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Praxis

Surveillance Smackdown: China vs. United States

The Taiwanese version of the Onion (sort of) has put out a new video mocking President Obama's hypocrisy regarding NSA surveillance. 

The US has long criticized China for being a surveillance state and locking up its own citizens for opposing government policies. But 2013 has revealed a torrent of scandals exposing a US surveillance apparatus that rivals China's in size and complexity.

Watch the video:

 

Impressive animation, but the two points of comparison between Chinese and American surveillance are not equally persuasive. The details of the PRISM program are still hazy, but it does appear that American surveillance may rival China's "in size and complexity." The question is how the two governments use the data. China has imprisoned many political activists based on their activity on the web: here's one example, and another. This does not seem to be the American mode, at least not yet.

Two perspectives on which surveillance state is scarier. Here is Jeremy Goldkorn:

If my name was Ahmed Quraishi instead of Jeremy Goldkorn, I’d feel safer in China no matter who was watching. But being a resident of and active commentator on China, I am personally more worried about the consequences of surveillance here. I don’t want to be watched by either the U.S. or Chinese governments, but since I live in China and use many American Internet services, I don’t really have a choice.

And here is a rival view from Tai Ming Cheung:

The Chinese and U.S. approaches to surveillance and how each of their security apparatuses go about organizing and carrying out such activities are fundamentally different in nature. It might be useful to label them into two distinct models: the U.S. approach can be described as the democratic security state model and the Chinese version is the authoritarian surveillance state model.

There are at least three critical areas to compare these two models:

• Checks and Balances: In the democratic security model, the security apparatus (NSA, FBI, police etc) is subject to legislative and legal oversight—and occasionally media reporting—that provides for some measure of accountability. This is largely missing in the authoritarian surveillance model.

• What Constitutes a Threat: While the definitions of threats by governments are constantly evolving, ingeneral the authorities in the democratic security model take a targeted approach and focus on specific threats, of which terrorism and foreign espionage are some of the high priority areas at present. The authoritarian surveillance model takes an expansive catch-all view of what constitutes a threat that covers anything the authorities deem to challenge their authority. 

• Balancing Privacy and State Intrusion: If we think about individual privacy and the state’s ability to monitor the private lives of its citizens on a spectrum, the U.S. would be on one side in which there are generally robust legal and regulatory safeguards on privacy and data protection, while in China there is very little notion of privacy and few, if any, limits on the state’s powers to intrude on its citizenry.

The surveillance state is here, and it is apparently here to stay. The question moving forward is how effective the U.S. constitutional system and democratic culture will be in keeping the American version from slipping into Chinese mode.

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