Beijing Taxi Talk

Careful what you say. The cabs have ears.

Tens of thousands of taxi drivers in Beijing have a tool that could become part of China’s all-out security campaign for the Olympic Games. Their vehicles have microphones installed ostensibly for driver safety that can be used to listen to passengers remotely.

The tiny listening devices, which are connected to a global positioning system able to track a cab’s location by satellite, have been installed in almost all of the city’s 70,000 taxis over the past three years, taxi drivers and industry officials say.

As with digital cameras used in cities such as London, Sydney or New York, the stated purpose of the microphones is to protect the driver. But whereas the devices in other countries can only record images, those devices in Beijing taxis can be remotely activated without the driver’s knowledge to eavesdrop on passengers, according to drivers and Yaxon Networks Co., a Chinese company that makes some of the systems used in Beijing. The machines can even remotely shut off engines.

And people I know hold confidential meetings in taxis on their mobile phones all the time. I mean, like every day. Maybe ask the driver to increase the volume on that cantopop he’s listening to?

Via this excellent blog.

The Discussion: 19 Comments

And here all this time I thought I was just paranoid. Seriously, I noticed the microphones and always wondered about this.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you…

August 7, 2008 @ 7:42 am | Comment

You know, I asked a number of taxi drivers about those things when I first started noticing them. I wondered if they were microphones, but I was always told that they were part of the car alarm system. Does this mean that I can no longer trust my local cabbie to tell me the truth about what’s going on in this country?

August 7, 2008 @ 9:28 am | Comment

Now this is scary. I always wondered how close the Chinese surveillance comes to the East-German secret police, Stasi. Still am not sure about this. Sometimes the paranoia kicks in (which I guess is intended) and this one gave it a real boost. The Stasi would have killed for this nice little device. And, needless to say, for all the cameras too. But unfortunately they also have found their way into freer societies. Though they there mostly are operated under strict privacy rules it doesn’t feel good to get peeked over ones shoulder all the times. In Beijing this now really irritates and annoys me.

August 7, 2008 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

[Act One; Scene One: Focus in on Chinese bloke watching President Bush in Bush’s Beijing hotel room on his surveillance control room monitor in the basement of Bush’s Beijing hotel. Bush is reading a neo-fascist, militaristic comic book.]

[Chinese surveillance bloke speaks into a microphone]: “Jixu.”

[Bush’s hotel room phone rings]

“Hello. Leader-of-the-Free-World speak’n.”

[Female Chinese voice]: “Ni xu buxuyao anmo fuwu?”

August 7, 2008 @ 12:41 pm | Comment

Just imagine how many people it must take to listen in on all those conversations. Should do wonders for the unemployment problem.

August 7, 2008 @ 5:18 pm | Comment

Something seems to be wrong. Sometimes get a “Database Error” message instead of the Peijing Duck website.

After reading the article and thinking about it a little more I now declare myself officially olymparanoid.

August 7, 2008 @ 6:39 pm | Comment

By the way, the “bog” link at the bottom of this article is brokenish.

August 7, 2008 @ 6:56 pm | Comment

What do you suppose that they do with all the video footage of foreigners shag’n hookers in Chinese hotels?

August 7, 2008 @ 9:38 pm | Comment

Do not overblow yourself. Most people are not that important to worth the trouble.

August 8, 2008 @ 2:44 am | Comment

Is it possible to be both unsurprised and astonished at the same time? The real paranoia exists in the tiny authoritarian minds of the CCP.

Two snippets: Koreans refuse to march together (one world; one dream?). China bows to international pressure and kicks out Mugabe (but sends him on his way with a box of his favourite grenades).

August 8, 2008 @ 9:55 am | Comment

The Olympics: Unveiling Police State 2.0
by Naomi Klein
So far, the Olympics have been an open invitation to China-bash, a bottomless excuse for Western journalists to go after the Commies on everything from internet censorship to Darfur. Through all the nasty news stories, however, the Chinese government has seemed amazingly unperturbed. That’s because it is betting on this: when the opening ceremonies begin friday, you will instantly forget all that unpleasantness as your brain is zapped by the cultural/athletic/political extravaganza that is the Beijing Olympics.

Like it or not, you are about to be awed by China’s sheer awesomeness.

The games have been billed as China’s “coming out party” to the world. They are far more significant than that. These Olympics are the coming out party for a disturbingly efficient way of organizing society, one that China has perfected over the past three decades, and is finally ready to show off. It is a potent hybrid of the most powerful political tools of authoritarianism communism — central planning, merciless repression, constant surveillance — harnessed to advance the goals of global capitalism. Some call it “authoritarian capitalism,” others “market Stalinism,” personally I prefer “McCommunism.”

The Beijing Olympics are themselves the perfect expression of this hybrid system. Through extraordinary feats of authoritarian governing, the Chinese state has built stunning new stadiums, highways and railways — all in record time. It has razed whole neighborhoods, lined the streets with trees and flowers and, thanks to an “anti-spitting” campaign, cleaned the sidewalks of saliva. The Communist Party of China even tried to turn the muddy skies blue by ordering heavy industry to cease production for a month — a sort of government-mandated general strike.

As for those Chinese citizens who might go off-message during the games — Tibetan activists, human right campaigners, malcontent bloggers — hundreds have been thrown in jail in recent months. Anyone still harboring protest plans will no doubt be caught on one of Beijing’s 300,000 surveillance cameras and promptly nabbed by a security officer; there are reportedly 100,000 of them on Olympics duty.

The goal of all this central planning and spying is not to celebrate the glories of Communism, regardless of what China’s governing party calls itself. It is to create the ultimate consumer cocoon for Visa cards, Adidas sneakers, China Mobile cell phones, McDonald’s happy meals, Tsingtao beer, and UPS delivery — to name just a few of the official Olympic sponsors. But the hottest new market of all is the surveillance itself. Unlike the police states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, China has built a Police State 2.0, an entirely for-profit affair that is the latest frontier for the global Disaster Capitalism Complex.

Chinese corporations financed by U.S. hedge funds, as well as some of American’s most powerful corporations — Cisco, General Electric, Honeywell, Google — have been working hand in glove with the Chinese government to make this moment possible: networking the closed circuit cameras that peer from every other lamp pole, building the “Great Firewall” that allows for remote internet monitoring, and designing those self-censoring search engines.

By next year, the Chinese internal security market is set to be worth $33-billion. Several of the larger Chinese players in the field have recently taken their stocks public on U.S. exchanges, hoping to cash in the fact that, in volatile times, security and defense stocks are seen as the safe bets. China Information Security Technology, for instance, is now listed on the NASDAQ and China Security and Surveillance is on the NYSE. A small clique of U.S. hedge funds has been floating these ventures, investing more than $150-million in the past two years. The returns have been striking. Between October 2006 and October 2007, China Security and Surveillance’s stock went up 306 percent.

Much of the Chinese government’s lavish spending on cameras and other surveillance gear has taken place under the banner of “Olympic Security.” But how much is really needed to secure a sporting event? The price tag has been put at a staggering $12-billion — to put that in perspective, Salt Lake City, which hosted the Winter Olympics just five months after September 11, spent $315 million to secure the games. Athens spent around $1.5-billion in 2004. Many human rights groups have pointed out that China’s security upgrade is reaching far beyond Beijing: there are now 660 designated “safe cities” across the country, municipalities that have been singled out to receive new surveillance cameras and other spy gear. And of course all the equipment purchased in the name of Olympics safety — iris scanners, “anti-riot robots” and facial recognition software — will stay in China after the games are long gone, free to be directed at striking workers and rural protestors.

What the Olympics have provided for Western firms is a palatable cover story for this chilling venture. Ever since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, U.S. companies have been barred from selling police equipment and technology to China, since lawmakers feared it would be directed, once again, at peaceful demonstrators. That law has been completely disregarded in the lead up to the Olympics, when, in the name of safety for athletes and VIPs (including George W. Bush), no new toy has been denied the Chinese state.

There is a bitter irony here. When Beijing was awarded the games seven years ago, the theory was that international scrutiny would force China’s government to grant more rights and freedom to its people. Instead, the Olympics have opened up a backdoor for the regime to massively upgrade its systems of population control and repression. And remember when Western companies used to claim that by doing business in China, they were actually spreading freedom and democracy? We are now seeing the reverse: investment in surveillance and censorship gear is helping Beijing to actively repress a new generation of activists before it has the chance to network into a mass movement.

The numbers on this trend are frightening. In April 2007, officials from 13 provinces held a meeting to report back on how their new security measures were performing. In the province of Jiangsu, which, according to the South China Morning Post, was using “artificial intelligence to extend and improve the existing monitoring system” the number of protests and riots “dropped by 44 per cent last year.” In the province of Zhejiang, where new electronic surveillance systems had been installed, they were down 30 per cent. In Shaanxi, “mass incidents” — code for protests — were down by 27 per cent in a year. Dong Lei, the province’s deputy party chief, gave part of the credit to a huge investment in security cameras across the province. “We aim to achieve all day and all-weather monitoring capability,” he told the gathering.

Activists in China now find themselves under intense pressure, unable to function even at the limited levels they were able to a year ago. Internet cafes are filled with surveillance cameras, and surfing is carefully watched. At the offices of a labor rights group in Hong Kong, I met the well-known Chinese dissident Jun Tao. He had just fled the mainland in the face of persistent police harassment. After decades of fighting for democracy and human rights, he said the new surveillance technologies had made it “impossible to continue to function in China.”

It’s easy to see the dangers of a high tech surveillance state in far off China, since the consequences for people like Jun are so severe. It’s harder to see the dangers when these same technologies creep into every day life closer to home-networked cameras on U.S. city streets, “fast lane” biometric cards at airports, dragnet surveillance of email and phone calls. But for the global homeland security sector, China is more than a market; it is also a showroom. In Beijing, where state power is absolute and civil liberties non-existent, American-made surveillance technologies can be taken to absolute limits.

The first test begins today: Can China, despite the enormous unrest boiling under the surface, put on a “harmonious” Olympics? If the answer is yes, like so much else that is made in China, Police State 2.0 will be ready for export.

Read my full report on how U.S. corporations are helping to build China’s high tech Police State in Rolling Stone.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is now out in paperback. You can find extensive resources related to the book at

August 8, 2008 @ 11:15 am | Comment

China: Capitalism Doesn’t Require Democracy
by Robert B. Reich

You may remember when the world was divided between communism and capitalism, and when the Chinese were communists. The Chinese still call themselves communists, but now they’re also capitalists.

In fact, visit China today and you find the most dynamic capitalist nation in the world. In 2005, it had the distinction of being the world’s fastest-growing major economy.

China is the manufacturing hub of the globe. It’s is also moving quickly into the highest of high technologies. It already graduates more computer engineers every year than the United States.

Its cities are booming. There are more building cranes in use today in China than in all of the United States. China’s super-highways are filled with modern cars. Its deep-water ports and airports are world class. Its research and development centers are state of the art. At the rate its growing, in three decades China will be the largest economy in the world.

Communist, as in communal? Are you kidding? The gap between China’s rich and poor is turning into a chasm. China’s innovators, investors, and captains of industry are richly rewarded. They live in luxury housing developments whose streets are lined with McMansions. The feed in fancy restaurants, and relax in five-star hotels and resorts. China’s poor live in a different world. Mao Tse Tung would turn in his grave.

So where are the Chinese communists? They’re in government. The communist party is the only party there is. China doesn’t have freedom of speech or freedom of the press. It doesn’t tolerate dissent. Authorities can arrest and imprison people who threaten stability, as the party defines it. Any group that dares to protest is treated brutally. There are no civil liberties, no labor unions, no centers of political power outside the communist party.

China shows that when it comes to economics, the dividing line among the world’s nations is no longer between communism and capitalism. Capitalism has won hands down. The real dividing line is no longer economic. It’s political. And that divide is between democracy and authoritarianism. China is a capitalist economy with an authoritarian government.

For years, we’ve assumed that capitalism and democracy fit hand in glove. We took it as an article of faith that you can’t have one without the other. That’s why a key element of American policy toward China has been to encourage free trade, direct investment, and open markets. As China becomes more prosperous and integrated into the global market — so American policy makers have thought — China will also become more democratic.

Well, maybe we’ve been a bit naive. It’s true that democracy needs capitalism. Try to come up with the name of a single democracy in the world that doesn’t have a capitalist economy. For democracy to function there must be centers of power outside of government. Capitalism decentralizes economic power, and thereby provides the private ground in which democracy can take root.

But China shows that the reverse may not be true — capitalism doesn’t need democracy. Capitalism’s wide diffusion of economic power offers enough incentive for investors to take risks with their money. But, as China shows, capitalism doesn’t necessarily provide enough protection for individuals to take risks with their opinions.

Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written ten books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Reason. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine.

August 8, 2008 @ 12:00 pm | Comment

Oh common Naomi Klein. Is there anyone really taking her serious?

August 8, 2008 @ 12:42 pm | Comment

Are they gonna be sell’n hotdogs in the bird’s nest stadium?

I ain’t go’n unless I can get a beer and a weiner!

August 8, 2008 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

Emotion, why are you posting all these comments using different names in different threads? What’s up? I hope you have an excellent answer.

Busiest day ever.

August 8, 2008 @ 8:09 pm | Comment

Different names for different threads—Different Strokes for Different Folks….

August 8, 2008 @ 8:43 pm | Comment

If you want to post long articles, you should probably get your own blog. Borrowing Richard’s audience for your own newspaper sales isn’t exactly nice.

August 10, 2008 @ 7:55 pm | Comment

No worries, Sam, he won’t be around. He used six or seven different names in two day, which is a no-no.

August 10, 2008 @ 8:09 pm | Comment

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