Surveillance and suppression in China is repeatedly criticised in Europe in general. For Chinese government these methods are a fight against crime and corruption.
Human Rights Watch calls China a “high-tech surveillance state”. Its Executive Director, Kenneth Roth, explains: “The Chinese government is carrying out an intense attack on the global system for defending human rights.” Another Human Rights Organisation, Amnesty International, accedes regarding systematic suppression of the Chinese people. Its East Asia Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin says: “The Supervision Law is a systemic threat to human rights in China. It places tens of millions of people at the mercy of a secretive and virtually unaccountable system that is above the law. It by-passes judicial institutions by establishing a parallel system solely run by the Chinese Communist Party with no outside checks and balances.”
But we should reflect. Do statements that sweepingly accuse the Chinese state government of mistrusting the majority of its own people and persecuting them politically really make sense? Would such a party really have a chance of survival if it would turn permanently against the majority of its own people and oppress them for political reasons? No repressive regime would survive that, as we know from Europe. So, what is the reason why Chinese people seemingly accept (or even support) suppressing measures?
The focus of Western media and human rights organisations is important, but should be complemented by another phenomenon that China has suffered from for decades – the purpose for which most of the surveillance measures have been developed – corruption and crime and a whole shadow economy that produces counterfeit products. “It is widely held that corruption in China has increased to epidemic or even endemic levels since the advent of reform in the late 1970s. Given an apparent rise in the number of high profile cases in recent years, there seems little reason to doubt that corruption has worsened”, writes Andrew Wedeman in his article “The Intensification of Corruption in China” from 2004. The entire Chinese society and economy is suffering from this. That is the reason why fight against corruption, crime and the associated measures are well accepted throughout the entire Chinese society, nevertheless a lot of Chinese people benefit from corruption and/or work in clandestine factories.
And it became even worser since Wedeman made his statement in 2004. The online magazine “ChinaDaily” reported a few days ago: “During the past two years, 2,848 mafia-like organizations and 9,304 criminal gangs and groups were busted, the leading group of the national crackdown on gangs and organized crime said in December. In addition, the discipline inspection and supervision organs around the nation investigated 51,734 cases of corruption involving mafia-like organizations, and 61,227 officials involved in the cases were punished for being “protective umbrellas” over the past two years.”
Even the harsh penalties which could not only lead to imprisonment but up to death, do obviously not dissuade significant parts of the Chinese people from these practises. And it’s a problem at state dimensions. Since 2012, approx. 1.5 million officials have been proven guilty for corruption and been punished. A number that sounds incredible. In Europe, however, there is a different relationship between state and society, also in terms of dimensions. Authoritarian states and dictatorships have far more civil servants than democracies. The number of civil servants in China is not known. However, it is estimated that the annual growth of the civil service alone is around 1 million people, and the number of executives is around 39 million.
The monitoring system is overwhelming, even without high-tech. And it has its own tradition. In China, residents’ committees or fabric committees exist at the lowest administrative level and they exist from the beginning of the Communists regime in 1949. These committees are also the starting level of mutual denunciation and corruption. Because here, at the lowest level of social and economic organisation, corruption and product piracy are taking each other by the hand. China is characterised not only by gigantic large companies, but also and above all by fragmented micro-enterprises and suppliers.
This is where state supervision comes in may it be as low-tech an denunciation or being a high-tech surveillance camera. The anti-corruption campaign launched by the 18th National People’s Congress of the Communist Party in China in 2012 had precisely this focus. And this focus and aim is widely accepted in China. Those who generally believe that surveillance in China serves to suppress minorities or political opponents are wrong. From a Chinese point of view, it is first and foremost about fighting the majority of corrupt people, criminals and illegal factories and machinations. The international community should have little bit of understanding for this. Instead of fundamental criticism of the Chinese state government for its excessive surveillance mechanisms, we should not react in such a sweeping manner, but rather differentiate between the misuse of surveillance to combat minorities and opposition members (which should be indeed criticised) and the use for the fight agains corruption and crime. Fundamental criticism of the Chinese state works well in the media and meets with broad acceptance. But it will not lead to the desired objective.