The cost of resisting China’s Big Brother

CHINA: Clampdown on activists who expose surveillance through new technology

“WE HAVEN’T seen you before. Which media are you from?” a middle-aged woman asked a tall man operating a video camera outside a Beijing court.

“I’m from an independent newspaper,” the videographer replied with a slight smile on his face. The woman and her friend, who were queueing to take documents into the court, chuckled after hearing a statement that they all knew was false. “He’s police,” one of the women said a few minutes later.

The exchange outside the Beijing No.1 Intermediate People’s Court was a rare moment of levity in the normally serious, sometimes violent business of monitoring and controlling rights activists, dissidents, independent religious leaders, separatists and others deemed a threat to China’s state security.

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The plain-clothes police officer was taking footage of petitioners, journalists, lawyers and supporters of dissident Hu Jia, who was sentenced that day in April to three and a half years in prison for subversion. “Surveillance is both overt and insidious,” said Phelim Kine, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. Overt surveillance in China is used “both to intimidate, and as a lesson to the neighbours”, Kine said.

Hu won the EU’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought last month. He and fellow activist Gao Zhisheng were also nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Hu, 35, is the most prominent of a growing number of activists who have tried to reflect the intense glare of state surveillance back at those trying to monitor and control them.

The activists’ photographs, video, transcripts and diaries, usually distributed via the internet, have given outsiders rare glimpses into surveillance and abuses of power by China’s vast public security network. China tolerates some local activism but it confronts those who begin to operate at a national or international level. The relatively few national-level activists who have mastered the use of the internet and digital technology like Hu and his wife, Zeng Jinyan, are “desperately outnumbered” by the people watching them, Kine said.

“It tells you that those people like Hu Jia, who do master the technology and get the message out, are prey to retribution,” Kine. “What you see in China is that anyone who reaches a certain level of prominence, those people face serious consequences,” he said.

The authorities’ main concern is to control anyone who has the potential to form the nucleus of groups that could openly challenge the ruling Communist Party, he said. Beijing resident Dong Jiqin is using his photographs for his campaign to persuade the authorities to investigate the arrest of his wife, Ni Yulan, who has spent more than six months in police custody since she was accused of injuring a worker during a housing dispute.

Dong, 56, is not an activist but has supported Ni through her career as a lawyer and housing rights advocate. Ni’s career was first interrupted in 2002 when police illegally detained her for 75 days for filming a forced relocation of residents from one of the many old houses razed to make way for Beijing’s vast and countless high-rise developments. “Because Ni Yulan was beaten and not given medical treatment, Ni Yulan’s back and leg were injured,” Dong said. “She can’t walk normally and has to rely on a pair of crutches to get around.” Much has been made of China’s increasing use of electronic surveillance of telephones and the internet, and the mushrooming of security cameras in cities. But in a country with unlimited cheap labour, human brains still collect much key information for the police.

Often made up of retired state workers, the neighbourhood committees are the eyes and ears of the police and the Communist Party in urban communities. Many people were placed under much tighter surveillance before and during the Olympics, with those outside Beijing told they were not allowed to travel to the Chinese capital.

The same process of controlling known dissidents and activists is repeated each time China hosts an important national or international event. Sometimes dozens of officers monitor a single family. “They came back to watch me during the Asia-Europe leaders’ summit,” Dong said of the police surveillance before the high-profile meeting began on October 24. “The police and security guards follow me wherever I go,” Dong said at his partly demolished Beijing home. “If I ride my bike, they ride bikes to follow me; if I go by car, they also go by car,” he said.

As Dong met journalists at his home on Friday, a plain-clothes police officer stood outside listening and peeping through a slot in the door to his yard. More uniformed and plain-clothes police, and a few local officials, watched from a distance and took photographs and video. Ni, 48, was arrested on April 15 when she tried to stop some two dozen people from knocking down a wall enclosing part of the yard outside their home, which they refuse to vacate for developers despite years of pressure and threats.

The police claimed that she caused serious injury to a worker while she was trying to stop them from damaging her property. “This was an excuse to arrest her,” Dong said. “They didn’t have any evidence.” Dong called the police on China’s emergency number, 110. “After I called 110, uniformed police came but they didn’t care,” Dong said, so he began taking photographs himself.

“One of the gang members snatched my camera, but a few minutes later he gave it back after he was instructed to do so by the police,” he said. Plain-clothes police took away Ni during the melee and later locked up Dong for seven days. Dong’s investigation led him to conclude that the hired thugs who forced their way into the family property were acting under the direction of a man who said he was an officer from a local police station but showed no identification. Ni, Hu and many other activists have paid a heavy price for resisting the authorities. As well as being left disabled, Ni has lost her right to practise law following a criminal conviction in late 2002 for “obstructing public business”, the same charge she faces now.

The authorities have not allowed Dong to visit Ni but a lawyer has seen her three times. Her trial was set for August but postponed, and Dong fears she could be sentenced to up to two years in prison this time. Yao Lifa, an activist in the central province of Hubei who advises farmers on village elections and helps them with legal issues, also disappeared on October 31. Yao’s family and supporters believe the authorities seized him to stop him advising voters and candidates in a local election on November 12, meaning he could be released after the election in his home city of Qianjiang.

“This is the most optimistic outcome,” Yao’s son, Yao Yao, said of his possible release after November 12. Hans-Gert Poettering, the president of the European Parliament, said the award of the Sakharov Prize to Hu acknowledged the “daily struggle for freedom of all Chinese human rights defenders”.

The Chinese government insists that the activists are “common criminals”. Reacting to the award of the Sakharov Prize, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Hu was “a criminal convicted of inciting subversion of the state by Chinese judicial authorities”. Hu’s international reputation grew while he was forced to spend most of his time confined inside his suburban apartment on the outskirts of Beijing in 2006 and 2007.

With no paid employment and few visitors allowed, he used his enforced isolation to collect and disseminate information on rights cases and other issues in China via the internet and telephone. “He became a kind of 911 number for anyone who wanted the skinny on what was going on in China,” Kine said of Hu. Hu also learned the names of many of the State Security officers who loitered outside his apartment every day. Some of them remain stationed there to prevent his wife, fellow activist Zeng Jinyan, from speaking to foreign media and governments.

“They are still in the compound,” Zeng said by telephone, adding that the police prevented most journalists from visiting her. Hu’s activism began in the late 1990s when the economics graduate volunteered to work on environmental projects. In 2001, he began helping villagers infected with HIV/AIDS through blood-selling schemes in the central province of Henan. The following year, Hu and four friends had their first run-in with state security police who intercepted them and seized film after they travelled to Henan villages.

The group took Christmas toys and clothes to children in poor villages that were decimated through AIDS spread by the illegal collection and sale of blood. “It seemed like the worst scenes of AIDS in Africa, with old and young people infected,” Hu said two weeks before his arrest in late December.”State security police threatened us and said that AIDS was a state secret”. Hu said China was “lucky” to be shaken out of its complacency on AIDS by the scandal over a cover-up of hundreds of cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Beijing. “After SARS in 2003, nobody dared to say that AIDS was a state secret any more,” Hu said. “It gave us an opportunity to be more open.”

But after two “golden years” of relatively open activism, the climate began to change with the arrest and harassment of AIDS activists in 2005, he said. Before his formal arrest in December, Hu had spent most of the previous two years under virtual house arrest or other forms of detention. Hu filmed the police who were monitoring him and Zeng, resulting last year’s 30-minute documentary “Prisoners of Freedom City.”

The title of the documentary reflected the irony of the couple’s restricted life in a modern, low-rise estate known as BOBO Freedom City. The film mentions that Hu was seized in early 2006 by state security police from the party’s Central Political and Judiciary Committee and taken to a secret site, where he was detained for 41 days.

“They tied my hands behind my back, pushed me to the floor (of their car) and put a black bag over my head,” Hu said. “It was just like a kidnapping by the mafia.” He believed the arrest was linked to his support for rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who was convicted of subversion in December 2006 but given a suspended prison sentence.

Gao disappeared in September last year, shortly after circulating a letter urging the US Congress to focus on China’s human rights record in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in August and saying he could not support China’s holding of the games. He campaigned on behalf of protesting farmers, dissidents, Christians, AIDS activists and fellow rights lawyers. In recent years, he had often called China’s one-party rulers “barbaric” and likened them to “mafia bosses”.

Gao also came into conflict with police and state security through public complaints about constant surveillance and harassment. He began a blog in 2005 about how the police constantly shadowed him, his wife and daughter; intimidated petitioners who asked Gao for advice; and put pressure on his landlord. “They can think about all the things that you can never imagine, and this is perhaps the unique attribute they use to select plain clothes police,” he said in the blog, which was developed into a book, “A China More Just”.

The current location of Gao and his family remains unclear but rumours among his supporters say he is under a form of illegal house arrest by State Security police in Beijing. While Gao’s fellow Nobel prize nominee, Hu, lived under house arrest last year, he said he was too busy with his work to watch the DVDs strewn under his television set. But Hu made an exception for “The Lives of Others”, the 2007 Oscar award-winning film that depicts the East German state security (Stasi) surveillance of a playwright from 1984 until the peaceful overthrow of East Germany’s communist rulers in 1989.

“Many things like that have happened to me, so it’s very familiar,” Hu said of the film’s scenes of phone-tapping, police raids and 24-hour monitoring. “Now it’s China’s 1984,” he said, “because I think there will be big changes in the next five years.”

From Bill Allan in Beijing
Nov. 09, 2008

Source: The Sunday Herald

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