Big Romney is watching you

Romney’s private equity firm is helping China create an all-seeing surveillance system -- the free market at work

Topics: Bain Capital, Mitt Romney, ,

Big Romney is watching youSecurity cameras on a pole in front of the giant portrait of former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong at Beijing's Tiananmen Square Jan. 9, 2012. (Credit: David Gray / Reuters)

The New York Times reported today that Bain Capital, the private equity firm started by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, owns a Chinese company, Uniview, that supplies highly advanced surveillance equipment to the Chinese government. China’s authoritarian rulers are using the equipment to create an “omniscient monitoring system” throughout the country, according to a Human Rights Watch researcher quoted by the Times. “When it comes to surveillance, China is pretty upfront about its totalitarian ambitions,” said Nicholas Bequelin.

To realize those totalitarian ambitions, China’s authorities, with Bain Capital’s help, are expanding the country’s already vast network of surveillance cameras. The city of Chongqing is spending $4.2 billion for a network of 500,000 cameras, Guangdong Province is installing a million cameras, and Beijing is planning to put cameras in all entertainment venues, the Times reported.

The authorities use these cameras, along with Internet monitoring and cellphone surveillance, to monitor as much of the entire population as possible. But they are particularly interested in keeping a permanent eye on democracy advocates, intellectuals, religious figures and other people they deem dangerous. For example, police used a surveillance camera to record a human rights lawyer named Li Tiantian entering a hotel with men other than her boyfriend, then taunted her about her sex life and threatened to show the tape to her boyfriend. “The scale of intrusion into people’s private lives is unprecedented,” Li told the Times. “Now when I walk on the street, I feel so vulnerable, like the police are watching me all the time.”

But the whining of Li and her troublemaking ilk are of no concern to the patriotic Uniview. In its promotional materials, the company chirps, “Social management and society building pose new demands for surveillance and control systems.”

Bain is also untroubled by the fact that it owns a company dedicated to re-creating the unique societal ambience of George Orwell’s “1984.” It stressed to the Times that Uniview’s products “were advertised” as tools to fight crime, not to monitor dissidents, and that only one-third of Uniview’s sales were to public security bureaus.

Ah, because Uniview advertised that its surveillance cameras were only used to fight crime, it’s OK for Bain to own them. Thanks for clearing that up, Bain! (I take the liberty of addressing you as Bain because, as the Supreme Court has ruled and the GOP believes, corporations are people.)

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Speaking of which, Bain, I would be remiss to your investors if I did not draw your attention to an excellent opportunity to acquire a leading Rwandan firm, the Tutsi Machete Co. The Tutsi Machete Co. is a perfect target for you. It is underperforming, has a weak management structure and is ripe for a leveraged buyout. Some have claimed that TMC provides hundreds of thousands of machetes to frenzied genocidal mobs, but that is not a concern: The company ran an ad claiming that their machetes were only used to fight crime. Making the optics even stronger, only one-third of the machetes were given to frenzied genocidal mobs. With a significant downsizing of its workforce – which can be accomplished using the company’s own products, thus ensuring significant additional savings – TMC’s profits should increase by 300 percent. Recommendation: Buy.

Romney and his wife earned at least $5.6 million from their Bain holdings, the Times reported. But according to the person who manages their trusts, the Romneys had nothing to do with the decision to invest in Uniview. All they did was pocket the money.

Owning a piece of the Great Eye of Sauron Company is probably too much even for the free-market-worshiping Romney. He will probably get out of the trust, and it won’t be surprising if Bain suddenly decides to unload Uniview. But that won’t solve the real problem, which this grotesque episode highlights. The real problem is untrammeled capitalism, at whose coldblooded shrine he and the rest of the GOP worship. And that problem won’t go away if Romney washes his hands of Uniview, any more than Pontius Pilate was able to wash away his responsibility for crucifying Jesus.

For the almighty market has no conscience. Private equity firms like Bain are sharks. They were created to maximize profits for their investors – nothing more, nothing less. Buying Uniview was egregious, but firms like Bain buy slightly less nasty versions of Uniview every day. Until they stop making decisions solely based on the bottom line, the same issues will keep coming up.

The same thing applies to the free-market mantra constantly repeated by companies like Bain and their defenders — “improving corporate performance.” “Improving corporate performance” really means “maximizing profits for shareholders.” Sure, it sometimes works out well for everyone, workers and investors alike. But the point is, that isn’t its goal. The fate of human beings is not important. If tens of thousands of workers get dumped along the way, they’re just collateral damage, road kill along the great haj to honor Adam Smith.

Early in the primary campaign, in a desperate attempt to wound Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both channeled their inner Marx and made this exact charge against Romney and Bain. When Romney fired back that they were “putting free enterprise on trial,” and GOP ideologues tut-tutted, Twinkle Dumb and Twinkle Me realized that they had gone too far off the reservation and changed the subject. But they were right.

As a liberal, I’d like to be able to cite this story as an example of the perfidy of the American right and the internal contradictions of an ideology that exalts “freedom” but somehow leads to totalitarianism. Unfortunately, the Democrats are virtually indistinguishable from the Republicans on this issue. Bain Capital, in all its creepiness, is as American as apple pie.

Bain is doing two things with Uniview. It is helping an authoritarian regime keep an eternal eye on its citizens, and it is doing so for the same reason it does everything: to maximize its profits. The Democrats are marginally better than the Republicans when it comes to the latter issue: they at least pay lip service to the workers who are “downsized” by firms like Bain. But the differences are cosmetic: they, too, have essentially bought the gospel of greed. And both parties have signed off on the Surveillance Society.

It was President George W. Bush who created the Patriot Act. But in 2011, it was President Obama who asked Congress to extend its surveillance powers. It was Obama who signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows indefinite detention and essentially declares that the “war on terror” is permanent. And it was Obama who decided that it was OK to launch drones at will around the world, and assassinate American citizens without trial.

After all, those who are innocent have nothing to fear.

So there’s no reason to worry about the millions of surveillance cameras being deployed all over China. Big Brother is already watching us. Why shouldn’t he watch some other people too?

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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