In China, thoughts on privacy are changing

Security cameras draw criticism, court challenge

October 25, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHANGHAI, China -- One day last spring, administrators at Shanghai Fuxing High School wanting to make a point about good behavior to their students played a video in the classrooms called "uncivilized phenomena of the school."

The purpose of the video seemed innocuous enough. In instructing students what not to do, it showed students kicking a soccer ball in a school corridor and climbing into a classroom through a window. Near the end, in a sequence subtitled "intimacy during the evening study session in the classroom," a boy and girl were shown hugging and then -- with their faces blurred -- apparently kissing, violating the no-dating policy that holds at most schools.

But these weren't actors, nor was this random archival footage. The video was taken from the school's own security cameras, and the students caught kissing on tape were easily recognized as 18-year-old Wei Gang and his girlfriend, both of whom felt humiliated. The school had taken a tool ostensibly meant for security, the video camera, and used it to invade their privacy, as a means of social control.

"They should not treat us as prisoners that they need to watch constantly," Wei said recently in a telephone interview, after being warned by officials not to meet with a foreign reporter to discuss the issue. "Everybody hates the cameras. Nobody likes them. There's no freedom at all when someone can know when you so much as yawn during class."

Authoritarian state

In this thriving, seemingly open city, China's largest and most modern, the kissing video is a reminder that China remains a police state, an authoritarian system that is becoming more sophisticated. Shanghai already has an estimated 200,000 security cameras in the city's public and semi-public spaces, according to one state media report, and reportedly has plans to add up to 200,000 by 2010, ostensibly for the public benefit.

But society is becoming more sophisticated, too, and more demanding of government; more people are pushing the state to rule by laws, not whims. And this change, too, is illustrated by the story of the young kissers' moment on tape. Because in this case, Wei Gang and his girlfriend decided to fight back. They decided to sue -- for invasion of privacy.

They joined a nascent movement in Chinese legal circles to establish a right to privacy and personal space. It is still only an emerging legal concept, and asserting such a right for public or semi-public spaces pushes that concept further, so that the Shanghai government's plan to install more cameras can be, if not directly challenged, at least questioned.

"Right now quite a few people are raising objections to installing all these cameras. I think 10 years ago, probably no one would have objected to this," said Si Weijiang, attorney for Wei and his girlfriend. "If it were 10 years ago, I would have advised the student not to file a lawsuit. Even if it were filed it would be doomed to fail. But now, at least it became a dispute."

The notion of a right to privacy in a public place so radically conflicts with China's paternalistic and authoritarian conventions that Si knows of no one other than his client trying to assert it. The courts have recognized privacy rights in a series of significant rulings in the past few years, but those cases did not involve government monitoring of public or semi-public places.

The courts have not been encouraging in this case: Wei and his girlfriend lost their first round in court in August, as the school successfully defended its right to supervise students in the classroom; the couple were heard Oct. 15 on appeal, a clear long shot at best in a system where the courts are, by design, more a tool of government officials than a check against them.

Media coverage

But the issue the young couple pushed is slowly taking shape. Their story has been covered in the Chinese media, and Wei has published a book about their experiences, though his girlfriend has not allowed her real name to be disclosed in the Chinese media. When the government moved to install more cameras in the streets of this city, something that used to happen regularly without public comment, some in the state media covered that, too, sounding a somber Orwellian chord.

"Nobody likes to be monitored all the time, even less so to live in a horrible society like that of the novel `1984,'" the nationally circulated Chinese magazine Newsweek said in an article in its Sept. 20 edition, "Shanghai, Life Under the Camera."

"Whether you like it or not," the article's headlines declared, "people who live in cities will find that there are more and more cameras around them -- how much are you willing to sacrifice your own privacy for public safety?"

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