BEIJING -- The Chinese government doesn't have a monopoly on spying here anymore. Despite an official ban on James Bond-like hidden surveillance tools such as cameras disguised as pens or buttons, sales of such products in China are soaring.
Experts attribute the trend to the growth of private investigation firms, the improved quality of such gadgets — and, more generally, a broad disregard for privacy rights in a country where the communist government openly monitors its citizens to control what they say, read and write.
"Everybody feels unsafe now," says Liu Renwen, a law professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a top government think tank. He calls covert video and audio surveillance "an ever more serious problem in China" and has urged the government to pass a privacy law that was drafted six years ago — but has yet to be enacted.
Many of the gadgets are made in China's southern Guangdong province, where they are exported to countries around the world, including the USA.
"Our sunglasses with camera are easy to carry and look very cool to wear," boasts Kevin Chen of Lanmda Technology, a specialist spy camera maker. At Chinavasion, a large online retailer, the "secret agent pen with camcorder" is the most popular item sold, company representative Rose Li says.
Both companies, based in the city of Shenzhen, say they sell such products only abroad because the Chinese government forbids private citizens from using hidden cameras. "There would be big demand in China, but we are not allowed to sell here yet," Li says.
Somebody is doing it anyway. Despite multiple raids by Chinese authorities, unbranded spy products are easy to find in China's cities. In December, Beijing police raided the Sea Dragon Electronics City, one of China's largest appliance malls, seizing equipment and busting more than 20 private investigation companies who use spy equipment.
This week, several stores at Sea Dragon still offered spy pens and other covert filming devices.
"This is the fifth generation of secret camera pen in the past year alone," says Li Yan, one of multiple vendors in the nine-story mall selling the device for about $40, depending on the buyer's bargaining skills. "Sales are great," she says. "I don't ask why customers need these products, and they don't tell me."
China is trying to crack down on its citizens' cameras at the same time it's installing more of its own. The government has put up more than 300,000 security cameras in Beijing alone as part of a seven-year project to expand surveillance around the country.
Many dissidents are kept under close watch by Chinese authorities. Four surveillance cameras are located outside the apartment of Gao Yaojie, 82, an AIDS activist whom Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met in Beijing last month, says Chung To, founder of the Hong Kong-based Chi Heng Foundation, which supports Gao's work. The Chinese government routinely censors Internet sites and detains dissident leaders.
Liu says many Chinese expect someone is watching them. "It recalls the era of the Cultural Revolution, when nobody had any privacy," he says, referring to Mao Zedong's crackdown on dissidents during the 1960s and '70s. "Privacy is a complicated issue in China," he says. "In the USA, you need a judge to approve bugging, but in China, the security forces can approve it internally. It will be difficult to balance the country's security needs with the need for privacy."
Wang Zongyu, a law professor at People's University in Beijing, has lobbied for better signage to inform citizens where the government has installed closed-circuit cameras.
He says ordinary Chinese mimic the government's actions. "The use of secret cameras by individuals, private investigators and law firms is spreading unchecked across China," he says.
Sales of surveillance cameras — excluding illegal spy tools — leapt 25% in 2008, says Liu Cunxin, deputy secretary-general of the China Security and Protection Industry Association.
Benefits and drawbacks
Though the technology is commonly used to help spouses who suspect their partners of infidelity, some say secret cameras can benefit China's most disadvantaged people.
At the Farmers' Rights law firm in Beijing, director Wang Huanshen shows off a camera pen and other spy gear used to gather evidence in politically sensitive cases where officials have expropriated farmland.
Elsewhere, the backlash has begun.
Individuals using spy cameras risk violence and may find their footage is inadmissible in court, says Liu Changjiang, president of Beijing Orient Business Investigation, a private investigation company. "Many private investigators in China use spy cameras, but they are illegal, so we don't," he says.
"Covert surveillance equipment is not good for a 'harmonious society,' " says Liu Cunxin, using the watchwords of Chinese President Hu Jintao.
"The disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. If this is not controlled, people won't dare to talk to each other anymore or have any kind of exchanges," he says.
Richard Chace, CEO of the Virginia-based Security Industry Association, an industry group, says that without urgent action to stop the sale of private spy gear, China risks more incidents of "vigilante justice" as people take matters into their own hands.
"The government can't keep up with the technology. They need to figure out a balance between what their politics and culture will allow and what they are willing to let their people do," says Chace, a regular visitor to China.
Or, as Liu Cunxin puts it, "The advance of technology does not always mean progress."