Keep Smiling! – You’re being watched

This invited contribution by Børge Bakken – a prolific scholar in the field of Chinese criminology based at the University of Hong Kong – was presented in extended form during the conference on ‘Law and Stability in China’ organised by the Australian Centre on China in the World in Canberra, 8-9 November 2012. This decoction of Professor Bakken’s paper expands on discussions in The China Story Journal related to law and politics.The Editors


When, in 1785, he described a new prison design the eccentric philosopher and prison reformer Jeremy Bentham coined the term ‘panopticon’ (literally, ‘see all’). Bentham’s panopticon allowed a few guardians to oversee and control large numbers of inmates by keeping them under constant and easy surveillance. This utilitarian principle of oversight was based on the presumption that even if prisons and surveillance were regarded as a form of official pain inflicted on one’s fellow humans; the pain of the few who contravened the law could be legitimised by the fact it would better ensure the happiness of the many. In explaining his utilitarian felicific calculus, however, Bentham never reasoned that imprisonment or panoptic surveillance would increase pleasure or happiness among those who were imprisoned or were under surveillance. In China today, however, it seems that the 24-hour ‘panopticon’ is supposed to buttress happiness for all.

One recent Chinese campaign has emphasized the task of increasing the ‘feeling of happiness’ or xingfugan 幸福感 among people as a guiding principle for policy making and ‘good governance’ (see, ‘Are You Happy? – Chinese Reflections on a State of Mind‘ in the Thinking China section of this site). It is emphasized that the gross national product (GNP) alone should not be the sole measure of the well-being of a society. Instead, the happiness of its citizens should be an alternative measure of a nation’s progress. While this may be a fair argument, we cannot find anyone in the international debate arguing that surveillance is about happiness. In an authoritative discussion of the topic, Derek Bok argues that happiness can be measured through a range of surveys that associate levels of happiness with different demographic and social variables. He avers that such surveys could inform governments about how to pursue ‘good governance’, but none of these are even faintly related to surveillance.[1] Still, in the au courant Chinese ‘social management’ 社会管理 debate, international happiness discourse is distorted into frequent references about how surveillance and control make people happy.

As an illustration of this trend, my colleagues and I came across the following banner at the entrance of a hospital in Guangzhou: ‘You Are Entering an Area Under Surveillance, Please Maintain a Smile!’ It was not meant as a crude joke, and there was no intended sarcasm in the poster’s message. In one of the many dubious surveys found in the Chinese media, we can read that in the Shandong city of Qingdao 96% of the respondents had a ‘feeling of security’ with 90,000 cameras around. Actually, 96.2% said that the presence of the cameras had heightened their ‘level of satisfaction’.[2] One respondent offered that: ‘Ever since the installment of “never sleeping” cameras, I feel much safer’. An official government source quoted a survey from Guangzhou showing that citizen’s satisfaction of public safety rose by 35.8% to 86.7% in 2008 owing, among other things, to increased camera surveillance.[3]

‘You Are Entering an Area Under Surveillance, Please Maintain a Smile!’

Frequent media reports of overwhelming popular support for mass surveillance are propagandistic in tone and content. However, is there nonetheless some truth in the ‘happy Chinese panopticon’? An international comparative survey on privacy and surveillance in Brazil, Canada, China, France, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, Spain and the USA[4] found that Chinese citizens were the least likely to answer ‘highly intrusive’ (2.8%) when asked: ‘To what extent do you believe laws aimed at protecting national security are intrusive upon personal privacy?’ The respondents who answered ‘not very intrusive’ or ‘not intrusive at all’ made up 64.7% of the Chinese answers (50%+14.7%). Indeed, 83.8% of the Chinese respondents held that CCTV cameras were ‘very effective’ (23.9%) or ‘somewhat effective’ (59.9%) in this regard, figures surpassed only by interviewees in Japan and Hungary.

When the survey moved into the respondents’ workplaces, however, the picture changed dramatically. Chinese citizens were the most critical when asked whether employers should be allowed to electronically monitor work spaces with surveillance cameras or be allowed to read e-mails. Only 3.1% endorsed the bosses’ right to read e-mails, while 63.6% answered ‘no, under no circumstances’ should such surveillance take place. In terms of being allowed to use surveillance cameras in work places the numbers were 3.7% in favour and 49.9% answered ‘no, under no circumstances’. The Chinese respondents were the most critical of all countries in the survey, even more so than the American respondents. Chinese citizens seem to make a clear distinction between private and work-place space where the so-called ‘we-group’ resides, and public spaces where the ‘others’ reside. When asked about surveillance cameras in the street, the answers concentrate on thieves and robbers, the dangerous Other. However, when we talk of work-spaces and e-mails, the tone is very different. So much for the ‘collectivist culture’ of China, instead we see a popular outward-directed fear of the ‘dangerous classes’.

The alleged happiness brought about by surveillance is addressed with skepticism by the noted sociologist Sun Liping.[5] Sun claims that: ‘surveillance does not bring social happiness’. Instead of being a means of strengthening state power over society, social management should improve the living conditions and enhance the happiness of human beings, he argues. Happiness comes from justice and not from attempts of full state control and surveillance. Surveillance does not even make the controllers happy, Sun avers. He shows that the bureaucratic control mechanism itself makes people anxious and fearful. Sun finds that the middle classes feel they are ‘lacking power’ or have a ‘weak’ or underling status (ruoshi 弱势) in society. They feel they are under attack and not in control. This is reported by as many as 57.8% of white-collar workers, 55.4% of intellectuals, and 45.1% of party-state cadres, the very people who are supposed to be in charge. They become passive, panic stricken, indeed ‘as frightened as birds at the mere twang of a bowstring’ 惊弓之鸟 as Sun describes them, employing a common Chinese saying. Far from making people happy, the control leviathan with its strict performance criteria and constant surveillance and ‘evaluation’ processes even makes the controllers discomforted.

In conclusion, the Chinese ‘happy panopticon’ may not be so happy after all, and good old Jeremy Bentham would perhaps have turned in his grave if it hadn’t been for the fact that his embalmed body can still be seen in a polished wood-panelled cabinet in the main building of University College London. He is on view for all to see (although the head is a wax replica, the original, frequently subjected to student pranks, is under lock and key, sans panopticon).


Jeremy Bentham in his London cabinet.



[1] Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness. What Government can Learn from the New Research on Well-being, Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010.

[2] ‘9 万社频探头打造全城空探,群众安全感 3 年连升’ (90,000 surveillance cameras  controlling the city. Public feeling of security has increased continuously for three years), online at: 9112726.htm.

[3] ‘Guanzhou to Beef up Public Security’, online at:

[4] ‘The Globalization of Personal Data Project – International Survey’, by Queen’s University.

[5] Sun Liping, 孙立平, ‘走向积极的社会管理’ (Moving towards positive social management), in Sociological Studies 社会学研究, 2011:4: 22-32.