The Surveillance Network and China’s “Targeted Population”

A recent article by Charles Hutzler of the Huffington Post speaks to the unimaginable scope and breadth of citizen surveillance networks that exist in China to keep a “targeted population” of activists and “dissidents” in check. The kind of surveillance and censure that has most publicly impacted the lives and work of activist Chen Guanchang and filmmakers Ai Weiwei and Ying Liang, is omnipresent in China and perhaps more pervasive than previously imagined:

“Social activists that no one has ever heard of have 10 people watching them,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The task is to identify and nip in the bud any destabilizing factors for the regime.”

Mostly unknown outside their communities, the activists are a growing portion of what’s called the “targeted population” – a group that also includes criminal suspects and anyone deemed a threat. They are singled out for overwhelming surveillance and by one rights group’s count amount to an estimated one in every 1,000 Chinese – or well over a million.

This similarities between this social panopticon structure and that implemented during the Cultural Revolution, which turned friends and neighbors against one another and created a society of suspicion and distrust, is well observed by Hutzler:

In Mao Zedong’s radical communist heyday, colleagues, neighbors and family members snitched on suspected enemies of the revolution. Free-market reforms broke the totalitarian grip and gave people incentive to leave farms and state jobs for work in booming cities and industrial zones. Private lives and private wealth blossomed, creating less reason for snooping.

Money now fuels the extensive surveillance system. Budgeted spending for police, courts, prosecutors and other law enforcement has soared for much of the past decade, surpassing official outlays for the military for the second year in a row this year, to nearly 702 billion yuan, or $110 billion.

With greater insight into the culture of surveillance allegedly designed to promote “stability” comes a greater understanding of just how tight the reigns of observation and control may be for China’s activists, artists, and all citizens aiming to shape society differently. Addressing how difficult life may become for the “targeted populations” who include property and land activists such as those depicted in Ou Ning‘s Meishi Street to Christians—like those whose faith occupies a tenuous political position in Xu Xin‘s Fangshan Churchwho strive to keep their faith alive against all odds, Hutzler reports:

Cases like Chen [Guangcheng] and [activist] Yao [Lifa] “are the tip of the iceberg,” said John Kamm, a veteran human rights lobbyist. Research by Kamm’s Dui Hua Foundation found that since the mid-1980s Beijing has tasked police throughout China with controlling the “targeted population.” An initial quota for police to target 2 in every 1,000 people proved unattainable, Kamm said. He said 1 in 1,000 is a more accurate estimate, or 1.3 million people.

Included are recently released convicts, parolees, suspects on bail and anyone police see as a threat – from activist lawyers to evangelical Christians. Overtly political cases are a small, expanding subset. But once marked, the status is hard to shake.