Wiretapping with Chinese Characteristics: Distributed Accountability

Fascinating article on peer-to-peer espionage in the upper echelons of the Chinese government. As well as internal security, officials have to worry about their rivals bugging them to gain advantage, their mistresses bugging them to gain advantage… this is of course doubly concerning for many of them given the high degree of corruption in the ranks. In essence, it’s not just the law trying to keep them on the straight and narrow, but rivals trying to keep them crookedly honest. (Or, at least, keep them non-threatening to those rivals’ interests.)

In essence, this forms a distributed accountability system, where if anyone gets too far outside what is considered an acceptable level of criminality, the opportunities for their rivals become too great. Conversely, the system also hobbles people who would be more honest than the norm — their rivals now have much more ammo with which to try and drag them down. By acting to discourage outliers on either end, the system preserves stability at the cost of excluding the chance for positive change.

This is not limited to internal politics. From a social perspective, the Chinese seem to be quite big on collectively taking down people who get a little too big for their britches: see also the phenomena of the “human flesh search,” 4chan/Anonymous-style “d0xing” of public officials who arouse the public’s ire — in this case, a guy who had the gall to smile broadly at an accident scene. (http://www.businessinsider.com/yang-dacai-fired-after-accident-smirk-2012-9) The “human flesh search” turned up photos of the official wearing a $30,000 Vacheron Constantin and any number of other ultraluxury timepieces.

Why, therefore, has this idea of official accountability to the public not resulted in more substantial reforms? For one, it’s very minor in the grand scheme of things: there’s no sign that it happens nearly as much as internecine watergating. A much better reason is suggested by another author, who suggests that any Chinese taste for distributed justice is more than matched by the Chinese love of distributed repression (http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-02-23/guest-post-why-wasn%E2%80%99t-there-chinese-spring).

Conversely, while this system is effective at preserving stability, it’s not clear how good it is at changing course when it enters iceberg territory: the Chinese have spent years and uncountable sums building buildings that now stand empty. How long this will last is unclear, but the rate at which wealthy people from that country are buying gold and depositing money abroad suggests no sustainable solution is in evidence yet.


““It’s not ‘revealing’–it’s simply telling the truth,” Qi Hong corrected me. I spent a few days chatting with Qi Hong in a city in Shandong Province. Much of the content of our conversations cannot be told to you at this time. Right now, I just want to tell you that he dismantled more than 300 pieces of wiretapping and video equipment from the cars, offices and bedrooms of over 100 government officials. This happened in 2011.

Wiretapping as Common Practice

The man’s legs went soft and he collapsed to the floor, speechless for a long time–Qi Hong clearly remembers the reaction of the government official when he dismantled a piece of eavesdropping equipment for the first time. He didn’t expect such a reaction. Even more unexpectedly, he started to gain a name for himself among officialdom.

Personal connections are like passing permits. One after another, officials approached him, through acquaintances, to have him look for and dismantle eavesdropping equipment and hidden cameras. They found Qi Hong either because they wanted to be on the safe side, or because they had already sensed something unusual–for example, their wives became aware of their secret whereabouts, or their leaders had given away some “hints” in their speeches. During his busiest week, Qi Hong dismantled over 40 eavesdropping wires.

This whole amazing experience started at a dinner party, during which an official from Shanxi divulged that “wire-tapping was a common practice among officials.” Officials commonly used spying equipment to eavesdrop on each other and gain the upper hand on their rivals in order to ascend from #2 to #1 at the office.

“Nowadays, we hug each other when we meet, taking the opportunity to feel around for spying equipment. Important conversations take place in bath houses,” the Shanxi official said. This astounded everyone at the dinner party. In the areas around Shandong, this was unheard of. People could just not be trusted, they emphatically sighed.

Qi Hong contemplated further. “What consequences will it bring if public servants collect secret info on their colleagues?” He told his friends, “I want to check your security. Let me figure out how to do it. You just wait.” A few days later, he found a set of detective equipment.

Starting out, he conducted his detective work within his circle of friends. “Focal point” persons were his priority, like this one, a mid-level, high profile cadre that had authority over examination and licensing.

“What if my private life is discovered, and my wife doesn’t let me back in the house?” this mid-level cadre joked when Qi Hong proposed helping him look for eavesdropping equipment. But he wasn’t laughing shortly afterwards, when two wires and one pinhole camera were discovered hidden in the air conditioner in his office.

“He gazed straight at the ceiling, and his face immediately turned deathly pale.” Two or three hours later, he regained consciousness and told Qi Hong that the apparatuses couldn’t have been set up by family. But the mistress was “quite adept at scheming.”[…]

He mentioned a friend, a bureau-level official, who had always been a decent, eloquent, and insightful man–as he put it, “like a state leader.” During one particular chat, this person said, in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, “Why don’t you check me out and see if I am a good cadre?”

Subsequently, there came a series of turning points. As it turned out, Qi Hong really did find plug-in-style wires in his car. He then saw an extremely distorted face. “Suddenly, it looked like his skin became wrinkled, as if he was radiated by a sudden nuclear explosion.” 20 days later, the friend came to Qi Hong and said, sternly, “I admit, I have two mistresses. I will call off the relationships immediately!”

But why did he specifically confess to Qi Hong? I think Qi Hong also had this embarrassing question in mind. On other occasions, people exclaimed to him, “Damn it! I didn’t take graft!” Others pretended to be calm. But Qi Hong isn’t stupid. He immediately thought, “Why are you reacting so slowly, and why is your expression suddenly so dazed?”

As for that “decent” friend, Qi Hong only remembers feeling embarrassed as he replied, “This is your personal life. If the mistresses make you feel wonderful or full of passion, you can still continue. You can even forget that you ever had a friend like me.” Qi Hong sighed, adding, “That is his freedom,” and continued to tell the story of another bureau chief.

Unlike the former one, this bureau chief swiftly accepted the result, asserting that the mistress set up the wire. Afterwards, he decisively called off the relationship with her.

“Repulsive.” Bringing up this incident once again, the bureau chief still gnashed his teeth. Having heard so much about how many other officials fell due to their affairs, he even started to be suspicious of his mistress’s background. “Could she be have been planted at my side by someone? Was anyone using her?” Depression and uneasiness haunted him for a long time.

Since the incident with that bureau chief, Qi Hong has witnessed much, much more. Some officials cursed and called people dirty, back-stabbing dogs. Others had heart attacks, worrying day and night… Qi Hong would rush to the hospital and see them laying there, looking pathetic. But Qi Hong couldn’t ask questions of his own accord. Neither could he persuade them to act a certain way. Nobody wanted to broach the problem.

What about those lucky officials who ended up not being wire-tapped? Were they relieved? No! They were very much worried as well, suspicious day and night–could it be that the equipment used to inspect their offices was not advanced enough?

“Should I tell him?” Qi Hong gradually struggled more and more with his conscience as he continued to detect wires and hidden cameras. “If I don’t tell them, what paths will they go down in the future? I don’t want to see miserable things happen. If I do tell them, seeing so many terrible expressions, people becoming sick or just staying silent, I need to comfort them. But I can’t say anything comforting. I can’t just say: What did you do? Confess. Donate your assets.””

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