by Oreoluwa D. Babatope. 

Economist Review[1]

Thar be dragons: Many Chinese students are frightened of studying abroad.

Many Chinese students are apprehensive of studying abroad, mostly Western countries, due to petty crime and shootings that China’s state media highlight as a scourge of Western societies. This is an opportunity for Wang Xuejun, founder of Safety Anytime, a company that runs security-training programmes for anxious Chinese who are preparing to sojourn abroad. Mr. Xuejun also has clients from the many Chinese energy, telecoms, finance and engineering companies that send employees abroad as part of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative. With relentless regularity, they see reports of senseless and deadly mass shootings in American cities. Therefore, his customers are taught how to respond to gun-toting assailants, kidnapping attempts and terrorist attacks, among other perils. The point is to develop the preparedness and presence of mind that will serve his trainees well in any dangerous situation, even after they get back home.

 Security v. Freedom 

Whether it is to monitor traffic, prevent petty theft in restaurants and supermarkets, or monitor public safety in parks and shopping malls – you can be sure there is a camera following your every move” – Jane Zhang, South China Morning Post.

The entertainment industry has long been releasing movies with futuristic themes, such as of societies where technology has taken over; everything is monitored, and nothing is hidden. From tracking devices inserted at birth to all actions synchronized with computers, these movies appear to paint pictures of what humans are to expect in the future. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government, however, it seems that for the people of China, as well as foreigners living in the country, the future will be sooner than expected. A recent study by Comparitech[2] reports that with about 200 million Closed-circuit television CCTV cameras in use, Mainland China is home to eight of the world’s 10 most heavily monitored cities.[3] The reports also reveal that as of 2019, Chongqing, the world most surveilled city, has about 2,58 million surveillance cameras covering 15.35 million people, meaning about 168 cameras per 1,000 people. With developments in artificial intelligence and improved facial recognition, Big Brother is always watching. It has therefore become increasingly difficult for citizens to protect their privacy in public spaces. Though the argument is that cameras and surveillance reduce crime and increase public safety-as the privacy needed by criminals to carry out various heinous acts, is also unprotected-some civil liberty groups say such systems are open to abuse and can be used to monitor political critics.[4]

Security is, after all, the most basic of basic human needs. If someone kills you, you immediately have no further needs. In fear of death, most human beings are ready to sacrifice wealth, to abandon social status or political position, and to accept injustice and the loss of freedom.”

States and Markets, p. 55.[5]

While some Chongqing residents (and the Chinese, generally) may be concerned about what they would consider intrusion of privacy, there are others who appear willing to trade some privacy for extra safety or practical improvement on their daily lives. As explained by one, “there is not impact on personal privacy if you do not steal, rob or break laws. You just do what you should do. It is not really relevant to privacy since they have not installed cameras in your home.”[6] They seem not to worry about the violation of their privacy because they believe they are law abiding citizens. After all, “only criminals need to be afraid.”[7] What happens if or when the government decides to bring the cameras into the homes, perhaps with the justification of monitoring people against conspiracy? There is also the question of what safety means to different people. On the quest for words synonymous to ‘safety’, two words emerge; freedom and security.[8] This invariably shows that the theory of relativity is more than applicable in this instance. Defining safety as the condition of being secure will be in line with the arguments for the surveillance. However, if safety is described in terms of freedom, one would have trouble understanding the violation. For those that view this security measure as an infringement on their privacy, it will not be out of place for them to feel some level of unsafety, not just in spite of, but because of the surveillance.  Is it necessary to pay such a price for security? Does it have to be one or the other? Is the reduced crime rate solely due to the surveillance? If such measures are adopted in America, could it lead to a reduction in gun violence and mass shootings in the country? Whether or not this is possible, it does not appear like the people of America will allow such to occur. Or is it up to them?

Despite the numerous questions arising, there are a few certainties. One of which is that the China has chosen its side on Strange’s fictional desert island. America, on the other hand appears to also value security, but this is reflected in the military and defense spending, not so much in the public safety of its citizens. The Chinese cannot be blamed for fearing the dragons they expect to face in the United States. It behooves on the government and its security agencies to develop measures that will promote the safety of its citizens, whilst preserving their freedom. One does not have to suffer for the other to thrive.

 

[1] Economist Article (21st Nov. 2019). Culled from https://www.economist.com/china/2019/11/21/many-chinese-students-are-frightened-of-studying-abroad. Date accessed: 27/11/2019.

[2] Comparitech is a British pro-consumer website providing information for research and comparison of tech services.

[3] Wong D. (2019, October 23). Big brother is watching you: the world’s top 100 most surveilled cities. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from 27/11/2019. https://multimedia.scmp.com/infographics/news/world/article/3034080/most-surveilled-cities/index.html.

[4] Ibid. Wong D.

[5] Susan Strange (1988, 1994). States and Markets. Continuum, Great Britain. P.55.  Available at: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/states-and-markets-9780826473899/

[6] Zhang J. (2019, October 4). In Chongqing, the world’s most surveilled city, residents are happy to trade privacy for security. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/tech/policy/article/3031390/chongqing-worlds-most-surveilled-city-these-residents-are-happy-trade. Date accessed:27/11/2019.

[7] Qian J. (2019, April 10). Feeling Safe in the Surveillance State. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/10/opinion/china-internet-surveillance.html?auth=linked-google1tap.

[8] Thesaurus (2019). Synonyms: Safety. Retrieved from: https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/safety?s=t.