Just to be on the safe side: scare the population

Davey Meelker

In our trip through China we couldn’t help but notice the many security measurements. In our view this is greatly exaggerated, since China seems like such a safe country. Probably safer than many places in the West. So why are these severe security measures necessary? Many say it is needed to control the population, but is it also plausible that it is needed to justify Chinese repressive policies?

At many places you will see people in uniform. Those are not only the police or military – which you will inevitably see in China – but also the many different security guards. It seems like that in every family someone has a job in the security sector. However, the country would be just as safe without many of them.

Also, at every single subway station in Shanghai or Beijing, everyone entering needs to put their luggage through a scanner and walk through a metal detector. If you are wondering why this is necessary, you’ll often see the conveyor belt accompanied by an informative banner featuring photos of bombed buses, thus justifying the search of the bags of every single subway traveler.

Not only subways, but also trains and planes are subject to strict security measures. My luggage has never been so thoroughly checked as when I was taking a domestic flight within China. My whole bag was searched from top to bottom, even though they hadn’t necessarily seen anything on the scanner. Do Chinese people really feel so scared?

Apparently, they do. We spoke to a Chinese person about interaction between people on the streets in China. We noticed that people seemed startled whenever we would approach them and we wondered if it was because of people being shy about their (lack of) English skills, a silly thought in our minds as we don’t feel they should be embarrassed as “we” in the West are usually also not very embarrassed to admit to our lack of Chinese skills.

Anyway, the person we spoke to said that this might be the case, but that it could also be that they are literally afraid of you. “Whenever a person comes up to me on the street, I duck and walk away quickly too. You never know what they want with you. Approaching you on the street might just be a ploy to rob you, this really happens you know.” Locals stress that China must be unsafe, because why would we need all those security measurements otherwise?

Yet, we have heard hardly any first hand stories of robberies in China. People always talk about it happening, but never actually experienced it themselves. And even though there are plenty of scams in China, like people selling you copied products as if they are real, there are hardly any cases of actual stealing known to us. Could it be that Chinese people are more scared than they should be? So, indeed, why does China need those security measurements? Might “spreading the scare of criminality” be a way for the government to justify ongoing privacy infringements?

Throughout history many repressive regimes, including Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Hitler’s Germany and Mao’s China, did everything to convince the population of how they are facing huge enemies to scare the population. This again justified the repressive regime in order to protect the population and create stability. In reality they were not protecting the population, but only justifying the harsh policy in order to stay in power.

We are not saying that current China is like Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Hitler’s Germany or Mao’s China, but it is peculiar that in such a safe country as China people are still scared. It is plausible that that spreading fear the Chinese government is justifying the lack of freedom and privacy?

The above is what “we” tend to think of China. But maybe something totally different is going on. Ingrained in Chinese political thought is Confucianism, the idea that the state has the same function as the head of a family: to be strong and take care of their people by doing everything necessary. It could be that ultimately, the Chinese are the most satisfied with their government if they take severe safety precautions. But then again they might be spreading fear to justify the lack of freedom and privacy. What do you think?

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  1. 12 things you’ll only see in China « - July 18, 2012

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