Friday, October 22, 2010

Life in a Police State

Perhaps the most well known manifestation of the Chinese government's control over daily life is the "Great Firewall of China", which I talked a little bit about in another post. It took me a little bit by surprise my first time getting online that the when you try to access a blocked page, it just says "The connection was reset while the page was loading", the same mundane message I occasionally get at home. I suppose I was expecting something more like "The Chinese Government Bureau of Security has blocked this webpage", or some official message like that. Twitter, Blogspot, and Facebook are all blocked, although US news outlets aren't. Some random websites that I wouldn't anticipate being blocked are as well, although an example slips my mind. Getting around the firewall isn't exceptionally hard, especially for foreigners. I use my UChicago VPN, which causes the internet to recognize my computer as being back on campus in Hyde Park (I think that's how it works, anyway). From what I've heard, it's somewhat expected that foreigners here will bypass the firewall,so I'm in no danger of being arrested. :)

More surprising to me, however, was the sheer amount of security they have here. There are security guards at virtually every business and entry to campus, which made me skittish my first few days here - I was scared they were going to ask to see my passport/visa and I wouldn't be able to understand them.  They are especially present in the subway system, and whenever you  enter a station your bags have to go through an x-ray machine. I've thought in the past that implementing such a system in the US would be wise, since our public transit is generally unguarded, but after experiencing it here, it feels a bit oppressive. I grew up around the military, and I live in Montana - as far as guns go, I'm about as comfortable around them as you can get. But even then, having SWAT teams with automatic rifles on the subway platforms or outside the station makes me nervous. Maybe it's just because I'm a foreigner that these things stand out to me- I guess I'm likely to assume that the guards are there as the face of the Chinese government, not of just public safety.

There are also security cameras everywhere, too - I counted eight on a light pole on Tiananmen Square. I didn't realize just how used to them I had become until I was in the UChicago Center one day, and noticed a camera in the large lecture room. I instantly assumed it was a security camera - it took my brain a minute to remind me that it was the cameras used to record/broadcast presentations to other parts of the center, like we used during the opening, when there were too many people to fit in that one room.

When foreigners enter the country, they're obviously required to have a visa, but the stewardesses on the plane also handed out arrival/departure cards. The arrival portion, which included flight info, planned place of residence, and reason for visit, was handed in to customs when I arrived. The departure half I keep with me, and will be turned in when I leave. Customs also apparently assigns everyone a "police number", although if it's actually used and what for, I have no idea. The airport also has a health check station, although it was closed by the time I got in around midnight (maybe they assume people getting in late can't be sick?).

While I don't doubt that I have an immense amount more freedom than the first students who studied abroad in China, there are still slight differences in the way we're treated that give me the sense they are trying to make sure we have a good opinion of China. For instance, our dorm is all single rooms; most students share a room with 5 other students. Our dorms also have unlimited electricity; in the other dorms, it gets shut off from 11:30PM to 6:00AM. There have been times when I've been waiting to order food at the cafeteria, and I've been helped before other students- whether that's an official school policy or just the noodle guy's affinity for foreign girls, I'm not sure. I've also gotten that sense from individual people - several times, someone has told me that m family should come visit to "see the real China".When my friend Charis was visiting, her friend from Beijing University came along to visit, and mentioned that foreign students always get the nice dorms. He also noted, flipping through one of my textbooks on Beijing/Tiananmen Square, that it was a really good book-  it had some of the pictures which are still blocked in China.

Of course, these are all my individual impressions, and some processes may be similar to those in the US - I have no clue what kind of visas a foreigner visitor needs to get into the US, and we of course have security and police officers and cameras everywhere, too. Maybe it's just my perception of the Chinese government that causes these things to stand out, and maybe if this were the US I wouldn't think twice about most of the stuff above. And I do hope that this post doesn't portray China in a negative light; I've loved my time here, and the Chinese are some of the most generous and hospitable people I've ever met. (Although the Singaporeans still take the cake, refer to my posts on the Center Opening). A friend here told me that the Chinese people don't care about their freedom as much as Americans do, and I would guess that to be true - can you imagine the uproar if the US government tried to block a website, no matter how mundane?

Perhaps I should note, too, that in a country with as many people as China, I'm not sure how effective the security measures are - there are huge holes in the firewall, and I don't know anyone who's ever had their bag searched at the subway station.

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