Watching dissidents is a booming business in China

Activist teacher not allowed in classroom; surveillance posted outside home

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BEIJING — Every workday at 7:20 a.m., colleagues pick up Yao Lifa from his second-floor apartment and drive him to the elementary school where he taught for years.

This is no car pool. Mr. Yao is a prisoner, part of a China boom in outsourced police control.

By day, Mr. Yao is kept in a room, not allowed to work and watched by fit, young gym teachers and other school staff.

At dinnertime or later, he is sent back to the apartment that he shares with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. A surveillance camera monitors the building entrance, while police sit in a hut outside.

“At school, if I have to go to the bathroom, someone escorts me. Most of the time, I’m not allowed to speak with others or answer the phone,” Mr. Yao said in a recent late-night phone interview from his home in Qianjiang city. “When they bring me home, they sign me over to the next shift.”

Like the blind activist Chen Guangcheng until his escape from house arrest in April, Mr. Yao belongs to an untold number of Chinese activists kept under tight control by authorities, even though in many cases they have broken no law.

Mostly unknown outside their communities, they are a growing portion of what’s called the “targeted population” - a group that includes criminal suspects and anyone deemed a threat. They are singled out for overwhelming surveillance and by one rights group’s count amount to an estimated one in every 1,000 Chinese - or well over a million.

Mr. Yao has never faced criminal charges. His misdeed is decades of campaigning for democratic elections.

“They won’t let me teach. They’re afraid of course that I’ll start talking about democracy to the students,” said Mr. Yao, a 54-year-old former school administrator and science lab instructor with wavy black hair and possessed of a passionate, fiery manner.

The price of vigilance

While China has long been a police state, controls on these nonoffenders mark a new expansion of police resources at a time the authoritarian leadership is consumed with keeping its hold over a fast-changing society.

Co-workers, neighbors, government office workers, unemployed young toughs and gang members are being used to monitor perceived troublemakers, according to rights groups and people under surveillance.

“Social activists that no one has ever heard of have 10 people watching them,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The task is to identify and nip in the bud any destabilizing factors for the regime.”

Targeted are growing numbers of people, from typical political dissidents to labor organizers and, increasingly, ordinary Chinese who want Beijing to correct local wrongdoing. In method, this new policing represents a break from recent decades.

In Mao Zedong’s radical communist heyday, colleagues, neighbors and family members snitched on suspected enemies of the revolution.

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