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China's 'Big Brother' System a Boon for Romney's Bain

Common Dreams staff

Cities in China are installing surveillance systems with hundreds of thousands of cameras like these at a Beijing building site. (Keith Bedford for The New York Times)

The growing global surveillance society is finding a pleasant home in China, where a huge state effort is underway to place cameras on street corners, mosques, monasteries, and libraries.  Billed as a safety and security program, human rights advocates are worried that the system will be used to further erode privacy and squash political dissent. Not concerned, it seems, are those private firms that stand to profit from the booming industry, among those Bain Capital, the financial firm once headed by GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

The Bain-owned company, Uniview Technologies, produces what it calls “infrared antiriot” cameras and software that enable police officials in different jurisdictions to share images in real time through the Internet, according to a report in the New York Times. Previous projects have included an emergency command center in Tibet that “provides a solid foundation for the maintenance of social stability and the protection of people’s peaceful life,” according to Uniview’s Web site.

Many argue that Bain’s participation in Chinese repression raises concerns about the direct role that American corporations and financial outfits play in supporting authoritarian governments with technology that can be used to harrass, intimidate, and thwart the freedom of their own citizens.

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From the New York Times:

In December, a Bain-run fund in which a Romney family blind trust has holdings purchased the video surveillance division of a Chinese company that claims to be the largest supplier to the government’s Safe Cities program, a highly advanced monitoring system that allows the authorities to watch over university campuses, hospitals, mosques and movie theaters from centralized command posts. [...]

Mr. Romney reported on his August disclosure forms that he and his wife earned a minimum of $5.6 million from Bain assets held in their blind trusts and retirement accounts. Bain employees and executives are also among the largest donors to his campaign, and their contributions accounted for 10 percent of the money received over the past year by Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney “super PAC.” Bain employees have also made substantial contributions to Democratic candidates, including President Obama.

Bain’s decision to enter China’s fast-growing surveillance industry raises questions about the direct role that American corporations play in outfitting authoritarian governments with technology that can be used to repress their own citizens.

It also comes at a delicate time for Mr. Romney, who has frequently called for a hard line against the Chinese government’s suppression of religious freedom and political dissent.

As with previous deals involving other American companies, critics argue that Bain’s acquisition of Uniview violates the spirit — if not necessarily the letter — of American sanctions imposed on Beijing after the deadly crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square. Those rules, written two decades ago, bar American corporations from exporting to China “crime-control” products like those that process fingerprints, make photo identification cards or use night vision technology.

Most video surveillance equipment is not covered by the sanctions, even though a Canadian human rights group found in 2001 that Chinese security forces used Western-made video cameras to help identify and apprehend Tiananmen Square protesters. [...]

Corporate Ethics?

In recent years, a number of Western companies, including Honeywell, General Electric, I.B.M. and United Technologies, have been criticized for selling sophisticated surveillance-related technology to the Chinese government.

Other companies have been accused of directly helping China quash perceived opponents. In 2007, Yahoo settled a lawsuit asserting that it had provided the authorities with e-mails of a journalist who was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending an e-mail that prosecutors charged contained state secrets.

Cisco Systems is fighting a lawsuit in the United States filed by a human rights group over Internet networking equipment it sold to the Chinese government. The lawsuit asserts that the system, tailored to government demands, allowed the authorities to track down and torture members of the religious group Falun Gong. [...]

But Adam Segal, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on the intersection of technology and domestic security in China, said American companies could not shirk responsibility for the way their technology is used, especially in the wake of recent controversies over the sales of Western Internet filtering systems to autocratic rulers in the Arab world. “Technology companies have to begin to think about the ethics and political implications of selling these technologies,” he said. [...]

On Human Rights

By marrying Internet, cellphone and video surveillance, the government is seeking to create an omniscient monitoring system, said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “When it comes to surveillance, China is pretty upfront about its totalitarian ambitions,” he said.

For the legion of Chinese intellectuals, democracy advocates and religious figures who have tangled with the government, surveillance cameras have become inescapable.

Yang Weidong, a politically active filmmaker, said a phalanx of 13 cameras were installed in and around his apartment building last year after he submitted an interview request to President Hu Jintao, drawing the ire of domestic security agents. In January, Ai Weiwei, the artist and public critic, was questioned by the police after he threw stones at cameras trained on his front gate.

Li Tiantian, 45, a human rights lawyer in Shanghai, said the police used footage recorded outside a hotel in an effort to manipulate her during the three months she was illegally detained last year. The video, she said, showed her entering the hotel in the company of men other than her boyfriend.

During interrogations, Ms. Li said, the police taunted her about her sex life and threatened to show the video to her boyfriend. The boyfriend, however, refused to watch, she said.

“The scale of intrusion into people’s private lives is unprecedented,” she said in a phone interview. “Now when I walk on the street, I feel so vulnerable, like the police are watching me all the time.”


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