My Beijing Insecurity (on National Security Education Day)

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8:15 PM HKT, Thu April 19, 2018 3 mins read

This past Sunday, April 15th, was National Security Education and Awareness Day in China. It has become an annual day of whimsy for those of us living in Beijing.

Last year, the government encouraged local residents to be on the look out for anyone dressed as V from the film V for Vendetta, because, you know, spies often go around disguised as Guy Fawkes.

The year before featured the “Dangerous Love” of David and Xiao Li. This was really a triple winner, combining the Party’s favorite themes of anti-foreignism, political paranoia, and unabashed misogyny as poor, naïve Xiao Li sold out both her virtue and her country to dashing foreign spy David.

This year featured the usual hilariously bad animated shorts which would be funny if the people making these cartoons weren’t also very, very serious about crushing unwanted foreign influence in China.

After all this time, I’m at peace with the sad but inevitable reality that there will be folks, some of whom are my neighbors, others I interact with only in passing, who might view me with suspicion. I get that. It’s not good, but frankly the life of an American foreigner in Beijing is still a cushy situation. Yes, there is the occasional whack job who attacks foreigners, but institutionalized violence is non-existent and there are anti-foreign whack jobs everywhere.

But that doesn’t mean I’m cool with the way things are trending.

In 2015, a tip line was opened for Beijing residents to drop a dime on the suspicious activities of foreigners in their neighborhood. As an incentive, as if one were really needed, the government offered cash bounties ranging from 10,000RMB to 500,000RMB for quality leads.

Depressingly, but unsurprisingly, the hotline has been a huge hit. The Global Times reports that authorities have received over 5,000 tips since last April. A few of these tips even turned out to be actual foreign spies or at least people who admitted to whatever batshit fantasies their neighbors accused them of to avoid lengthy prison stays or other administrative unpleasantness.

A friend of mine – who will remain anonymous – was recounting a whimsical moment many years back when somebody (suspects include an online troll who doxed him, his shitty avaricious landlord, and/or his brother-in-law) ratted him out to the PSB as a subversive foreign agent. This led to a merry afternoon in the loving embrace of state security. He convinced them that the story was bullshit, which it was, but it serves as a reminder that we all might be just one bad encounter away from being tip #5001.

I’ve been an educator in Beijing for over a decade, mostly as a teacher of Late Imperial and Modern Chinese history. Full disclosure: I’m teaching a unit on 20th-century Chinese history this semester. This was also the first time in over ten years I felt compelled to tell my students – mostly undergraduates from US colleges and universities studying abroad in Beijing – to treat class handouts and readings with a certain degree of care and operational security.

It is, as I am constantly reminded by posters and the nightly news, a “New Era” in China and the fact that this new law extends into the classroom concerns me.

Further adding to my not-so-latent paranoia is that The Paper reported the incident above as a National Security Education success story. Interesting, in a holy fuck kind of way, is that homeboy was discussing the Cultural Revolution. That’s sensitive, but not one of the Unholy Trinity of T’s (Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen ’89) that remain sure-fire ways to piss off the ideological minders.

Perhaps it’s related in some way to this:

There are still plenty of foreign observers of China – although not so many who still live here – who believe that China is, in its own way and on its own schedule, making progress toward a more open and inclusive society. This doesn’t mean Westernization or democratization, but a gradual shift in the direction of rational and transparent governance and a society that is culturally confident while remaining open to the world.

That’s a nice dream, and it certainly felt that way back in 2012 or maybe even 2014 but it does not feel that way right now. National Security Education Day has become a part of the calendar like Spring Festival and the day Beijing turns on the heat in November. I live here and I have to adapt, but as an educator and a writer, it’s something of which I always need to be aware.

As China scholar Perry Link wrote back in 2002:

The Chinese government’s censorial authority in recent times has resembled not so much a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon as a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is “You yourself decide,” after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite “naturally.”

It’s 2018 and I’m trying not to look up at my chandelier.

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