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.
Free-market reforms broke the totalitarian grip and gave people incentive to leave farms and state jobs for work in booming cities and industrial zones. Private lives and private wealth blossomed, creating less reason for snooping.
Money now fuels the extensive surveillance system. Budgeted spending for police, courts, prosecutors and other law enforcement has soared for much of the past decade, surpassing official outlays for the military for the second year in a row this year, to nearly $110 billion.
Allocated by Beijing to the provinces and on down, the money sometimes is called “stability preservation funds” for the overriding priority the government now puts on control.
As long as trouble is quelled, Beijing doesn’t seem to mind how this money is spent. It’s proving a growth opportunity for cash-strapped local governments and small-time enforcers.
Along with the police, Mr. Yao counts the city education bureau as benefiting from the funds available for his surveillance. His minders are mainly drawn from the bureau, his Qianjiang Experimental Primary School and the ranks of physical education teachers throughout the city school system.
Anywhere from 14 to 50 people a day are on the local government payroll for his round-the-clock surveillance - what he calls the “Yao Lifa special squad.” They get $8 for a day shift and twice that for night work. Often, he said, hotel rooms, transport, meals and cigarettes are thrown in.
The sums add up in Qianjiang, a city of struggling factories and one million people set in the center of the country. Basic pay runs about 1,000 yuan, or $160, a month for an entry-level teacher and goes to three times that amount for a veteran, Mr. Yao said.
“This isn’t bad for teachers,” said Mr. Yao. “An English teacher probably wouldn’t take it. They can earn extra money giving private tutoring. But gym teachers can’t do the tutoring. Besides, their superiors have told them to do this. They can’t not do it.”
In the deep south farming county of Yun’an, more than a quarter of its 6,700 officials are on the “stability” payroll, the magazine Caijing reported last year.
Township “stability” offices spent money on vans, motorcycles and computers, and also allocated reward money - $3,100 in 2010 - for stopping any disgruntled local from going to Beijing to complain about conditions, the report said.
Some nights, Mr. Yao said shady-looking men sleep in a car by his building’s entrance, in addition to the police in a hut. He said he heard the school and education bureau were arguing over $48,000 for his surveillance.
“I have many acquaintances. Some of them work in police stations,” Mr. Yao said. “They tell me, ‘Really we could use a Yao Lifa. If we had one, we could make more money.’ “
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