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Smile! You're on Communist camera
Surveillance in China has gone high-tech, but people are starting to complain

Globe and Mail | June 23, 2005
By GEOFFREY YORK

BEIJING -- The two young lovers are embracing tenderly in a secluded spot beside a Beijing lake -- until they notice the video camera.

Hidden behind the tinted glass of what appears to be a lamppost, the all-seeing eye of the camera has them under surveillance. Dozens of video cameras are dotted around the lake, concealed as street lamps. Each has a range of 200 metres and can swivel 360 degrees.

Jin Ni, a 22-year-old secretary, jumps out of the arms of her boyfriend when it is pointed out to her that a camera is nearby. "It's a violation of our rights," she says angrily.

Her boyfriend, 23-year-old Lu Xuan, defends the security officials. "They need the cameras to monitor crimes," he says. "Who would pay attention to you and me? They only care about public security."

Ms. Jin disagrees. "How can you trust them so easily?" she retorts.

All across China, the debate is erupting. With the latest high-tech spying equipment proliferating, and with an estimated 200,000 surveillance cameras installed in Shanghai alone, Chinese citizens are beginning to fight back. For the first time, they are asserting the newfound notion of privacy.

Until recently, China's Communist regime could control its population with police agents and its ubiquitous neighbourhood committees.

But today's Chinese urban population is far too mobile to be easily watched.

So China has opted for a high-tech response: sophisticated video cameras to keep watch over hotels, restaurants, parks, residential buildings and other popular gathering spots.

Even an ordinary provincial city, Zhengzhou in central China, already has 40,000 surveillance cameras in place, with another 60,000 planned in the next five years. China's biggest city, Shanghai, is planning another 200,000 cameras within the next five years, in addition to the 200,000 already operating.

Yet there are no laws to regulate this omniscient spy system. And the use and abuse of video cameras is increasingly controversial. In one case, a video camera in a hotel corridor caught a famous Chinese movie actress in a sexually compromising position with her boyfriend. A security guard sold the footage to a Hong Kong newspaper.

In another case, a high-school principal in Shanghai showed a videotape of two students kissing in a classroom. The teenage couple, humiliated by the incident, launched a lawsuit for invasion of privacy.

They lost their court action, but won considerable public sympathy.

Public outrage over the surveillance cameras is mounting. One Chinese magazine wondered whether China is turning into an Orwellian society where Big Brother is always watching.

"When were these cameras installed?" asked a 28-year-old man who was swimming in Shichahai Lake in Beijing when the hidden cameras were pointed out to him. "We never knew about it," he said. "Otherwise we wouldn't swim here. Nobody wants to swim under a camera."

A survey by China Youth Daily found that 74 per cent of those polled were unhappy with cameras in the corridors of university dormitories. "When I think of myself living under monitors, I feel frightened," a female student told the newspaper.

One outraged Chinese journalist wrote an article about video cameras on public buses in the city of Guangzhou. According to the article, male passengers often ogle the driver's video monitor, which catches glimpses of the bare skin or cleavage of unwary female passengers.

In a police state with a long history of authoritarian rule, the concept of a legal right to privacy has never really existed.

But in recent years, some people have begun to assert it.

Several privacy lawsuits have been filed in Chinese courts.

In one case, a woman won a lawsuit after a doctor allowed interns to watch him perform an abortion on her.

Wang Zongyu, a law professor at People's University in Beijing, is one of the growing number of Chinese legal experts who are calling for laws to protect the people's right to privacy.

"The trend is to install more and more cameras, because there are no laws or regulations to govern it," he said in an interview.

"In the current situation, anyone can install cameras freely and make a videotape and do whatever they want with it. How can you feel comfortable if you know that someone is secretly watching you?

"How can people have a privacy right if cameras are installed in residential compounds and university dormitories? The right of privacy is a basic human right."

Video monitoring, of course, is not unique to China. More than 4.2 million closed-circuit surveillance cameras have been installed in Britain -- the largest number in any Western country. British civil-liberties advocates have been alarmed by the dramatic rise in surveillance cameras. Studies have concluded that most British camera systems are ineffective in preventing crime or making people feel safer.

Surveillance cameras are much less common in North America. Some U.S. cities, including New York and Chicago, have installed cameras in city streets and public areas, although the numbers are far smaller than in Britain or China.

Last month, Vancouver abandoned a plan to install 23 surveillance cameras on several downtown streets after the Vancouver police concluded that the British cameras had been ineffective.

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