Every workday at 7:20am, colleagues pick up Yao Lifa (姚立法) from his second-floor apartment and drive him to the elementary school where he taught for years.
This is no car pool. Yao is a prisoner, part of a China boom in outsourced police control.
By day, Yao is kept in a room, not allowed to work and watched by fit, young gym teachers and other school staff. At dinner time or later, he is sent back to the apartment he shares with his wife and three-year-old daughter. A surveillance camera monitors the building entrance, while police sit in a hut outside.
“At school, if I have to go to the bathroom, someone escorts me. Most of the time, I’m not allowed to speak with others or answer the phone,” Yao said in a recent late-night Internet phone interview from his home in Qianjiang city. “When they bring me home, they sign me over to the next shift.”
Like the blind activist Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) until his escape from house arrest last month, Yao belongs to an untold number of Chinese activists kept under tight control by authorities, even though in many cases they have broken no law.
Co-workers, neighbors, government office workers, unemployed young toughs and gang members are being used to monitor perceived troublemakers, according to rights groups and people under surveillance.
Yao has never faced criminal charges. His misdeed is decades of campaigning for democratic elections.
“They won’t let me teach. They’re afraid of course that I’ll start talking about democracy to the students,” said Yao, a 54-year-old former school administrator and science lab instructor with wavy black hair and possessed of a passionate, fiery manner.
While China has long been a police state, controls on these non-offenders mark a new expansion of police resources at a time the authoritarian leadership is consumed with keeping its hold over a fast-changing society.
“Social activists that no one has ever heard of have 10 people watching them,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The task is to identify and nip in the bud any destabilizing factors for the regime.”
Mostly unknown outside their communities, the activists are a growing portion of what’s called the “targeted population” — a group that also includes criminal suspects and anyone deemed to be a threat. They are singled out for overwhelming surveillance and by one rights group’s count amount to an estimated one in every 1,000 Chinese — or well over 1 million.
Targeted are a growing numbers of people, from typical political dissidents to labor organizers and, increasingly, ordinary Chinese who want Beijing to correct local wrongdoing. In method, this new policing represents a break from recent decades.
In former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) radical heyday, colleagues, neighbors and family members snitched on suspected enemies of the revolution. Free-market reforms broke the totalitarian grip and gave people incentive to leave farms and state jobs for work in booming cities and industrial zones. Private lives and private wealth blossomed, creating less reason for snooping.
Money now fuels the extensive surveillance system. Budgeted spending for police, courts, prosecutors and other law enforcement has soared for much of the past decade, surpassing official outlays for the military for the second year in a row this year, to nearly 702 billion yuan (US$110 billion).