Maximum Security in the Middle Kingdom
I’ve been absent from this blog for three weeks, not because I lost interest but because I was away from Beijing on another scientific trip to Inner Mongolia – to the northwestern part of the region this time, near Mongolia proper.
Travelling in China during the Olympic period was interesting, to say the least. Faced with the minor risk of embarrassing demonstrations, and the more serious one of attacks by Uighur militants, the authorities instituted extra security measures all over the country. Some were probably imposed by local government, because they were very sporadic: one day, for instance, all of the foreigners in the party had to show passports before being allowed into a restaurant for lunch. Sometimes we had to fill out elaborate forms at hotels, and sometimes not.
We spent the bulk of our time in a small town very close to the Mongolian border. The place had two internet cafes, but partway through our stay the local government decided that foreigners should not be allowed to get online in a border region. The logic was apparently that we might see something sensitive and report it to the wrong people – whoever they might be. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby we could use the internet if accompanied by a Chinese citizen. Then, on the way back to Beijing, we had to negotiate two police checkpoints, one of which kept us held up in backlogged traffic for a good hour.
It’s hard to imagine similarly pervasive measures in Canada or another western country. This is partly due to a difference in political systems, but after seeing the Chinese security apparatus in action I think there’s also a gulf in cultural sensibilities. My Chinese companions didn’t seem to perceive the petty restrictions and frequent identity checks as particularly unreasonable, but tolerated them in the same spirit that Canadians tolerate, say, airport security. Of course dissent exists, but my impression after nearly a year in Beijing is that the Chinese government – particularly the federal government – excites minimal resentment in most of the people most of the time.
The lesson for Canada is simply that we should respect their way of doing things, their rather different ideas about the appropriate balance between liberty and privacy on the one hand and security and social harmony on the other. We may not see entirely eye to eye, but we can still be friends.