“To me, your life is totally transparent,” a policeman said to Hao Jian. They were having one of their scheduled interviews or what we euphemistically call being “summoned for tea.” Hao Jian is a professor at the Beijing Film Academy. In June of 1989, during Tiananmen Square protests that ended in bloodshed, Hao’s cousin was hit with a bullet and died. Since then, Hao has been an ongoing target of government surveillance.

The police shadow Hao whenever he visits his cousin’s grave, perhaps to protect him from the predations of ghosts. In 2008, Hao signed Charter 08, a manifesto similar to Charter 77 that ushered in the end of one party rule in Czechoslovakia. In 2009, Hao participated in forums discussing the June 4 Democracy Movement. The Chinese government does not appreciate these activities and watches Hao ever more attentively. They tap his phone, read his emails, and invite him over for tea once a month, and it’s all on the public purse. On special occasions, like the months after Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, the government forbids Hao from leaving China because that might “harm our nation.”

As you can imagine, Hao Jian is not the only person in China who lives a transparent life. Among my acquaintances, dozens are accorded similar treatment: the scholars Cui Weiping, Xu Youyu, Ran Yunfei, the writer Wang Lixiong, the social commentator Xiao Shu (pen name of Chen Min), and the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang. The list grows longer when you include people like the organisers of house churches, Falun Gong practitioners, and people who petition the government for the redressing of injustices.

In fact, no one knows exactly just how many people are under surveillance, let alone which government office is in charge of this work.  Borrowing an official term, people call the surveillance apparatus “the relevant authorities,” a branch of government that is the most mysterious in China, if not the entire world. People who carry out surveillance are commonly called Guobao, an abbreviation of the Domestic Security Department, a branch of the police force within the Ministry of Public Security. Guobao sounds the same as “national treasure,” which in China immediately brings to mind panda bears. Thus surveillance officers have been dubbed Panda Bears.

In 2011 when Christian Bale attempted to visit the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng and was violently driven away, Chinese netizens called the incident “Batman takes on Kungfu Panda.” Of course, Kungfu Panda won.

For Kungfu Pandas the work of surveillance, phone tapping, shadowing, and tea drinking are vital. The official job description for surveillance in China is “weiwen,” or “maintaining social stability.” For almost a decade, this has been the most important mission of the Chinese government, more important than education, healthcare, and even national defence. In the 2012 governmental budget, expenditure for “public security” exceeded 700 billion yuan compared with a defence budget of 670 billion yuan.

I believe the Chinese government’s enormous spending on “maintaining social stability” cannot be free of the corruption and the secret deals that plague many other government initiatives. But still, the government’s achievements are astonishing—anyone who has been to Tiananmen Square in recent years would be shocked to see the huge number of surveillance cameras pointing in all directions. In fact, surveillance cameras have become part of people’s lives in China. They have been installed on most streets, in supermarkets, in cinemas, in classrooms, and even in university student dormitories.

The purpose of surveillance cameras in China is often described as “crime reduction,” or “law and order management.” However, cases like the mysterious death of Ma Yue in 2010, and the murder of an infant in a stolen car in Jilin in 2013 suggest that many of these surveillance cameras are merely for display when it comes to battling real crime and ensuring public safety.

In August 2010, Ma Yue, a 21 year-old man, fell from the platform of a Beijing subway station and died. Crucial surveillance footage of the subway station before and after the incident is missing. In March 2013, a car was stolen in the city of Changchun in Jilin province. A two-month old baby boy, was strapped in the backseat, was murdered. The public criticised the costly surveillance network for failing to catch the suspect.

In contrast to the failure in performing its purported crime prevention duties in the death of Ma Yue and the murder of the baby boy, the surveillance system worked perfectly when targeting Li Tiantian, an outspoken Shanghai based human rights lawyer. According to Li, security officials forced her boyfriend and his brothers and sisters to watch surveillance footage of Li walking into a hotel with other men.

In 2011, a newspaper article appeared on the official website people.com.cn revealing the true purpose of these surveillance cameras. According to the article, in order to “establish a new social management system,” and to “manage social problems,” as part of the Skynet Project, in 2011 the city of Changsha would install an additional 26,000 surveillance cameras. In other words, the main purpose of these surveillances cameras is not for catching car thieves or murderers, but for monitoring every citizen who dares to take to the streets in protest.

Events surrounding Edward Snowden this year raised a chilling question for the whole world: How much privacy do people have to give up for the sake of security? For China this question is slightly different: How much privacy do the Chinese people have to give up for the sake of the government’s security?

A survey conducted in 2012 among students in Central China Normal University showed that about 45% of students did not think the installation of surveillance cameras in dormitories would affect their privacy. If the survey were carried out nationwide, I have reason to believe that the percentage of people who support the installation of surveillance cameras would be high.

Traditionally, privacy was not taken seriously in China. A traditional saying states, “nothing needs to be withheld from the people,” and that “the good will not be hidden, what is hidden cannot be good.” In this traditional context, the government sees little obligation to concern itself with people’s privacy. Thus we rarely see mention of “public consultation,” or “debates in the People’s congress” in media reports on surveillance.

Decades ago during the Mao era, surveillance was carried out by the naked eye as part of the People’s War. Everyone was obliged to keep a watchful eye and report on others. Old ladies wearing red armbands were everywhere. Any “suspicious behaviour”—including people dating—would be reported in no time.

As we entered the 21st century, electronic eyes replaced the naked eye, but most Chinese seem unconcerned. They are perfectly happy to give up their right to privacy and allow the government to spy on them. They do not seem to care about how much impact this dark power will have on their lives.

Not all surveillance activities will directly harm the target, but damage is inevitable. In 2011, a man caressed the breasts of a female passenger while he was driving on a highway. The scene was caught on surveillance cameras and footage soon circulated on the Internet. The man became famous as the “tit twiddler.”

Many people were offended by the incident but few thought to ask the fundamental questions:

What are all these surveillance cameras for?

What is the decision making process for installing surveillance cameras?

Who will be allowed to monitor the footage?

Who will be monitored?

How will surveillance data be handled?

An article published by Southern Metropolis Weekly Magazine in May 2013 about Wang Lijun, the disgraced Chongqing Police chief, gives a glimpse into how surveillance powers are abused in China. In May 2010 when reporting to members of the city’s People’s Congress, Wang boasted about the achievements of his Greater Information Gathering system: five days before the Chinese New Year, the system identified 4,000 “unwelcome people” who had entered the city of Chongqing. Their locations were pinpointed within six hours and over 3,400 of them were cautioned by the police face-to-face and forced to leave the city within 48 hours. No evidence was provided that these people had broken any laws.

Wang Lijun is now in jail but the growing power of surveillance in China shows no sign of slowing down. A keyword search for “Skynet Project” will deliver ample proof that surveillance cameras are being installed nationwide at an accelerating pace and that BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU from every possible angle.

But Big Brother of the 21st century has his own torments. According to the South China Morning Post, when thick smog in Harbin recently blinded Big Brother, the Chinese government considered this a serious threat to national security and instructed experts to find a way to see through smog as quickly as possible. The world will soon be able to marvel at China’s fifth great contribution to civilisation—cameras that can penetrate the thickest smog in China. And if the device can cure cancer as well, the Chinese people will have even more reason to be proud.

For over six decades, the Chinese government has been adjusting governance practices “to keep up with the times” and has morphed into a sophisticated new type of totalitarian regime. Compared with the surveillance carried out in Nazi Germany or the former Soviet Union, the new Chinese version appears to be more amiable, even more humane.

Apart from monitoring their targets from behind a curtain, people who carry out surveillance sometimes come on to the center stage. In 2013, scholar Cui Weiping was diagnosed with cancer. Her “minders” offered to arrange medical treatment for her. Minders run errands for their surveillance targets, such as booking flights and providing chauffeurs. They give presents to their targets on traditional festivals. They talk to their targets about their problems in life and even vent their own dissatisfaction with the government.

But these amiable tactics do not always work. Xu Youyu, usually a mild-mannered scholar, never displays friendliness to his minders. He refuses to accept any of their gifts and never smiles at them. “No matter how friendly cats appear to be,” says Xu, “mice must always remember that they can never become friends with cats.”

“There’s no need to shake hands now,” says my friend and bookstore owner Zhang Huanping to her minders who extend a friendly hand. And now more sinister tactics are employed: warnings, intimidation, travel restrictions, gagging, abductions, and arrests.

Sometimes the surveillance officers can be as playful as children and even a little naughty. Writer and scholar Wang Lixiong is best known for his writings on Tibet and Xinjiang, the volatile Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China. They opened Wang Lixiong’s door when no one was home and scrawled two characters on a wall: 唯色. Woeser.  That’s his Tibetan wife’s name.

About two years ago, these naughty guests also paid a visit to the home of legal scholar Xiao Han. As ethical professionals, they didn’t take anything; they just moved his wife’s earrings around.

I have a similar experience. I returned home late on the evening of September 12 last year to find my computer running. Perhaps I was suffering an attack of paranoia, perhaps my apartment had been visited. Nonetheless, I remembered I really had turned off my computer before I went out and had wiped it clean.

Of course I do not have enough evidence to prove that these incidents were perpetrated by surveillance teams and not burglars. But in today’s China it is difficult to distinguish burglars from those whose job it is to catch burglars.

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith often sits in an alcove, outside of Big Brother’s watchful eyes, to write in his diary. My situation is not as bad because I don’t keep a diary. But I have had a Sina email account for ten years. Since last year, someone has been reading my emails. Sadly, these invisible readers never pay my bills for me.

I switched to a Gmail account that requires verification from a mobile phone. Do you know what makes me feel so good about the service? It is that I often receive SMS login notifications while I’m asleep.

In 1984, Winston Smith nuzzles his chin into his breast as he walks, in an effort to escape the vile wind. My situation is not as chilling. I just occasionally turn around to see if the police are protecting me from a distance. When I sit with friends, I often cannot help putting my hand under the table to check if I’ve won a free listening device.  Sometimes when the cell phone signal is weak or there’s an echo I will say something incongruous to invisible ears: Hey guys, just listen in, OK? Please don’t mess with the line.

I am not sure if this situation has affected my writing. Intuition tells me it hasn’t but I can no longer trust my intuition. I am also not sure if this situation has affected the way I associate with people, but one thing is certain: when friends get together, no matter how lively our discussions become, the question “Is there a mole among us?” will instantly chill the room.

Scholar Cui Weiping immediately sensed the problem. She said: “Don’t be suspicious without evidence; let’s trust each other based on our shared values.” Despite her message, many dissidents still play catch the spy, even after having lived overseas for many years.

Many people who are under surveillance share the same feelings: fear, irritation and very often, dejection. It is like living in a glass box—there is no place where you can escape the prying eyes. Surveillance will restrain what a person says or does. Consequently, we are deprived of the joy of being able to speak and act freely.

If you are a business person, you must be careful with your accounts, if you are a writer, you must be careful with what you write. Even if you don’t work, you will have to worry about your private life. No matter how passionate for life you might be, you must live as a monk and suppress all your desires. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming another Charles Xue. Xue is an outspoken social critic who writes under the name Xue Manzi. He was detained in August this year for allegedly hiring prostitutes. His life and bedroom habits were reported in detail on CCTV, the state television station.

In this sense, surveillance means taking away people’s freedom because when people’s lives become transparent, they no longer have the right to choose. In the 2008 movie Eagle Eye, the Secretary of Defence said: “Sometimes the very measures we put into place to safeguard our liberty become threats to liberty itself.”

We must be clear about one fact and share it with all people who treasure their freedom: The dark power that has been employed to watch over us without our consent, no matter how noble and glorious it might sound, is our most dangerous enemy and it always will be.


A version of this text, written for the PEN American Center international surveillance symposium “What’s The Harm?”, originally appeared in The New York Times on November 17, 2013.