Recently I caught up with some expat friends who are living in Beijing. During the get-together, we talked about, among other things, the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas in the US and the new wave of terrorist attacks that are haunting Europe.
A middle-aged lady remarked in a somewhat emotional tone that she was impressed by the ability of the Chinese government to maintain law and order, and that it makes her feel safe living in Beijing.
True, in the eyes of some foreigners, China could well be a safe and peaceful utopia compared to the West. As we all know, the state apparatus and the law enforcement have played a significant role in creating this notion.
Yet not too many are perhaps aware that the Communist authorities actually have a more secret and powerful tool at their disposal when it comes to maintaining domestic stability, which is the civilian surveillance networks that are currently operating in almost every major Chinese city.
These surveillance networks, which are mainly formed by civilian volunteers, have been working closely with the law enforcement and serving as the authority’s eyes and ears.
In fact the four major civilian surveillance organizations that are currently operating in Beijing, i.e. the “City West Dama”, the “Haiding Netizens”, the “Fengtai Dissuading Squad” and the “Chaoyang Crowd” have often been dubbed the “big four secret organizations” in the mainland.
Members of these organizations are lurking around in almost every street corner of Beijing and are constantly keeping a close eye on everyone and everything in their neighborhoods. Whenever they notice anything or anyone looking suspicious, they will immediately report it to the authorities.
Simply put, what the Communist Party does is try to maintain domestic stability by encouraging its people to spy on and rat on each another.
These state-sponsored civilian surveillance organizations, which are unique to China, have succeeded in recruiting an intelligence army hundreds of thousands strong over the years, and the size of their membership is continuing to grow.
Take the “Chaoyang Crowd”, the most infamous and powerful of them, for example. As of now, the organization has over 130,000 registered members. To put that in perspective, there are 277 Chaoyang Crowd members per square kilometer in Beijing city, and they have proven highly productive when it comes to listening in and spying on their fellow citizens.
To give you an idea of how productive they are, members of the Chaoyang Crowd had been providing Beijing police with an average of 20,000 tip-offs per month over the past few years. And in return, each voluntary informant would get paid 300 to 500 yuan a month as reward.
In recent years, the mainland has witnessed a surge in the numbers of these civilian intelligence organizations. For instance, in Beijing alone, at present there are already 850,000 volunteers scouting around the city day and night for criminals, trouble-makers or anyone who might threaten social stability.
Moreover, apart from their sheer numbers, these volunteers are also assisted by cutting-edge IT technologies when carrying out duties. For example, the Beijing police department has recently launched a smartphone app known as the “Chaoyang Crowd HD”, through which volunteers can report suspicious-looking individuals or activities in their neighborhoods to authorities in real time.
The Beijng police’s promotional slogan reads, “Download this app, join the Chaoyang Crowd, and report on anyone nearby.”
In other words, just by downloading the app, every average Beijinger can become a member of the Chaoyang Crowd instantly without having to fill out any application form, and start contributing to the creation of a hunky-dory society in the mainland.
Given its ubiquity and omnipotence, no wonder the Chaoyang Crowd is jokingly referred to by mainland netizens as one of the five most powerful intelligence agencies in the world alongside the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US, the KGB of the former Soviet Union, the Mossad of Israel and the Military Intelligence 6 (MI6) of the UK.
And it appears the “Big Brother” isn’t satisfied yet with what it has already achieved with civilian spying organizations like the Chaoyang Crowd. Authorities are now working aggressively to build a safe and peaceful utopia in the cyberworld as well.
Earlier, Sina.com, one of China’s leading web portals, announced that it is going to recruit 1000 “Weibo” overseers whose job will be to report any obscene, illegal and “harmful” content on the tweeting platform to the authorities. And the top 10 best performing overseers would receive brand-new Apple iPhones or laptop computers as a reward for their services.
A recent mainland survey claims that the “sense of security index” among Beijing citizens currently stands at 95.6 percent, hitting its highest level since 2000.
As the Communist Party is stepping up efforts at “purifying” mainland society and purging it of any potential threat to social stability, it appears the “Brave New World” portrayed by English novelist Aldous Huxley back in 1931 has finally come true halfway across the world in Beijing.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 6
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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