CHINA: Clampdown on activists who expose surveillance through new technology
“WE HAVEN’T seen you before. Which media are you from?” a middle-aged woman asked a tall man operating a video camera outside a Beijing court.
“I’m from an independent newspaper,” the videographer replied with a slight smile on his face. The woman and her friend, who were queueing to take documents into the court, chuckled after hearing a statement that they all knew was false. “He’s police,” one of the women said a few minutes later.
The exchange outside the Beijing No.1 Intermediate People’s Court was a rare moment of levity in the normally serious, sometimes violent business of monitoring and controlling rights activists, dissidents, independent religious leaders, separatists and others deemed a threat to China’s state security.
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The plain-clothes police officer was taking footage of petitioners, journalists, lawyers and supporters of dissident Hu Jia, who was sentenced that day in April to three and a half years in prison for subversion. “Surveillance is both overt and insidious,” said Phelim Kine, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. Overt surveillance in China is used “both to intimidate, and as a lesson to the neighbours”, Kine said.
Hu won the EU’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought last month. He and fellow activist Gao Zhisheng were also nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Hu, 35, is the most prominent of a growing number of activists who have tried to reflect the intense glare of state surveillance back at those trying to monitor and control them.
The activists’ photographs, video, transcripts and diaries, usually distributed via the internet, have given outsiders rare glimpses into surveillance and abuses of power by China’s vast public security network. China tolerates some local activism but it confronts those who begin to operate at a national or international level. The relatively few national-level activists who have mastered the use of the internet and digital technology like Hu and his wife, Zeng Jinyan, are “desperately outnumbered” by the people watching them, Kine said.
“It tells you that those people like Hu Jia, who do master the technology and get the message out, are prey to retribution,” Kine. “What you see in China is that anyone who reaches a certain level of prominence, those people face serious consequences,” he said.