HOW TO LIVE UNDER LOCKDOWN:
URBAN TIBET IN CHINA’S HI-TECH GRID SYSTEM OF SURVEILLANCE AND BEHAVIOURAL COMPLIANCE
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China’s agenda in Tibet explicitly requires Tibetans to state publicly, on the record, their gratefulness to the Chinese Communist Party, and all it has done for Tibet. These public statements of compliance with the official “mass line” are odious, but unavoidable for Tibetans employed as government officials, school teachers, also monks and nuns, whenever a compliance enforcement team sweeps in to demand those pledges. Tibetans experience being bullied into compulsory statements of gratitude, and compulsory denunciation of the Dalai Lama, as alienating them further from China’s rule. But the machinery of compliance is now highly developed, a combination of human mobilisation and high technology surveillance. The human part is the teams of stability maintenance compliance officers, generally known as chengguan, a vague term meaning local administration, who are empowered by higher levels to insist on behavioural compliance with central directives, even if their legal powers remain vague. Throughout China there are many complaints about the bullying behaviour of the chengguan, especially their readiness to lock the noncompliant up in makeshift gaols that have no legal status, to beat and intimidate those slow to comply.
The proliferation of chengguan, and their obnoxious intrusions into the private lives of citizens, in many parts of China, have generated much debate. This new, lowest level of government, closest of all to the street and to the homes of ordinary citizens is in many ways a revival of the Maoist street committees, which enforced the mass line, often with revolutionary zeal, masking their joy in taking revenge on people the revolutionaries were quarrelling with.
It is no longer sufficient to obey the seven DON’T SPEAKS, remaining silent while Tibetans burn themselves in protest. As well as silent compliance with the DON”T SPEAKS, the chengguan require active compliance with behavioural norms, even in quite private places, that are acceptable in the eyes of the official gaze always monitoring Tibetan lives. The claustrophobia induced by the new grid system of surveillance is a major factor in outbursts of protest, yet it receives little publicity. The overt presence of security forces, even snipers on roofs overlooking the Barkor pilgrimage circuit, is well known; less known is the grid system of intensive surveillance.
The unconstrained and only semi-legal power of the chengguan is much enhanced by their access to the latest in hi-tech surveillance technologies, which are deployed around China, but especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, where authorities fear uprisings. Technological surveillance, especially the monitoring of internet posts, attracts a lot of attention; while other surveillance technologies are seldom mentioned.
The basis of technological surveillance is to break each urban area down into very small units, enabling pinpoint accuracy in identifying anything unusual, a quick official response, and speedy isolation of the small grid units, to prevent any spread of words, ideas or actions that are prohibited. The grid system is not new, but the technologies of monitoring the lives of citizens in each small grid extend the panoptic gaze of the state into very small, discrete, spaces. Grid management dissects the city into square units as small as 100 metres by 100. To test the capacity of surveillance technologies operating on such a finely tuned scale, the system was first tested in Beijing, in 2004, before being rolled out in Tibet and in many Chinese cities.
Dr Wu Qiang, a political scientist from prestigious Tsinghua University explains how it operates: “Urban grid planning, from the very beginning, bore the marks of militarized management. Integrating high-speed internet, high-capacity computers, large databases, sensors and remote equipment, the grid improved the performance of public governance and expedited electronic administration. But more important was its improvement of government’s response to contingencies, a capacity most valued by the Chinese authorities. In any given grid cell, not only were all fixed objects coded and positioned, but much more than that, any activities or contingencies, including cultural activities, public safety, criminal cases, mass protests, sensitive figures in terms of “stability maintenance” and their activities were all sorted and coded, with information about them being collected and reported all the time. Based on these data, sensors and wireless equipment such as surveillance cameras and wireless routers were deployed.
GRID MANAGEMENT CENTER IN YICHANG, HUBEI PROVINCE.
“By July 2010, 40,000 surveillance cameras had been installed in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, covering 3,400 buses, 200 key public transportation stops, 4,400 streets and alleyways, 270 schools and preschools, and 100 large shopping centers and supermarkets. During the same period, a staggering 200,000 surveillance cameras had been installed in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing, one indication of the nature of the “crackdown on black” campaign led by its former police chief Wang Lijun.
“While in urban China grid management depends more on technology, equipment, Chengguan and the police force, the development of grid management in rural China is different and worth our thoughts. In the trial run in Xintai county, Shandong province (山东新泰), apart from surveillance cameras, landline telephones and roadside lamps were installed, and all of the casanitation workers in the county seat were “hired” as grid management “information reporters.”
“As China implements grid management for social management with the aid of the latest technology, geographic information systems and super computers, it has most likely tightened social control over the last ten years or so in the name of “stability maintenance.” Moreover, after comparing the cost and quality of grid management between cities and rural areas, the Chinese government has recognized the high efficiency of using urban grid management for social control. This in part lends confidence to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang’s plan of urbanization. Down the road, if China remains devoid of real democratic checks and balances, there is little doubt that the continued development of grid management will only lead to a model of a contemporary police state.”
All of these technologies, Professor Wu says, are in the hands of the local urban mass line conformity enforcers, the chengguan, all available through a single electronic device. The decision was made to “Equip urban management enforcers (Chengguan, 城管) with multi-purpose “Chengguan Tong” (城管通), a device for both information collection and mobile communication. It can make phone calls, send group text messages, take photos, fill out forms, position, record audio and video, and browse map and data, making each Chengguan an on-site end collector of information.” In George Orwell’s vision of a police state that always knows what you are doing, and even what you are thinking, it was television cameras that collected the data. This system, fully integrated with its grid level chengguan enforcers, is much more sophisticated, and total in its capacity to capture events of interest to stability preservation.
Abuses of power by chengguan local enforcers are not only tolerated by higher levels of power, they are a necessary part of a system which requires the chengguan to raise their own salaries by predatory demands on the people they monitor. Feng Chongyi, a political economist in Sydney and Tianjin points out that: “The ‘system of stability preservation’ creates special conditions and incentives for local officials to abuse citizens and force them to take defensive actions, legally or otherwise. Local governments at the township and county levels are required to collect extrabudgetary revenue ( yusuanwai shouru) or self-raised funds ( zichou zijin) to cover part of the stability expenditure, such as salaries for casual personnel and financial settlements for disputes. The most common sources of extra-budgetary revenue are generated by undermining the rights and interests of citizens, including doling out fines for violating family-planning laws, collecting rents and income from leasing and selling collective land, and extracting fees and ‘donations’ from local enterprises. As a consequence, family planning and land seizure by local governments have become common causes of social unrest in the countryside. The ‘responsibility system’ (zeren zhuijiu zhi) to evaluate the work performance of local cadres also exacerbates social unrest. Social order is set as one of the “one-vote veto” ( yi piao foujue) targets, which can be used to nullify a cadre’s achievements in meeting other performance targets. Failure to prevent either “mass incidents” or “petitioning to higher levels” ( yueji shangfang) can cancel out positive performance in other areas and result in the loss of promotions, among other punishments (The Central Public Security Comprehensive Management Commission 1991; Minzner 2006).