Knock Knock

Terracotta soldiers in Xi’An. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

Surveillance is an ancient Chinese art. To monitor the enemy, Sun Tzu (544-496 B.C.) advocated the use of spies: local, inward, converted, doomed and surviving. The emperor should deploy all five kinds in times of war and in peace.

Last week, Hong Kong arrested 53 activists for allegedly subverting state power. The police needed no surveillance to prove their crimes. They openly held primary elections for the Hong Kong legislative assembly.

Among the activists arrested last week were candidates and organizers, pollsters and staff. One of the staff detained is an American lawyer and long-time Hong Kong resident named John Clancey.

The authorities released Clancey first, the day after his arrest. Perhaps Beijing wasn’t ready to confront Washington over the arrest of an American citizen. Or, perhaps Beijing had already made its point.

Local surveillance

Sun Tzu defined the use of local spies as employing the services of the inhabitants of a district. In the modern age of surveillance, a district is too unwieldy to yield useful information. Household registration works better.

The system started in 1945 under the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. After the Communists came into power in 1949, they continued the practice.

Food ration cards were entrusted to the head of each household ⏤ a family head, a factory manager or a temple’s abbot ⏤ and that person was now made responsible for reporting all changes in the constitution of the household. […] it ensured that the state could reach into each and every household as never before.

Frank Dikötter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, p.47 (Bloomsbury 2017)

During the 1951 Thought Reform campaign, the government required its citizens to name their relatives, friends and neighbors. The government then invited these citizens to disclose the political affiliations, activities and beliefs of these connections. Beijing turned its citizens into a nation of spies. You could not speak for fear of being overheard. You could not do for fear of being seen.

This level of local surveillance is no artifact of the Mao era. Yiyun Li was born in China in 1972. She told me that the Chinese don’t use the pronoun I. It is safer to say we.

Virtual panopticon

DNA surveillance

Times do change. Beijing now has far more advanced surveillance means at its disposal. Think about DNA. Beijing has long collected Uighur samples. Since late 2017, it has turned to the rest of the population. The aim is to compile a database of 700 million males.

China already holds the world’s largest trove of genetic material, totaling 80 million profiles, according to state media. […] They do not need to sample every male, because one person’s DNA can unlock the genetic identity of male relatives.

Sui-Lee Wee, “China finds all its men, strand by DNA strand” in The International New York Times, 20-21 June 2020

The ostensible purpose of this database is to aid law enforcement. Purportedly, the police will take no samples without consent. Human rights groups are not buying it. A citizen cannot refuse consent to an authoritarian government. The invasion of privacy goes well beyond Peeping Toms.

The ability of the authorities to discover who is most intimately related to whom, given the context of the punishment of entire families a a result of one person’s activism, is going to have a chilling effect on society as a whole.

Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch, as quoted by Sui-Lee Wee

Punishing the family for the acts of an individual is another ancient Chinese practice. As a kid, I watched Chinese fighting movies by Run Run Shaw. In one of them, a man tries to overthrow a corrupt government. He fails. The government executes the entire family: grannies, little kids, cousins to the 4th degree. The movie ends with a blood red screen.

Global surveillance

Last August, while Hong Kong struggled to control a second coronavirus wave, Beijing sent medical professionals and rapid testing materiel. Beijing is first in class when it comes to testing. Yet some Hong Kongers refused testing. They worry about where their DNA material will land.

That same month, Beijing issued an arrest warrant for Samuel Chu for allegedly inciting secession and colluding with foreign governments. This is odd since Chu in an American who lobbies the US government to promote democracy in Hong Kong.

I fear that I can no longer travel to Hong Kong, or to any countries with active extradition treaties with the Hong Kong administrative government or with China, without risking arrest and extradition. I cannot speak to my elderly parents in Hong Kong without opening them to investigations and invasive searches by the police.

Samuel Chu, “Is China coming after me?” in The New York Times international edition, 20-21 August 2020

Chu was the first American citizen Beijing tried to arrest under the National Security Law (NSL). Clancey is the most recent. Article 38 is the key.

It reads: “This Law shall apply to offences under this Law committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region.” This means that anyone could potentially be arrested or indicted in Hong Kong if they violate these vague terms anywhere in the world. 

Furthermore, given China’s willingness to seek extradition of violators from foreign countries, the law will send a chill to Beijing’s critics everywhere.

Tom Ginsburg, “Hong Kong’s Crisis and the Turn Toward Extraterritorial Law” in Pro Market, 22 July 2020

Skin in the Game

Armed with global jurisdiction and an arsenal of surveillance techniques, Beijing seeks to squelch dissent inside and outside its borders.

The US and the UK have issued travel advisories, urging their nationals to reconsider travel to Hong Kong or China. They warn of arbitrary arrest, detention without access to consular or legal aid, expulsion from the country and/or prosecution. Other foreigners have disappeared into the entrails of China’s judicial system. More could follow.

Interpol red notice
Image source: Interpol

Meanwhile, Australia, Canada, the US and the UK have suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong. Beijing might issue arrest warrants or an Interpol Red Notice to reach dissidents outside China’s borders.

Call me a coward for fearing China’s long arm. Even before the National Security Law took force, I scrapped China from our travel plans. I stay away from airports in Hong Kong and China. I won’t fly a China-owned airline.

John Clancey got lucky. This time, China was content with sending a message. Wherever you are, whoever you are, we can get you. Wait for the knock on the door.