Domestic Spying and Chinese Politics

Corruption charges are flying between Prime Minister Zhu Ronghi, China's number three leader, and Li Peng, the country's second leading politician. Those charges are, invariably, produced by China's domestic surveillance agencies. But China's secret policemen are already working overtime nowadays, trying to keep up with China's millions of internet users. None of this zeal is new in China.

Paranoia, informers, and domestic spying are so essential to Communist rule that few people are ever surprised at the extent of secret police operations here. Still, domestic spying did not arrive in China either with the computer revolution or Mao's Communist one. Indeed, the darkest moments in China's long history often coincide with massive domestic spying systems; usually these herald not only renewed tyranny but instability as well.

China's secret policemen, indeed, have deep roots. The Ming Emperor Cheng Zu's internal espionage agency (1403-1424) was known as the Dong Chang or "Eastern Workshop." Staffed by eunuchs, it reported to the emperor directly. Cheng Zu used the Dong Chang to bypass other state organs and persecute countless innocent people who had offended him. Cheng Zu's regime marked one of the darkest times in China's long history.

The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek believed in domestic spying as well, and practiced it both before and after the Communist takeover of 1949, with Chiang's spies harshly suppressing any and all signs of domestic dissent. Nationalist "white terror" continued even after Chiang Kai-shek and his armies escaped to Taiwan. Only the flowering of Taiwan's democracy in recent years saw a decrease in domestic spying.