Internet Surveillance, a Visible and Invisible Hand
Government intervention, evolving technology, and the quest to end terrorism
This summer, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic man named Ji Zhongxing tried to detonate a homemade bomb at the Beijing Airport to draw government attention to his claims of police brutality. But before he was ready, the bomb exploded, severely injuring his hand.
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
It is possible that this story is what inspired Wu Hongfei, a writer and rock band singer, to post some explosive statements on her Weibo page. On July 21, just one day after Ji’s explosion, Wu Hongfei wrote, “I want to bomb (“zha”) The Neighborhood Committee of Beijing’s Talent Exchange Centre. I want to bomb the damn Construction Committee too. I don’t know what the CC is or what it does, but I am sure there are only idiots there. All friends of the CC are black sheep to me.”
The Chinese verb “zha” means both “to bomb” and “to fry.” Just hours later, Wu deleted her comments and posted, “I want to fry (“zha”) the chicken wings, french fries, and steamed bread at McDonald’s, which is next door to the Neighborhood Committee of Beijing’s Talent Exchange Centre.”
However it was too late: this adolescent-like grumbling touched a nerve in the authorities. Five days later, Wu was arrested and spent eight days in a detention center. Many, including Wu, believe that she may be sentenced to years in prison. The police action has alarmed the public, causing some of people to ask: Isn’t this a typical intervention of freedom of speech?
The incident triggered a hot discussion online In China, a fear-monger can be sentenced to up to five years in prison. Fortunately, Wu Hongfei was released on August 2, and the original accusation leveled against her, “fabricating terrorist information” was adjusted to a “crime of affray.” Wu showed regret during her time in the detention center and promised that, in the future, she would concentrate her energy solely on music.
It might seem that the authorities showed leniency in dealing with Wu’s case, but their strategy has an intended message. Taking Wu’s case as an example, all insubordinate citizens should learn: Don’t be cheeky, even verbally.
Wu is a restless girl, a typical product of metropolitan China. After graduating from Qinghua University, she drifted and found work as a teacher, bar girl, singer, writer, and editor, among other jobs. She is good at giving her books eye-catching titles, such as An Apple that Wants to Become an Orange, Lovelorn Diary, and If You’re Not Falling in Love, You Will Get Old. Last year she published a collection of jokes called A Chinese Girl Who Tells Dirty Jokes.
To some extent, the books reflect her criticism of abnormal phenomena in society. Like artist Ai Weiwei, she ridicules and challenges authority with morbid and grotesque humor, although some of her writings could be called exhibitionist.
No one is surprised that China’s totalitarian internet surveillance caused trouble for Wu Hongfei. What is really shocking is what is happening in free countries, like the United States.
What happened to Michele Catalano and her husband in New York state is unexpected. Michele googled the words “pressure cooker” and her husband had searched “backpack”. Most likely, their young son was curious about “pressure cooker bombs” and decided to explore them online. This family’s web activity captured police attention. Six agents from the “joint terrorism task force” came to their house and interviewed Mr. Catalano. The police were suspicious of the couple because their Google searches resembled those of the Boston Marathon bombers, whose attack in April claimed three lives.
After Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s spying and surveillance of American citizens in a stated attempt to detect terrorism, the Catalano story proves that privacy is compromised and freedom of information is not guaranteed even in a “free” country like the United States. Why did the police know who is doing what kind of research online? Who is reading our emails and monitoring where we are surfing the web? The big brother has truly materialized in the “free” Western hemisphere. What a horrible thought! Where is the line between public and state security and personal privacy?
In comparison with the technology of the United States, China’s internet police are still rather primitive. However technology is rushing forward like a wild horse while political and social ethics lag behind, meaning that the invisible hand of the authorities is everywhere. Do we truly need an almighty government to protect us from terrorism? I think not.