Surveillance and Cover-up in China

The dramatic title probably has you expecting to read of some controversial corruption and espionage in the upper echelons of Chinese government.  That’s not what this post is about, it’s something quite different…

This post is my account of a strange incident that occurred as I made my way through Dongxi urban village in the southern Guangzhou district of Haizhu last week.


One of the images of life in the Dongxi urban village of Guangzhou. Little did we know we were under constant surveillance at the time…

It all started shortly after Kendall and I entered the community.  For those not yet familiar with my work, one of my main photographic projects is documenting the urban villages in the Chinese city of Guangzhou before they are demolished to make way for new high rise apartments and office buildings – or parks, carparks and anything else the government deems necessary for those that benefit from China’s rapid development over the last decade or so.  Anyway, let me get back to the story while I still remember what I was talking about…

So we had just entered the village when I noticed one of the street cleaners on her mobile phone, asking for someone to come “QUICKLY!”.  I had an inkling it was related to the appearance of two foreigners with big (well…it’s all relative, but even Kendall’s is big compared to the locals’) cameras.  I half expected a representative from the village council to appear and usher us out (I’ve had something similar to that happen in the past), but over the next five to ten minutes, nothing happened and I promptly forgot about the woman’s phone call.

As we continued, we noticed a cleaner who seemed to appear at every turn in the maze-like system of alleyways.  At first, we just assumed it was coincidence, and we snapped the occasional shot of him as he made his way through the narrow alleys cleaning away all the garbage bags, cigarette butts and food scraps he came across…

The real cleaner

The first of three tails we grew as we walked through the village. When I took this shot I still just thought we were coincidentally chancing upon the cleaner.

As we progressed, however, it became quite apparent the cleaner was following us.  Not only that, but two more “cleaners” appeared.  They seemed a bit out of place, as they were not wearing the uniform the regular street cleaners wear, but were dressed in suit pants and business shirts.  It seems they thought the fact that they were carrying brooms and dustpans they would look the part.  Once it became apparent they were tailing us, we thought we’d test the theory out and walked in a tight loop following the same path three times.  Sure enough, our tails followed us, even speeding up when we sped up and slowing down when we slowed.  Based on previous reading I’ve done, including From Rice to Riches by Jane Hutcheon (which I highly recommend, by the way), it seems this is typical of Chinese-style surveillance, even at the upper levels.  There is often no attempt to keep a low profile, and most times it is bleedingly obvious that they are following you.  I think of it as being stalked by an elephant with a pack of tic tacs in his pocket – there’s no way you’re gonna miss it!

Things then went from strange to absurd.  In order to tell the next part, I need to give some background on one phenomenon in China…

You may have noticed from many of my images that in China’s urban villages, the walls are plastered with phone numbers that are either stamped or plastered onto the walls lining the alleyways.  These signs are advertisements for a variety of services, both legal (plumbing, recycling, appliance repairs) and illegal (fake stamps/seals/certificates/degrees/licenses/medical insurance cards etc).


Posters and stamped advertising like this can be seen everywhere in Guangzhou’s urban villages

As we continued, the cleaners suddenly came up with cans of white spray paint.  They overtook us and proceeded to take to the advertising with the paint in what seemed to be an attempt to hide the fact that it existed at all.  At first there was just one, but within minutes there were three “cleaners” walking ahead of us with paint in hand.

Chinese Cover-up 1

This is the first “cleaner” I spotted sterilising the scene as we made our way through the alleys in Dongxi.

Chinese Cover-up 2

This is the same guy as he headed ahead of the path I chose (Kendall was off in another alley, no doubt tailed by one or two of the others).

Chinese Cover-up 3

Here you can see two plain-clothed “cleaners”, and the real cleaner is also spray-painting behind them. People have come out of their homes to watch, indicating this is not something that happens often.

It was quite a spectacle, and I would have got some better images of the whole things if I wasn’t scared of getting some of the paint that was floating around on my lens (just had a 17-35mm zoom lens on, so on a full-frame sensor, it was pretty wide-angle even at maximum zoom).

We continued on and the threesome followed us even after we left the village, escorting us quite a way down the road, all the while pretending to clean anything they could see.  One even used the broom to start sweeping a window when he couldn’t find any rubbish!

Kendall and the 3 "cleaners" by Adam Robert Young

Here they all are.

To me, this demonstrates the concept of “face” which is so important in Chinese culture.  The way individuals, companies or even whole countries are perceived by others is of utmost importance to the Chinese.  I’m not saying it doesn’t matter to us in the west, but it seems to take on a whole new significance over here.  In the build up to the Asian Olympic games held here in Guangzhou in 2010, whole suburbs of building facades were built by the local government.  The whole city got a facelift, but that facelift only extended to the fronts of buildings lining major roads in the city.  It was an attempt to make the city look modern and beautiful without actually changing anything but the surface appearance.  When the “cleaners” painted over the signs, not only did they not actually take the time to cover the text completely with paint (most were still completely legible, although a few shades lighter), but by doing it, they actually drew our attention to the signs even more.  I wonder if that’s what a lot of China’s other attempts at covering things up do?

Anyway, I did manage to get a couple of images I quite like during the trip, so while you’re here, why not check some of them out too…



Alley Cat