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.