report customers who request to be taken to the protest zones. According to The Australian, drivers “routinely inform the authorities about the number of such passengers, their description including dress, their nationality, the exact location where they left the taxi, and any interesting conversations that might have been overheard.”