Naomi Klein and Christian Parenti on How Beijing Olympics Highlight Globalization of Police State, Inequality

StoryAugust 15, 2008
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The equipment and integrated security systems used to detain Olympic protesters will remain long after the Olympics, to be used, many fear, on China’s own population. And some of the biggest beneficiaries of this surveillance boom are US hedge funds and corporations, including Cisco, General Electric and Google. We speak to journalists Naomi Klein and Christian Parenti, both of whom have recently reported from China. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: China deported five international activists today for unfurling a “Free Tibet” banner over the top of an Olympic Games billboard. It’s the latest incident in what has become an almost daily crackdown on both domestic and international protesters who have had to contend with a brand new surveillance system that China set up ahead of the games. This includes 300,000 security cameras and an estimated 100,000 security officers on duty in Beijing.

But it’s not just Beijing that’s gotten a security upgrade. There are now over 600 “safe” cities in China that have received new surveillance gear. The equipment and integrated security systems will remain long after the Olympics, to be used, many fear, on China’s own population. The domestic surveillance market in China is expected to reach $33 billion next year. And some of the biggest beneficiaries of this boom are US hedge funds and corporations, such as Cisco, General Electric and Google.

AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning journalist and bestselling author Naomi Klein calls this “McCommunism.” Her latest article published in the <a href= >Huffington Post is called “The Olympics: Unveiling Police State 2.0.” Naomi Klein is author of The Shock Doctrine. She joins us on the phone from Canada.

We’re also joined in our firehouse studio by investigative journalist and author Christian Parenti, who’s also just back from China. His latest piece for The Nation magazine is called “Class Struggle in the New China.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Naomi Klein, let’s begin with you. Lay out what you also called in Rolling Stone the “all-seeing eye.”

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, there’s an incredible operation going on in China to use the latest, what’s now called homeland security technology — networked surveillance cameras, biometric identification cards, facial recognition software — networking all of these cameras and running the software through it as a way to control an increasingly rebellious population. There’s an incredible statistic from 2005 that there were 87,000 mass incidents, which means protests and riots, across the country.

So it is already being used as a way to control the population and also to keep an eye on what in China is called the floating population, the migrant population, who are displaced by mega projects, who travel to cities like Beijing and Guangzhou and Shenzhen looking for work. This is a mobile population that is right now 130 million people. And this technology is used to keep track of those people, because in a sort of Maoist time in China, you had — where people stayed in their communities, you had networks of control and surveillance that were really about people snitching on their neighbors. When people are moving across long distances, the technology is replacing that. So “Police State 2.0” is really about upgrading the surveillance system, with the help, as you said earlier, of US companies like Cisco, General Electric, who have been providing these technologies.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your article talks about — calls it the “Golden Shield,” as the Chinese refer to it, and you focus especially on the city of Shenzhen, in terms of the enormous reach of this. I was struck that you mentioned, for instance, that every internet cafe in China has surveillance cameras that are hooked up to local police stations so that they can keep an eye on who is using the internet cafes?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, and the internet cafes are — you know, they’re really like internet bowling alleys. They’re huge. An average-size internet cafe has 600 terminals. And there are dozens of cameras in the — not just obviously the cameras on the computers, but surveillance cameras. And this is a huge market. You mentioned that it’s worth $33 billion a year now. It’s actually — that’s even increased since I wrote that article. The latest estimate is that it’s going to be worth $43 billion, and — a year within two years.

And the reason why this is such a fast-growing market is that it’s not just that the internet cafes are installing these cameras; it’s that it’s a law now in China that they are required to install the cameras. So are at religious sites, so are entertainment sites, karaoke bars, restaurants. So, the government passes a law and says you must install these surveillance cameras, the companies comply, and then you have another set of companies who are connected to the party and also, as you said, to American companies. Many of them are listed on the NASDAQ, the New York Stock Exchange. And they are benefiting directly from this created market, this mandated market. You must install security cameras, so no wonder this is such a fast-growing market.

And, you know, we know that the global homeland security industry, which is now worth $200 billion globally, it really follows the money. So, after September 11th, that money was, in the US, in these huge expenditures on surveillance technology. It then moved to Iraq, and now it’s really moved to China.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about when — the significance of when the Olympics was awarded to China?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. I think this is really important for us to look at, at this point, because, in many ways, I think this moment provides us with a benchmark to understand exactly how much the standards on human rights have been eroded since September 11th, because China was awarded the Games exactly seven years ago, in July 2001, so right before the September 11th attacks. And, of course, it was very controversial. But there was of virtual consensus, among US officials, at least, that the global scrutiny that would be placed on China in the lead-up to the Olympics would lead to an opening up, would force a democratization process, would lead to a freer press, would lead to more freedoms for human rights activists.

And that really hasn’t happened. In fact, I think it’s quite surprising how little scrutiny there has been on China’s human rights record. And part of that has been that there — any kind of moral suasion that there could have been, certainly from the United States — and obviously one has to temper this, because I don’t think that the US — the human rights record pre-September 11th was anything to brag about — but any ability to sort of put moral pressure on China on human rights has really been eroded since September 11, and particularly when you see that China has moved to this high-tech version of repression and surveillance, which means it’s much less in your face, it’s four security cameras on a block as opposed to tanks.

And it looks a lot like what’s happening in London, what’s happening in New York, with the normalization of these technologies, and also, in the US, with the normalization of the loss of habeas corpus, of indefinite detention, of the normalization of torture. So, what we see in this timeline, from when China was awarded the Games to now in this moment when they are staging the Games, is not just that human rights have taken a step back in China, but that globally we’ve really lost our bearings.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, in China, there is — or with China, there is the reality that the country has become the industrial heartland of worldwide capitalism, in terms of the sheer number of production workers that are churning out goods. And, Christian, your article deals with what’s happened to the workers in China and to all — in all of these factories, and what is life like in this surveillance state, but also a state that has become critical to worldwide capitalism.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, and despite, you know, a long history of repression under Chinese communism and, you know, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution in this increasing use of surveillance, there’s actually quite a lot of class struggle, to use an old-fashioned term. By one estimate, supposedly from the Chinese government leaked to independent labor activists, a thousand people a day in Shenzhen, the main industrial city in the south, are involved in some sort of labor action.

So, what I looked at in this article was peasant and worker resistance. And there is actually, you know, evidence that despite the odds against them, they’re having some success. And one major measure of this is the fact that the new government that came in 2002, 2003, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, have responded to the growing discontent, not necessarily out of some sort of enlightened set of theories, but pragmatically they’ve actually passed a number of laws, which may or may not pan out to be good, but on paper give greater rights to peasants. They removed one of the main taxes on them, giving them more legal rights to oppose displacement, passed a very good labor law that gives workers basically tenure status. They used to be basically serving at the pleasure of their employers, could be fired without cause. Now they have to have cause, and after a certain period of time they have long-term contracts. Business pundits condemn the law as introducing European-style inflexibility. And this is giving workers some leverage and is actually raising wages.

And interestingly, you know, there’s a long tradition, dating from Tiananmen days, of trying to create an independent trade union movement in China. That has been crushed. That is a non-starter. But the current government has encouraged workers — well, it said that it wants to see all private — 80 percent of private firms unionize, but through the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. So I thought this was kind of ridiculous as a state union. But when you actually go to Shenzhen and connect with the underground labor movement, many of whom are suffering from severe repression, usually from local authorities in league with Hong Kong, Taiwanese and local capitalists producing stuff on contract for Wal-Mart, Kmart, everybody else, surprisingly, these underground labor activists and their allies in Hong Kong, some of whom are veterans of Tiananmen, have actually — their position is that now what has to happen is that they have to renovate the official union and, you know, not take it over, but actually work within it to turn it into a real union that will defend workers’ rights.

So there’s something interesting going on in response to this rising discontent over the last couple years, whereby the central government is growing concerned about the really, you know, wild brutality and corruption of many local governments, the way that’s antagonizing workers, the way workers are pushing, pushing, pushing, and they realize there has to be something given to the working class of China. Wages have to rise. And there has to be some modicum of rights for that class, which is, as you say, absolutely essential to the engine of global capitalism.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But yet, the vast majority of people in China are still in the countryside, right? So what is happening in terms of the peasantry of China?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, in the countryside, one of the main problems people face is, along with environmental degradation is, these continued land grabs. One of the —- the village I profiled in the article was fighting to keep its land because a big state-owned coal company wanted to strip mine it. And so, this is one cause of displacement.

The other thing is that the countryside is still very, very poor. There has been, in the last two decades, the rise of what are called the township and village enterprises, which are these usually kind of hybrid local—, state- plus foreign capital-owned firms, which are providing some industrial work. But due to displacement by industry and poverty, people are leaving the countryside, and they’re organizing there. In last year in Anhui, a group of villages refused to pay taxes, and that actually led to the government saying, “OK, we’re going to abolish this, this tax law, because the peasants are clearly under serious pressure, and we can, you know, use repression to force them to continue to live in poverty and pay their taxes and ask for serious trouble, or we can just remove this tax and, you know, force employers to actually pay a little bit more.” And, you know, ten percent growth for ten years in a row means there is enough money to go around for the working class to — you know, for there to be greater redistribution through higher wages.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel the Olympics has had an effect on what is going on now in China, this increased international scrutiny, or is there?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: In terms of international scrutiny, it seems mostly to be around the issue of Tibet and broad human rights stuff. And the issue of labor has not come up that much.

In China, I was struck by the way that the earthquake and the Olympics really re-instilled or reignited an intense nationalism and almost a defensiveness around people who, in many cases, were actually involved in struggles against local authorities and were very apologetic about it. In the article, I discuss these guys who organized basically an independent trade union and had these wildcat strikes, but they’re, “Well, no, they weren’t protests. They were just big meetings at the factory. We just wanted to communicate with the bosses.” And they were like, you know, almost apologetic about opposing the country and causing troubles for the country. So that’s one main effect that the Olympics is having internally, is to sort of, you know, change the subject and instill this kind of national state of mind.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Naomi Klein, following your line on surveillance in China, let’s go back to the United States. We’re moving into the conventions. And by the way, Democracy Now! will be there for the Democratic convention in Denver — we’re expanding to two hours — and in St. Paul, where also we’ll be broadcasting two hours every day. But we’re just getting word out of Denver, for example, CBS 4 exposed that there are warehouses prepared with pens and barbed wire for jailed protesters, with warnings on the wall: stun guns — beware of stun gun use.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. And I mean, I think the timing of this is really interesting, that — you know, that the global sort of media spotlight is going to move from Beijing to Denver to Minneapolis. And we’re really going to have an opportunity to actually see how globalized this surveillance state is. And, you know, I really think we’re seeing a kind of a global middle ground emerge, where China is becoming more like the United States in very visible ways, and the United States is becoming more like China in less visible ways. So, many of the things that people are really ready to condemn about the surveillance and police state tactics being used in Beijing right now — the surveillance cameras everywhere, the banning of protests or the pushing of protesters into these protest pens that are empty because people are too afraid to use them, pre-emptive arrests — you know, we are going to see this in Denver — unmanned drones and so on. So I think we are very vividly going to see this meeting in the middle, if you will, of these tactics.

AMY GOODMAN: And in China, the corporations that are involved with supplying China with this surveillance equipment that will be there long after the Olympics?

NAOMI KLEIN: Exactly. This — you know, one of the things that I think people forget is that it’s actually illegal to sell police equipment to China. This was a law passed after Tiananmen Square, precisely to prevent American technology from being used for repressive purposes. And the Olympics have really been just this incredible opportunity for high-tech — American high-tech surveillance firms, because they’ve been able somehow to sell police equipment to China, very high-tech police equipment to China, not in the name of domestic policing, but in the name of securing an international sporting event, which of course is attended by the President of the United States, and nobody wants anything bad to happen to him. So, you know, in many ways, the Olympics have provided this backdoor way for all of this American technology and equipment, policing equipment, to flow into China.

And of course, as people like Sharon Hom, head of Human Rights in China, have been saying now for months, all of this equipment is staying in China after the Games. And it will be directed at many of the workers who Christian is talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: And the corporations involved? We have ten seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: The US corporations involved?

NAOMI KLEIN: Honeywell, IBM, General Electric, Google, Yahoo — I mean, we’ve heard about this. But in terms of building the surveillance state, one company to really watch is L1. They are doing the fingerprinting and iris scanning in the United States, and they’ve been selling this software to Chinese companies that are embedding it in their Golden Shield network.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, Christian Parenti, I want to thank you both very much for joining us. Their pieces appear in The Nation and the Huffington Post and Rolling Stone.

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