In a case that recently drew intense interest on China’s internet, police in China’s northern Jilin province detained a man for 15 days and slapped him with a 3,000-yuan fine after they found a cache of “indecent” movies on the hard drive of his computer. Never mind that the search of the man’s home was about a totally unrelated matter. Faced with a tide of negative opinion online, the local police decided to reverse its punishment. The man would get his money back, but of course the damage was already done.
In China, we don’t have a ratings system for films and videos. That means that so long as the police or other authorities deem something to be pornographic or otherwise indecent, it is illicit. Technically, only the distribution of such materials is against the law. But try using that in the course of arbitrary enforcement. If unsavory DVDs are uncovered, or material is found on your computer, you can be punished whatever the explanation.
In the bigger picture, this man from Jilin province was very fortunate. Because his case happened to make the rounds on the internet and pressure was brought to bear, his punishment was revoked. But how many thousands of others meet a similar fate without any recourse whatsoever?
In developed countries, citizen’s residences — whether they are homes or hotel rooms — are sacrosanct. Without warrants from the courts, police are expressly forbidden from entering such places, and cases of unlawful search and seizure are serious crimes.
In our country, though, police can search wherever they please. Someone could burst right in while you’re sleeping sweetly and check your personal documents. In some places it’s a major problem if they discover a man and woman cohabiting without a marriage license. A big enough problem, anyhow, to merit a trip down to the police station.
In theory, if you’re in your own home but not in bed with your own partner, this too is a serious transgression. If, god forbid, several men and women were found together, this would be a major taboo, constituting the “crime of group licentiousness” (聚众淫乱罪).
Not long ago, someone informed police in the city of Nanjing that an assistant professor from a certain university was engaged in wife swapping. An investigation was carried out and he landed in prison.
If you’re watching sex videos in your own home, and watching them with your spouse, then the crime is somewhat lighter — and at the moment the risk of the police knocking down your door is minimal. But if you’re watching them with anyone else of the opposite sex and someone informs on you, there will definitely be trouble. Just as in the case of this man from Jilin, just finding videos on his computer was enough to detain and fine him, even though the police had no proof he had watched them with others, or even that he had watched them himself. And of course we still don’t know the nature of the videos and what standard of indecency was applied.
Our police can bully as they please.
Ultimately we must have a bit of privacy in this world of ours, secrets we don’t wish others to know. Sure, some things we keep in that private space of ours might not do us credit. But in China, unfortunately, this private space does not actually exist at all — particularly in the face of overbearing power.
In its insolence power views itself as the parents of the general population. Standing before the parents of power, the people must always be children, never growing up. They have the power to decide what you have a right to watch and what you don’t have a right to watch. They have the power to inspect your book bag, your bedroom and even your personal diary at will.
In the face of overbearing power, we are not a society of citizens. We are nothing more than ant people (蚁民), nothing more than shitizens (屁民).
Those who live under the constant threat of search, the constant threat of surveillance, have no real homes. They have only temporary lodgings, spaces where at any moment they might be harassed.
This essay is a translated and edited version of a post made to Zhang Ming’s personal weblog on June 19, 2012.