A New Act in Shanghai Security Theater

As I said a couple of days ago, there’s a much more visible police presence on the streets of Shanghai these days, particularly on major avenues like Nanjing and Huaihai Roads. The increased patrols started in the days leading up to Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin’s visit last week, and it seems that they’ll now stay in place due to Thursday’s terrorist attack in Urumqi. As Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times reports, the Chinese government has quickly moved to deter any future attacks in that city:

The government quickly announced a yearlong “strike hard” campaign on separatist activity, augmenting the already heavy security presence put in place after ethnic rioting in 2009 killed at least 200 people. On Friday evening, the authorities shut down the city’s main arteries for a martial show of force that featured tanks, armored personnel carriers and troops, crowded into open-air vehicles, who shouted slogans about ethnic harmony. Schools, public squares and parks were ringed by soldiers with bayonet-tipped assault rifles.

An American named Josh who lives in Urumqi and blogs at Far West China also posted a description of what life on the ground is like there in the wake of the attacks.

Security measures have definitely been stepped up in Shanghai as well, as I found when I took the subway from where I live in Changning across the city to Pudong for lunch yesterday. Shanghai installed X-ray machines in subway stations before the World Expo was held here in 2010, but the guards manning them have always been rather lax about enforcing the supposedly mandatory bag check. Usually, one guard would stand next to the entrance gate, half-heartedly mumbling something that it took me a year to figure out was probably “bao jian” (包检), or “bag inspection.” Some riders would comply, placing their larger bags (though rarely handbags) on the conveyor belt to take a quick trip through the machine, which would be staffed by a bored-looking guard who generally had one eye on the screen and the other on his or her cell phone. Most riders, including myself, would pretend to have gone deaf/not understand Chinese and simply blow past the guards, eyes averted.* As Adam Minter wrote back in 2010, this wasn’t Security Theater—it was Unsecured Theater.

No longer, it seems. When I tried to walk through the security channel at the Jiaotong University station with my backpack yesterday, the newly assertive guard placed himself in front of me and silently pointed to the X-ray machine. Next to him stood two paramilitary guards, or 武警 wu jing, keeping an eye on the passengers moving through the security channel. I saw wu jing in all four of the stations I passed through during the course of the afternoon—some stationed at the bag checks, some patrolling in the stations themselves.

(I would have taken a photo, but wu jing tend to be a little touchy about foreigners snapping their picture, I’ve discovered.)

Beijing has similarly stepped up its subway security measures, installing body scanners at three stations. This has resulted in airport-style queues, as you can see in this photo:

subway lines

Of course, there’s the million-dollar-question: Is any of this useful? I’m not a security expert, so my completely uninformed answer is: A little bit, I guess? I don’t have a tremendous amount of confidence in the security officers staffing the X-ray machines, but I suppose the awareness of being observed could be something of a deterrent (following Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon). On the other hand, even New York doesn’t make its subway riders go through a bag check. And Shanghai doesn’t have body scanners in the subway stations (yet), so that’s a rather large loophole in the drive toward making our subways safe.

My general thinking (in life, not just security) is that things happen when and where we least expect them, so I’m not sure how much beefing up one anti-terrorism measure will help make the city more secure. But actually insisting that all subway riders put all their bags through the X-ray machine is definitely a new act in Shanghai’s performance of security theater.

* The one time this never worked was whenever I had actual luggage, rather than just a backpack. And subway stops at the train stations and airports really did enforce the baggage check, always.

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