China: Who Shall Watch the Watchers?

Behind the major news stories now emanating from China concerning the preparations for the summer Olympic games in Beijing, the lead paint scandals, tainted toothpaste, bribed officials and the like, emerges one item we most definitely should keep an eye on: over 20,000 police surveillance cameras are being installed along the streets in Shenzhen, China in an effort to curb crime and make sure the citizenry is toeing the line, adhering to each and every one of the country’s laws.

In the main, that would seem to be a good thing. Look a little deeper, though and one sees the signs of writer George Orwell’s famous prophecies in his novels “Animal Farm” and “1984.” Big Brother is most definitely getting big and what he does with his power will eventually determine all of our futures, or lack thereof. According to a report this past Sunday by the New York Times, starting this month in a port neighborhood and then “spreading across Shenzhen, a city of 12.4 million people,” residency cards fitted with powerful computer chips programmed by a major computer company, backed by private U.S. financing, and with highly sophisticated software will be issued to most citizens.

China has long had national identity cards, required of all citizens, with a very simple computer chip embedded, and providing just the person’s name and date of birth. But, as the Times’ reports: “Data on the (new) chip will include not just the citizen’s name and address but also work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlord’s phone number. Even personal reproductive history will be included for enforcement of China’s controversial ‘one child’ policy.”

Nor is that all: plans are being reviewed now to add credit histories, subway travel payments and even small purchases charged to the card.

It is a sweeping advance in surveillance techniques with the purported goal of keeping track of a vast transient population that has amongst them thieves, murderers, rapists, con artists, terrorists and just general bad guys alike to anywhere else in the world especially where there are dense urban populations.

As a computer manufacturing center near Hong Kong, Shenzhen has seen its population rise dramatically as more and more peasants come in from the farm fields looking for higher paying jobs where those jobs are most available: in the tech sector. Some find work and stay; others move on, while still others survive by preying on their fellow Man. It is that group especially that China wants to track and weed out of its productive population.

Certainly that is an admirable goal and the idea is definitely not a new one. Since the days of Imperial China, an accepted technique of social control has been the practice by local authorities of keeping detailed records on every resident in their district. Most people lived their entire lives in the same town, village or rural area without traveling at all. But today almost everyone in China, it seems, is in motion with the ability to travel at least short distances every day if not to the ends of the Earth and back again.

That creates big problems for the government charged with keeping the society at peace and in some kind of acceptable order. Nor is China alone in this: with the on-going threat of terrorism, many countries, including both Britain and the U.S., for instance, have a need to keep track of its populaces. Video cameras running 24/7 in the States and across the pond are commonplace now within many of our cities. However, the proposed Chinese efforts are by far the most extensive and therefore the most potentially intrusive.

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” is the Latin phrase first used by the poet Juvenal; when translated it says: “Who shall watch the watchers?” or “who shall watch the watchers themselves?”

Indeed, it is an ancient concern, and often the watchers have abused their authority. Witness the atrocities of dictators throughout the ages when they had total control of their population. In the modern era, Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Saadam Hussein come to mind.

But these folks, however mean, still have had fairly limited abilities to police each and every one of their subjects. There were still many places to hide, many ways to escape. But the 21st Century is changing all that and with this modern technology of computer chips and high resolution digital imagery, one may still be able to run a little bit before being caught, but hiding will become a lot more difficult if not completely impossible.

The fine line between power and abuse of power has been a central concern for mankind at least since humans first started recording their history. The potential for abuse of power led America’s founding fathers, in their wisdom, to devise a system of checks and balances, a system separating the legislative, judicial and executive and which has served us well for over 230 years.

In “The Republic” Plato’s lead character, Socrates, describes a perfect society as being one where there is reliance on laborers, tradesmen and slaves. There is then a guardian class to protect the city and the question is put to Socrates, who will guard the guardians? Who shall watch the watchers? Plato’s answer was simply that the guards would guard themselves against themselves because they were inherently noble figures. The trouble in China today is that there are no watchers to watch the state. The Communist Party rules and wishes to rule absolutely. With the technology now available, they have or will shortly have that ability absolutely, and most frightening, there appears to be nothing inherently noble about their motives at all.