Truth in translation – China and surveillance


We came across this inadvertently truthful translation while waiting to board a cable car into the mountains above Dali. This is probably the sign they should display just past Chinese immigration. Since my very brief brush with Chinese censorship I’ve been looking in more detail at the Chinese state’s surveillance apparatus. It’s stunning.

They’re watching…

China spends about as much on internal security as it does on its military. This from a country with a standing army of 2.3 million and a recently acquired aircraft carrier. The roughly $11 billion USD spend/year pays for police, state security, armed militia and about 20 million CCTV cameras.

When the CCTV project was started in 2005 officials named it Skynet with no apparent sense of irony. More truth in translation. Officials claimed in 2012 that they would use the cameras to end self-immolations by Tibetan protestors and members of Xinjiang’s secessionist movement. We’re especially interested in the latter because we’re headed out Xinjiang way in a few weeks. Their protestors are continuing to set themselves on fire, successfully, some even in Tienanmen Square last October. Probably need more cameras, then.

…over your shoulder when you Facebook

Then there’s China’s internet surveillance and censorship. The Great Firewall of China blocks sites where content is considered objectionable, or those who refuse to submit to specific censorship. Its the latter that has gotten, for example, Facebook banned and spurred Google’s ongoing dance with the Chinese state. It also uses something called Deep Packet Inspection to block access to single pages when specific keywords are detected. Sometimes a user’s internet connection will be severed for a short time as a kind of retaliation for searching for things they shouldn’t.

The telco industry structure reinforces the internet as a state apparatus. Broadband access is rented from a state owned or state-controlled company.

China says that about 42% of its citizens are connected to the internet. But it is an internet like no other. Of the 564 million estimated netziens less than 10% are on Facebook and fewer still on twitter. But about 90% use the Chinese social network Weibo. Google ranks as the third most popular search engine. Angry Birds though, is still a hit.

It’s interesting that there is a Facebook audience given it’s ostensibly banned. Even with cutting edge technology and two million state employees monitoring microblogging, the firewall is eminently widely circumvented. Thing is, though, the Firewall needn’t be perfect to be effective. It’s basically a panopticon. Even from my own limited experience I can tell you that searching for Facebook and arriving at an indecipherable page of Chinese characters instead has a chilling effect. The implication that all your browsing might be monitored makes you self-censor.

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