here’ the thing: for virtual surveillance to succeed, you still have to mobilize people on the ground

This morning I went for a walk through one of Nanshan’s park. About 50 meters ahead of me on the path, a woman in sporting gear was kneeling with her camera held to film her friend, who was also wearing coordinated sportswear (pastels) jog toward me. They waited for several elderly people to walk past and then “action!” I waited for the jogger to pass me, but both she and the videographer wanted to film me walking past. Was I really that much more attractive to their Shenzhen vision than the grannies? When I refused to be filmed, the woman shut off the function and commented, “Wow! Your Chinese is really good.”

At that moment I realized how much I have taken public spaces to be semi-private spaces, where I wouldn’t be subject to random documentation. In an older world, most people who wanted to take a picture of me, asked. However, more recently I have been surreptitiously filmed; did they thinkI hadn’t noticed? Or is it more that much of this content is being monetized and I’m free labor for the clip?

More and more it seems that being in public is giving tacit permission to be filmed and/or photographed by strangers and passers-by even if one is not involved in an explicitly public activity. This has become more of an issue as video-casts have become a (potential) source of income for many. More disturbingly, this was the first time that I had viscerally connected the ways in which virtual surveillance requires the mobilization of friends and family to achieve desired effects. The surveillance runs two ways. There is the more obvious: I see you doing a bad thing kind of reporting and the less obvious, I document you completing an assigned task.

Unofficially tattling on others for doing or saying something politically incorrect is known as making a “little report 小报告.” These reports can be made by anyone, anywhere: in parks, classrooms, and supermarkets. And yes the little reporters are as annoying and potentially dangerous as Karens in the US. More insidious, however, is the way in which family, friends and colleagues are being mobilized to document the completion of a task.

On streets throughout Shenzhen, for example, urban management officers (城管) document themselves enforcing public health codes, including dismantling vegetable stands that have been set up at the edge of a sidewalk. In addition, in Parent-Teacher WeChat groups, images and videos of children completing physical homework activities, including exercise (jump roping is always popular), recitation (short Tang poems and slogans), and more recently bowing and saluting symbols of national authority (image above) are uploaded everyday. Thus, on the subway I have seen adults using their phone to film a child reciting a poem and then, once the task has been completed, turning away from the child to check on the quality of the video. Sometimes the adult and child examine the video together.

I have written about the transformation of cultural revolutionary stages into sites for more free market performances in Shenzhen. I have also tried to understand the panopticon with Chinese characteristics, especially as it played out in Shenzhen circa 2008. Today, I’m thinking about the ways in which (almost fifteen years later) these diverse strands have been re-woven into a recognizable form of surveillance that is simultaneously one of the few paths for one’s accomplishments to be recognized and transformed into “influence (影响)”–which is now one of the most important factors in evaluating whether or not workers (including bureaucrats) have met their KPI.

4 thoughts on “here’ the thing: for virtual surveillance to succeed, you still have to mobilize people on the ground

  1. Hello, Mary Ann,
    I tried to send an email to your Yahoo mailbox but it keeps returning to the sender and notifying me that it failed to deliver. I would love to invite you to organize a walk in Shajing/Nanshan Village with a group of SZ high school students. Maybe I can send the details to another email of yours?

  2. Phone cameras are not just tools to stitch, but also a means to defend. After all, if you are being filmed in a hostile way, what better ways to protect yourself are there than holding up your camera high to film back? In the era of Karens and “little reports”, whoever puts the videos out first will control the narrative and thus has the upper hand in influencing public opinions. A little bit of editing plus a line or two of captions go a long way.

    Obssessive filming seems to have become the answer to the the fear of missing out and the fear of being framed in our times.

    • Yes, agreed. And today everyone is “armed” with a camera. However, it can be distressing in an ostensibly “peaceful” situation (such as taking a walk) to be mobilized into someone else’s video production. I didn’t want to defensively counter-film them; I wanted to walk through a park and think about cat food. (As alone with my thoughts as anyone every is.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s