Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Chinese Subway "Security", Radiation, and a Dickies Balloon

I recently shared some "themes of James Fallows" I found in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province. There's another theme of his of interest to me that I've recently encountered  -- "security theater". The term was coined by US security expert Bruce Schneier:
Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No-one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards. Airport-security examples include the National Guard troops stationed at US airports in the months after 9/11 -- their guns had no bullets.
Like in a growing number of Chinese cities, Shanghai has a useful subway system. And like at least some of those Chinese cities, it engages in what I believe is "security theater". Before entrances to the paid areas of subway stations riders need to pass through security such as seen here:

security and scanner in Shanghai metro

security and scanner in Shanghai metro

security and scanner in Shanghai metro

The scanners seen above were put in place shortly before the World Expo last year and have remained in use since then. I can't speak for every city so I'll just describe the current security experience in a number of stations in Shanghai. As you approach the scanner a security inspector will make a signal that apparently means to place your bag or whatever item you may have onto the scanner. I say "apparently" because many people simply ignore the signal and walk by without placing anything on the scanner. In such cases the security typically reacts in no way other than to signal (suggest) to the next person that maybe they should place their bag on the scanner. However, if you're carrying luggage or a very large package typically they will more strongly insist that you place the item on the scanner. In short, if you have a bomb or any other forbidden item in your backpack or bag (or under your clothes/jacket) it's usually up to you whether you'd like to place it on the scanner.

Not only am I skeptical about the effectiveness of the security, I don't even think it's effective "security theater" since so many people blatantly ignore it. Fallows has shared his thoughts regarding the Beijing subway here and writer Adam Minter summed up his own thoughts last year when he wrote, "... to my mind, these x-ray machines don’t qualify as 'security theater' because they project incompetence, not security." What the machines are effective at is creating bottlenecks for entering the paid areas of subway stations, providing jobs for security inspectors, and providing business for manufacturers of scanners.

Shenzhen is another city in China that recently adopted the use of scanners for subway stations. They were installed in preparation for the 2011 Summer Universiade that took place this past August.  Shenzhen Security Electronic Equipment Co., Ltd expressed pride and confidence in the scanners they sold in a press release where they claimed, "To ensure safety, the Shenzhen subway in the city to install security equipment, foolproof, thus ensuring the Universiade held. [sic]" However, to my surprise these "foolproof" machines were no longer in use and the security inspectors, who during the Universiade were college students, were nowhere to be seen when I visited Shenzhen in mid-November.

scanners not in use in Shenzhen metro
Scanner in Shenzhen no longer in use

I thought maybe I had reason to smile because someone had determined that the scanners weren't really needed (at least when a Universiade isn't occurring). A friend of mine who lives in Shenzhen told me that at the conclusion of the Universiade it was announced the added security would stay in place. However, after about a couple of months the security suddenly was no longer being used. My friend was not aware of any official announcement as to why. But I had a nagging feeling there must be more to the story.  And there was...

Just two months ago the Shanghaiist reported that security machines in Shanghai had been operating without the proper radiation saftey license:
The Shanghai Metro now claims they didn't test the machines properly because there were simply too many of them, and not enough time before Expo! (There are a few other aspects of our metro system that we now suspect have seen similar degrees of neglect.) To save time, they had the machines sampled and tested by a third party (not the proper government regulator) who deemed them satisfactory.

Apparently testing on the scanners has been going on for a year now, and only about 245 of the machines have been cleared. They now promise to get all the machines licensed before the end of the month, but they will not shut down metro security in the mean time.
Could the same have occurred in Shenzhen? Well, according to echinacities the answer is yes:
According to reports, 286 X-ray luggage scanners installed in Shenzhen subway stations violate China’s radiation regulations and could increase cancer risks for children and pregnant women sensitive to radiation.
Ah, that seems to explain the (temporarily?) decommissioned scanners in Shenzhen.

So, other than scanners without proper inspections for radiation safety, college students as security inspectors, and a very lax inspection process that is unlikely to provide any real security is there anything more to say about subway security in China?

Well, if none of that has caught your attention maybe the following will do the trick. While subway security may seem lax, there is indeed something you can possess that will apparently guarantee you being stopped in Shanghai. I know because I was stopped at multiple entry points for having one. Here's what caused the security inspectors to forbid me from riding the subway:

A Dickies balloon after being denied the joys of riding the Shanghai subway

Above is a Dickies helium-filled balloon -- given to me free as part of a promotion in a nearby shopping mall on Shanghai's Nanjing East Road -- proudly on display outside of the security area. I asked the security inspectors, who at least didn't appear to be college students, why the balloon was not permitted and I was told (rough translation), "Because you're not allowed to bring balloons." I stared at the security inspectors, briefly pondered humanity, and walked away despite their offer to take custody of my balloon.

Since I found the reply of the security people to be lacking, I decided to visit various nearby establishments and speak to a number of people to see if I could uncover any similar aversions to my Dickies balloon. Obviously, the mall where I received the balloon had no worries about it, but what about elsewhere?

Well, this coffee shop had no worries:

Dickies balloon in Shanghai cafe
Balloon not considered dangerous in the vicinity of caffeine

A statue of Lebron James in a large Nike store looked unfazed:

statue of Lebron James in Shanghai Nike store with Dickies balloon
Lebron James slam dunking on a balloon

The newest Apple Store in Shanghai? No problem, apparently my Dickies balloon wasn't a threat to all of the iPads and other electonics on display, and like in Hong Kong the Apple Store staff had no issue with me taking photos.

Dickies balloon in a Shanghai Apple Store
Could the iBalloon be next?

These two Shanghainese girls showed no fear of the balloon:

two Shanghainese girls holding a Dickies balloon
They both had a good laugh when I showed them the photo.

Even these Japanese guys in their newly purchased panda hats weren't concerned by the balloon:

Japanese guys wearing panda hats and holding a Dickies balloon
Just another Shanghai experience for them

That night the subway was the only place where I wasn't allowed to bring the balloon. While it was wonderful that my explorations led me to meeting a variety of people, I didn't feel I was any closer to understanding why a balloon wasn't allowed on the subway. One possibly related issue that I've since learned about is that in the Hong Kong subway balloons could be problematic for overhead cables (some discussion on the topic in Chinese here). However, according to the rules for the Hong Kong MTR seen in the safety brochure here (pdf) only metallic balloons are forbidden. My Dickies balloon was definitely not metallic.

And speaking of the Hong Kong subway... There aren't any scanners in use there. How is it that scanners are critical for cities such as Shanghai, but not Hong Kong?

Anyways, I wasn't going to change Shanghai's subway rules that night, and I determined that storming by security with my free balloon, even if stuffed under my shirt, wasn't worth it. Fortunately, this little boy graciously agreed to adopt my balloon:

little boy with a Dickies balloon
He was actually more interested in the green toy in his hand.

So, after an enjoyable evening I was able to peacefully pass through security and hopefully avoided any unhealthy doses of radiation. However, subway security in Shanghai remains a puzzle to me. Maybe I should just be happy I don't have to take off my shoes.

Disclosure: None of the companies referenced in this post provided me any compensation, except for my brief possession of a Dickies balloon.


  1. Why so serious? The "security" on the subway is just a way to invest excess money, so they don't really need to have the machines working. As soon as the money is paid, the goal is completed.

    Plus, in a strange coincidence, Hu Jintao's son happens to own a factory producing the security check equipment, hmm...

  2. AS reading this, I was thinking it seems obviove the scanners is that someone in power has a connection with someone who sells them. Seems Anton has a theory. Wonder if you have a link to the source Anton? Curious . . .

  3. There is one reason and one reason alone that Chinese cities are using security scanners:

    Hu Jintao's son Hu Haifeng owns Nuctech, the company that are providing the scanning equipment that all of a sudden certain city governments became legally bound to install.

    1. Enter a tightly regulated industry.
    2. Use your political connections to prevent anyone else from entering.
    3. Use your political connections to make new laws requiring your domestically produced equipment to be implemented nation-wide.
    4. Profit!