Tag Archives: Orwellian Stuff

Surveillance, Stability, and How Everything is Terrible

UPDATE: It’s a burden being right all the time. According to this official government release (via the New York Times), the purpose of the cameras being added in Beijing has nothing to do with safety:

“The goal, the [Beijing government] Web site ((Seriously, New York Times? You’re too cool for AP Style?)) stated, is to “directly and effectively monitor” the content of performances on behalf of various government agencies.”

***

Amidst the kerfuffle about another Global Times piece from the Beijing Metro section, you’d think more people would be watching their pages from day to day. But since they aren’t, it falls to me to share this really depressing news with you:

The culture industry is the latest to fall under the authorities’ watchful eyes, quite literally, with the debut of yet another surveillance project Wednesday.

The capital is planning to inject 5.57 million yuan ($847,754) to establish a massive remote surveillance system covering all the capital’s entertainment venues, according to the Municipal Bureau of Culture Wednesday.

The bureau is seeking bids this month for a system combining audio and video monitoring and emergency services coordination.

When complete, the bureau will be able to use the system to “directly and effectively monitor” all performances in cinemas, theaters, music clubs and even arcades, store and manage all video materials and share the information they obtain with other government departments as needed, according to the bidding document.

Apparently, the authorities have finally figured out that people are committing thoughtcrime in private and are taking the first steps towards putting a stop to it, which is to put cameras and microphones anywhere people might congregate (that doesn’t already have cameras and microphones).

Actually, no one will clarify the purpose of this surveillance, but I imagine that when the government gets its PR game together, this will be presented as a safety measure. How that would work, I don’t know ((What I mean by “I don’t know” is “It wouldn’t.”)), but that’s not the point. Regardless of what the stated or even intended purpose of this system is, putting surveillance systems inside cultural centers is creepy. And it gets even creepier:

This project is the third surveillance plan announced recently by the city. On Tuesday, State authorities proposed a nationwide database to gather information on the assets, income and families of all individuals in order to curb corruption. And last week, the Municipal Science and Technology Commission announced that China Mobile’s Beijing branch plans to track cell-phone users’ positions to study transportation patterns and in turn combat traffic jams.

So, when you’re in public, cameras and phones track your precise location. When you’re at a bar, nightclub, movie theater, or concert, cameras are watching you. Not a problem, if you trust your privacy, safety, and freedoms to China Mobile and the stability-maintenance arm of the PSB. However, I think many people — myself included — don’t trust them.

But is this really a big deal?

“I think mass surveillance helps deter anti-social behaviors,” Tian Yangang, a Beijing lawyer told the Global Times, adding that one need not worry too much about privacy in a public place like a theater.

Does surveillance help deter anti-social behaviors? Because there are plenty of cameras around Beijing, but people still spit, curse, and push people out of the way when getting on to buses and subways. It probably does deter actual crime, but how often are serious crimes committed in movie theaters or at concerts? Often enough to warrant legally-mandated, government-monitored video and audio 24-hour surveillance?

A theater is not a public place, it is a privately-owned establishment. And I for one have no doubt whatsoever that this initiative is about rooting out and putting a stop to bands, artists, and filmmakers who get away with politically edgy material by performing it in private clubs.

Now, add that development to the recent GFW upgrade that has blocked several VPN services (I know for a fact Freedur and Witopia have been targeted, albeit without total success) and Gmail ((I’m not sure what exactly they’ve done to Gmail. It works sometime, but it’s so slow and unreliable as to make it essentially unusable most of the time.)), the recent beatings and detentions of numerous foreign reporters, the recent declaration that China will under no circumstances do anything that might challenge the Party’s death-grip on power, etc.

I asked way back in December if things were getting worse. It seems pretty clear they are. And for those of you this-is-what-Chinese-people-want advocates, here’s some food for thought. This story was originally reported by the VOA, but its statistics come from a poll conducted by China.com.cn, which is a Chinese government-owned portal):

In a China.com.cn poll of 1,350 netizens, only 6% reported they were “happy”. Only 36% felt their lives had improved over the last five years. Additionally, according to a Gallup poll conducted from 2005-2009, China ranked 125th out of 155 countries in terms of whose people said they were the happiest (Denmark was the happiest country, apparently, with 82% of its people reporting happiness).

But the first is an unscientific poll, to be sure, and the second one was probably conducted by wily foreigners bent on using their science to promote anti-China forces! Well, here are some hard numbers for you:

Even though China has a large GDP, this is simply due to the fact that it has a large population. On a per-capita basis, the country ranks 99th out of 183 nations. It is no surprise, therefore, that wages are low.

But salaries in China aren’t just low, they are abnormally low. Typically, a country’s minimum annual wage is 58% of its per capita GDP; in China it is 25% of per capita GDP, good enough for 158th place out of the aforementioned 183 nations.

The gap between the GDP and minimum wage rankings – 99 versus 158 – is perhaps the most telling statistic. For the majority of countries, there is a close correlation between the two rankings; the disparity in China’s case points to grossly inequitable income distribution.

This is borne out by the Gini coefficient numbers, a widely accepted measure of economic disparity. China’s coefficient is 0.47 on a range of 0 (perfectly equal) to 1.0 (perfectly inequal), putting it 83rd out of 134 countries measured.
According to Gini, China’s level of income inequality is higher than in almost every industrialized country in the world.

Past studies have blamed the income disparity on the rural-urban divide, the development divide between coastal and interior regions, and even foreign purchases of Chinese products. These factors may be responsible to some degree, but so too is the government.

[…]

Recent studies have shown that:

• Wages of civil servants are abnormally high. The average salary of a civil servant in China is six times the minimum wage, compared to a global average of two times.

• Management level salaries in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are abnormally high. The average SOE manager in China makes 98 times the minimum wage, compared with a global average of five times.

• Within the state sector itself, wage disparity is abnormally high. An SOE banker on average earns 3,000% more than his counterpart at a construction company, compared with a global average disparity of 70%.
The pressure is compounded by costs of necessary items being abnormally high relative to wages.

• The UN recommends that it should be possible for an average worker to purchase a home with three to six years of annual income. In Beijing, it is estimated that the average worker would have to toil for 74 years just to buy a place in a suburban multi-story condo block, unfinished, unfurnished and without any amenities.

• The cost of electricity is a good index of the basic utility costs for urban residents. The average cost of 1,000 kilowatt-hours as a proportion of the average monthly wage in the US, South Korea and Japan is 2.67%, 3.19% and 8.19% respectively. In China, by comparison, it is 30.68%.

• The US Department of Agriculture estimates that the average Chinese family spends 28% of its total monthly income on food. While this compares favorably with other developing countries, the number is far higher than America’s 6.1%. Food prices remain the key driver of inflation in China, rising 10.3% year-on-year in January as the newly revised consumer price index rose 4.9%. The figure is well above the traditional central government target of 3%, and even above its revised target of 4% for 2011. This makes wage growth an even more pressing social issue.

So yeah. What was that about how stability makes everyone rich and happy?

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