Cell Block

What’s the difference between BART and the Chinese government?

What’s the difference between Bay Area Rapid Transit and the Mubarak regime in Egypt? That’s an irresponsible question. They are not at all alike. Mubarak was a brutal dictator; BART is a public agency under an elected government. I’ll try again: What should the difference be between BART and Mubarak?

Last week, BART blocked mobile phone service in its stations to keep would-be protesters, planning to demonstrate against the most recent shooting by transit police, from communicating with one another. In January, Mubarak’s government blocked mobile phone service to keep anti-government protesters from communicating with one another.

But the Egyptian regime was against the protesters because the Egyptian regime was evil and the protesters were good. The San Francisco protesters were dangerous. BART cut off communications, according to a statement from the agency, because protests in the stations “could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions.”

The same day when BART followed its protective impulses, British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the House of Commons about the London riots (which also followed a shooting by police). The rampaging criminals, Cameron explained, were using Twitter and Facebook to coordinate their activities:

Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.So we are working with the police, the intelligence services, and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder, and criminality.

And who would support rioters’ freedom to riot? Not the editorialists of China’s state-run Global Times, who praised Cameron for at least floating the idea of blocking communications, as an acknowledgment from a Western leader that “democracy and freedom of speech should have their pragmatic connotations and denotations”:

Media in the US and Britain used to criticize developing countries for curbing freedom of speech. Britain’s new attitude will help appease the quarrels between East and West over the future management of the Internet.As for China, advocates of an unlimited development of the Internet should think twice about their original ideas.On the Internet, there is no lack of posts and articles that incite public violence. They will cause tremendous damage once they are tweeted without control. At that time, all governments will have no other choice but to close down these websites and arrest those agitators.

This is a familiar, cynical maneuver by the Chinese, trapping the West in a moment of apparent hypocrisy. But what if the Chinese aren’t being cynical? From China’s point of view, London has a practical problem. The city is scheduled to host the 2012 Olympics, one year from now, and mobs have been burning and looting there. How can the world trust Britain to put on a safe event?

Four years ago, there was much discussion of whether Beijing was fit to host the 2008 Games. Was Beijing’s human rights record up to international standards? Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t, but at least there weren’t any riots in the host city. Only in distant territories, and those were dealt with—through communications interference and military interference.

And so, aside from a stray stabbing and some minor, well-contained fuss from the Free Tibet crowd, Beijing kept its Olympics safe and secure. Safer than Atlanta in 1996, certainly, with its domestic-terrorist bombing. It helped that the Chinese capital was equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance and image-analysis technology, much of it supplied by American companies. That technology stayed on after the games, recognizing faces and tracking suspicious patterns of public gathering.

Technology is value-neutral. The values are supposed to come from the people operating it. And the security of the state, as a goal, is as amoral as the machinery behind it.

Here’s David Cameron, speaking about using surveillance footage to track down London rioters: “No phony human-rights concerns about publishing photographs will get in the way of bringing these criminals to justice.”

This is, in every syllable, the voice of a Chinese Communist public-security official. Concerns about rights are a pretext, put forward by enemies of the state to undermine those protecting the public.

If the tactics are the same, and the rhetoric behind the tactics is the same, what’s left? Intentions. The Conservative Party, we must understand, has its citizens’ best interests at heart when it talks about jamming Twitter and Facebook. The Chinese Communist Party—let alone Egypt’s National Democratic Party—does not. Conversely, rioters in London are antisocial hooligans, while rioters in Lhasa are provoked by injustice.

But intentions are hard to see across borders. The security of the state is the security of the state. Is there any government so insane and despotic that it doesn’t believe its purpose is to make the nation safe and strong? Even if it seems to be doing the opposite? Putting down unrest has always been part of the mission of the people who rule China. There are stone monuments in Beijing’s Confucius Temple commemorating the crushing of this or that insurrection in the empire’s provinces centuries before anyone conceived of Twitter or of communism.

Chinese citizens riot and torch cars all the time. It’s a big country, and people get angry about things. Last week, thousands of demonstrators in Guizhou burned vehicles in a protest against the abuses of the chengguan, the municipal regulatory police. The chengguan are supposed to enforce the rules against unlicensed vending and other forms of low-level disorderliness. The result is generally low-level tyranny.

The mission of BART, according to BART’s statement, “is to provide, safe, secure, efficient, reliable, and clean transportation services.” So there was the municipal transit agency, exercising its powers to shut down a protest. It’s possible that BART had the legal right to cut off communications inside its stations. It can be argued that the inside of a transit station is an unsuitable place for a mass demonstration.

But the point of the would-be demonstrations was to challenge BART’s judgment in how it used its powers. The protesters were protesting a shooting by transit police. BART’s response showed that it couldn’t even grasp that premise.

What about ordinary commuters, entering the zone of conflict with no access to their own mobile communications? “BART Police officers and other BART personnel with radios were present during the planned protest, and train intercoms and white courtesy telephones remained available for customers seeking assistance or reporting suspicious activity.” The authorities were in charge. The authorities and no one else.

For a day, the measures worked—or in the unknowable world of security counterfactuals, they didn’t not work. There were no disruptive protests during that commute. But BART’s vision of tech dystopia was self-fulfilling. In response to the news of the phone shutdown, the vigilante hackers of Anonymous retaliated by breaking into its database of commuters’ private information and launching a new round of demonstrations, teaming up with the original aggrieved parties. Technology was a dangerous thing after all.