A recent trip to China gave me at least a superficial look at life in a police state and spurred gloomy thoughts about whether we are headed down the same road.
Our histories are different, of course, as are our societies, economies, traditions and governance. What struck me, however, was the way life can go on in a police state when people are much more preoccupied with business success and—for many more—economic survival than with civil liberties. What worried me is that a similar unconcern is gripping the United States. Like the Chinese, we are going about our lives apparently indifferent to a loss of civil liberties under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Law professor Jonathan Turley, writing in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 29, called Obama “a disaster not just for specific civil liberties but for the civil liberties cause in the United States.”
My UC Berkeley alumni group tour of China from Beijing to Shanghai can’t be compared to a serious academic and journalistic examination of this ancient nation, nor to the insights and information collected by visiting artists, business people or those who connect with outnumbered dissidents. Aware of my limitations, I wasn’t planning on writing about the trip. But once there I was struck by the phenomenon of people going about their day-to-day business while living under a government that can arrest and imprison anyone without warning or explanation.
Paul Vallely described the situation in The Independent newspaper in June, writing that “China is thought to have the highest number of political prisoners of any country in the world. ... As China’s economy has burgeoned the Beijing government has grown more confident in cracking down on dissent. Political freedoms have been matched by some loosening of social constraints but by little in the way of lifting the regime’s tight political restrictions. Anyone advocating democratic reform, defending human rights, speaking up for suppressed ethnic minorities, holding religious beliefs not sanctioned by the state or even peacefully expressing their views has been the subject of a more confident and more aggressive repression.”
That was evident when we visited the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium. The guide didn’t mention that Ai Weiwei, the distinguished artist who helped design it, had been imprisoned for 81 days after criticizing the government and the Communist Party. The government is considering legislation that would strengthen police power to hold such dissidents in secret locations without telling their families.
Suppression was ridiculously evident to us at Tiananmen Square, where the government killed several hundred demonstrators during the 1989 protests. A tourist asked a guide where the tanks had rolled into the square, as the world watched on television. The guide shook his head and gestured that he didn’t want to talk about it.
In the privacy of our tour bus, a Chinese guide whose family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution talked about how the Communist Party, source of all authority, makes its decisions in an opaque manner and she doesn’t question them. Without such control, she said, there would be chaos. Ethnic minorities would spin away from the central government. Perhaps there would be civil war. She cited what happened to the old Soviet Union, or Egypt and Libya.
Business is the single most important word to describe China, said Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israel-born photojournalist who conducts tours of the old Jewish section of Shanghai. Everything else is unimportant.
Office towers and apartments make up a high-rise skyline in cities that were once towns. The apartments are no more than shells. The new owner must buy fixtures, a toilet, windows, doors, cabinets and flooring from Home Depot, furniture from another store and hire workers to install it all. So many of these apartments are being built that China looks like a bubble ready to burst, with many units that appear vacant. In the cities, the streets are jammed with high-end cars—Audis, Mercedes and other brands, including those of Chinese manufacture. But in alleys behind the high-rises, the poorer residents lack indoor plumbing and use chamber pots.
Thanks to the recession, most of the United States is more focused on survival than prosperity. Recession, war and fear of terrorism have so completely occupied the national attention that little notice is paid to the steady erosion of civil liberties.
Most troubling is the manner in which the Obama administration has enlarged police powers at the expense of people whom law enforcement considers suspects or who, for undisclosed reasons, have attracted the attention of federal, state or local cops.
Journalist David K. Shipler, who analyzed the Obama policies in an Aug. 30 article in The Nation, described how the administration is asking the Supreme Court for authority to install GPS devices on motor vehicles without a warrant or showing probable cause. An appellate court, turning down the request, noted that any curious federal authority could track a person for undisclosed reasons and “deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at a gym, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups. ...”
The administration has given agents more authority to rummage through home trash, to delay advising terrorism suspects of their rights and to engage in targeted killings, even targeting American citizens, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the suspected al-Qaida leader.
And Obama’s Justice Department has moved to weaken oversight by the news media, most notably in the case of James Risen, a New York Times reporter. The government wants him to testify at a criminal trial about who leaked information in a story involving the Central Intelligence Agency.
Each one of these actions strips away protections against law enforcement abuses, giving government the tools to make this a police state. By keeping your head down and nose clean, it’s possible to live under such conditions, as they do in China. But is that really living?
AP / Andy Wong
A man flips through magazines on the streets of Beijing.