Our Life Under Chinese Police Surveillance

When we first came to the Jilin Institute of Technology in Changchun, China as English teachers in 2000, constant surveillance became an important feature of our daily life.

We lived on the university campus in a grotty apartment building, constructed in the Soviet style using Russian blueprints. Friends who had been to the old Soviet-block countries explained that the only difference between a typical Chinese apartment building and the ones seen in the Ukraine, Romania, or even mother Russia herself, was that the tiny balconies of our apartments were sealed and had windows, while elsewhere in the communist world the balconies were open to the elements.

As was the style throughout China, the apartment building was six stories tall, because if it had been seven stories, by law they would have had to install an elevator. Our end of the apartment building—the foreign end—had a brick wall around it, forming a small dirt courtyard. A metal door led into the courtyard, and it was kept locked at night. Ostensibly, the locked door was for our safety. However, we were not given keys to the door, and were given a nine o’clock curfew, despite the fact that the youngest teacher among us was over 35 years old. It soon became apparent that the door was designed to control us. There were many times when we tried to come home during the day, and found the door locked. We would ring the bell to our heart’s content, only to be let in when the guard got around to it. Often, our friends found themselves locked out and unable to visit us. Indeed, once our kids were out playing, and when they tried to return home, they also found themselves locked out.

The first floor of the foreign wing had a small guard station and a meeting room for our benefit, but which were not allowed to use. It and the next three floors had foreign teachers living on them. Apart from our family, there were two foreign couples, and a single man. All of us were North Americans. The fifth floor had two Japanese exchange students—both young ladies.

The sixth floor, however, was a major mystery. We were told that the floor was used for storage, and were forbidden to go up there. However, we regularly encountered men with black leather jackets and dark sunglasses coming up and down the stairs from the sixth floor. Sometimes there were soldiers as well.

We suspected that the sixth floor was for surveillance, but we had no idea the extent of the surveillance until a well-connected friend—an electrician—was called in to repair a device that had broken. He later told us confidentially that not only was there an extensive array of listening devices up there, but video cameras as well. These cameras were pointed out the windows to record our comings and goings.

Once, some men wearing black leather jackets came to our apartment door and demanded to check our phone, because they swore that it was not working properly. Of course, our phone was working fine, so I refused to let them enter. A school administrator appeared and explained that the phone was indeed broken, and that if we wanted phone service we had to let them examine it. I clarified that we did not need a telephone anyway, so they could go ahead and remove the phone if they wished. He remonstrated that it was their legal duty to provide us with a phone, and that if I wanted to continue to stay in China, they had a legal responsibility to ensure that the phone was in good working order. Having no choice, I let them in, but followed them to the phone in our bedroom to see what they were doing. They forced me from the room and shut the door, emerging fifteen minutes later to say that the phone was now working fine. Of course, prior to the phone being repaired, the reception was quite good. Now, however, the phone always had a lot of static on the line, and we could sometimes hear someone else shuffling papers or moving his chair while we were trying to make a call. My wife and I resolved to never use the phone unless we had to.

One day, I was in our living room reading the Lonely Planet guide to China, when I came upon a passage which described some of the toilets in China as not having been cleaned since the Ming Dynasty. I read the passage to my wife, and we both laughed ruefully over the truth of the statement. Two days passed, and a Chinese acquaintance came to me with a joke that he had heard somewhere: Some toilets in China looked as though they had not been cleaned since the Ming Dynasty. It was so true! He said with a laugh. After that time, other people also repeated back to me things said between my wife and I in private. It was not just as though our house was being wiretapped—it was as though half the people in China were listening to the tapes.

Unfortunately, this proved to be not much of an exaggeration. China is above all a place where people gossip, so we later heard through the grapevine that our private conversations were not only being taped, but that these tapes were at times played in the open at the Foreign Affairs Office of the university with passersby present. But we should not worry, I was told: The quality of the tapes was quite poor, with much hissing and scratching and many inaudible sections. Given the poor quality of the tapes, it was not as though our privacy was being invaded, a friend kindly explained.

As we had three children, we tried to make sure that there was always someone at home and that our apartment was never vacant. Further, we advertised that fact for all to hear. The teacher above us lived alone, and did not have this luxury, however. There were many times when he was at class teaching, and we could hear people rummaging around in his apartment. We asked him if he had ever given anyone his key or given anyone permission to use his apartment while he was away, and he told us that he had not.

Of course, we were also followed. Since half of the people in the foreign wing of the apartment building went to illegal home church meetings on Sundays, it figured that on every Sunday morning there were at least three or four black sedans with tinted windows parked outside our little courtyard, and a host of men wearing black leather jackets and sunglasses standing around waiting to take up pursuit. They did not even try to hide their presence. While this did not appear to bother the other foreign teachers (or perhaps they somehow did not notice?) Debbie and I made note of it and decided that for the safety of the people in the home churches, it was better for us not to attend.

I have been assured that I had a tail wherever I went during this period. However, since I am half blind and tend not to notice things, and since my regular tail was apparently smart enough not to wear a black leather jacket and sunglasses, I never detected his presence. There were times, however, when some friends and I took elaborate precautions to make sure that we could talk in private, under the assumption that all of us were being tailed. I remember nights of jumping in and out of taxis and taking crazy, circuitous routes to a teahouse, just so that we could talk undisturbed. However, after a time we stopped our teahouse visits, because we caught the people in the next room at the teahouse listening in on us.

As it turns out, for whatever reason the authorities were less worried about me than they were about my sweet, harmless wife, Debbie. Once, she was in the market with a shopping list in hand, and she noticed that someone was following her and looking at her queerly. The next day, she was waiting for a bus to go to an English class across town. While waiting, she was planning out her next English lesson, taking notes on a piece of paper. The bus was late, and soon she was absorbed in her thoughts and her lesson plans. A truck full of soldiers pulled up. They all filed off the flatbed and stood behind her. Innocently, she thought that perhaps they were waiting for the same bus. After about twenty minutes, an older woman arrived. She wove her way through the soldiers and stood behind Debbie, looking over her shoulder at the notebook Debbie was writing in. Then she turned to the soldiers, said something in Chinese, and the crowd of soldiers dispersed. Debbie went on to class, thinking little of the experience.

A few days later, she was summoned to the Foreign Affairs Office. Was she in the marketplace with a piece of paper in hand? They queried. Yes, it was a shopping list. And was she at a bus stop writing in a notebook? They further interrogated. Yes, she was writing her class plan. They then explained that she was almost arrested as a spy, and they sternly warned her to henceforth stop using a shopping list and to leave her notebook in her bag when she went out.

This kind of surveillance was far from ubiquitous for all foreigners. There were many foreigners in town who appeared to be under little or no surveillance. Some even lived off campus in their own apartments, under no apparent supervision at all. A handful of foreigners had it even worse than we did, however, living in virtual imprisonment, rarely able to receive visitors or to go out except for class.

We can only speculate, but we suspect that the degree of surveillance we were under was due to two factors. First, our university appeared to have close links with the Chinese military, various Chinese intelligence agencies, and the Communist Party, and so while they needed foreign teachers so that their students could learn English, they were also quite wary of these teachers. Second, the foreigners teaching at the university had gotten a reputation for being troublemakers. (Years later, a Chinese friend who knew of the situation gave a third possible reason. He speculated that our university was actually training people for surveillance, and using us as guinea pigs.)

Whatever the reasons for the surveillance, we decided that the situation was intolerable and we had to launch an escape. However, I was contractually obligated to the university for another year, and I would need a letter of release from the university (a letter that I knew I could not get) in order to go work somewhere else.

I discovered that our university had a cooperative venture with a private school on the south edge of town—Yucai Language School. Yucai had a teacher who was soon leaving, and so I applied for a transfer. As I would still technically be receiving my visa through the Jilin Institute of Technology, there would be no need for a letter of release.

At this point, a short digression is needed to explain how we were able to escape the Jilin Institute of Technology after only a few short months.

As a foreign teacher, I was under the direct supervision of the university’s Foreign Affairs Office (FAO; in Chinese, the waishiban 外事办). The head of the FAO, Mr. Xiao (or “Mr. X” as we called him) could barely read or write Chinese characters, and so his subordinates always had to correct his letters and memos in order to make them intelligible and to keep the office from being a laughingstock. Given Mr. X’s mediocrity and marginal intelligence, one might wonder what qualified him to be put in charge of the FAO. The answer is easy: He was above all else a well-connected, reliable member of the Communist Party; he was incompetent; and, he was totally corrupt.

A bit of explanation is in order. The FAO at a Chinese university has little real power over internal university affairs, but has complete control over all interchanges with foreign people or entities. Given this, it is important to have a reliable party member in charge of it. However, it makes absolutely no difference to the university whether or not the person in charge is competent, as there is very little that he or she can do which will make anyone else’s life miserable (except, of course, the foreign teachers or students, but no one really cares about them anyways). Therefore, in some cases the FAO becomes a dumping ground for incompetent party members. Additionally, the office affords its head plenty of opportunities for some rather lucrative graft.

For example, anyone connected with the university wanting to go abroad had to get Mr. X’s permission first, which meant a hefty bribe. Foreign students paid their fees directly to the FAO. The FAO then skimmed off a substantial portion of the money before handing the rest to the university for tuition and fees. Mr. X naturally took a hefty cut of this skim, while the rest of the money ended up in slush fund kept in a safe at the FAO. The central government was fully aware of the kinds of shenanigans being pulled by the various FAOs, so it insisted on having the foreign teachers paid directly by Beijing, otherwise our salaries would have been pilfered before we received them. However, it was well known that the FAO also received a stipend for the upkeep of foreign teachers, which meant that while we had rickety, broken-down furniture in our apartment, the head of the FAO could afford to have his own apartment remodeled and outfitted with the best furnishing, using money that had been provided for us. Corruption was thus a prerequisite for the position of head of the FAO, as only someone corrupt would want to have what was in every other respect a pointless, low paying, dead-end job.

Previously, Mr. X had served at a university in North Korea. Ostensibly, he had been a Chinese teacher there, but as his own grasp of Chinese characters was quite poor and his teaching ability was non-existent, in truth his job was to spy on and manage the Chinese exchange students at the university. Lo and behold, now that he was the head of the FAO, a university in South Korea requested that our university send over a teacher with a PhD in Chinese to be a professor there. As the salary for a professor in South Korea was much higher than the graft Mr. X was now skimming off from the FAO, he forged himself a PhD, padded his resume, and took the position himself.

His successor as the head of the FAO, Ms Hongyue (AKA, “Ms Redmoon”, as that is the translation of her name into English) had no foreign language ability, no experience overseas, no experience with foreigners, and no experience working in academia. Rather, she had been the manager of the restaurant at the Southlake Hotel, which was the official hotel for party cadres. As a party member, she had heard about the job opening at a party meeting, and decided to apply. She succeeded in getting the position after agreeing to sign over her entire monthly salary, in perpetuity, to the university president as a bribe.

My application for a transfer came just as Mr. X was handing over the reigns to Ms Redmoon. Mr. X approved the transfer, probably under the assumption that it would occur at the end of the next year. However, being incompetent, he forgot to stipulate when the transfer should take place, and so within minutes after hearing the news we were already busy loading up a van to go to our new apartment in Yucai. The guard at the apartment building tried to ring Mr. X as soon as he realized that we were moving out. However, Mr. X had already handed over the keys to his office to Ms Redmoon and was busy getting ready for his trip to South Korea, so the guard had trouble finding him. Meanwhile, Ms Redmoon was not yet technically in charge, and could not tell anyone what to do. With no instructions from anyone in authority, the guard was paralyzed and unable to act.

We were already in the van getting ready to drive away when our contact at Yucai received official word on his cell phone that we were forbidden to leave. He calmly replied that we had already arrived at Yucai and were now unpacking. Then he hung up, and told the van driver to drive us away as fast as possible.

The surveillance we experienced at the Jilin Institute of Technology did not follow us to Yucai. From what we could tell, our phone was not tapped, nor was our apartment. Anyone following us would have also had a very hard time hiding his or her presence, as it was a small out-of-the-way campus with only a few hundred young students and a small handful of teachers. Strangers to the campus could easily be spotted from a mile away. Yet, we never saw anyone watching us.

At last, we were somewhat free.

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