Watching dissidents is a booming business in China

Every workday at 7:20 a.m., colleagues pick up Yao Lifa from his second-floor apartment and drive him to the elementary school where he taught for years.

This is no car pool. Yao is a prisoner, part of a China boom in outsourced police control.

By day, Yao is kept in a room, not allowed to work and watched by fit, young gym teachers and other school staff. At dinner time or later, he is sent back to the apartment that he shares with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. A surveillance camera monitors the building entrance, while police sit in a hut outside.

"At school, if I have to go to the bathroom, someone escorts me. Most of the time, I'm not allowed to speak with others or answer the phone," Yao said in a recent late-night Internet phone interview from his home in Qianjiang city. "When they bring me home, they sign me over to the next shift."

Like the blind activist Chen Guangcheng until his escape from house arrest last month, Yao belongs to an untold number of Chinese activists kept under tight control by authorities, even though in many cases they have broken no law.

Co-workers, neighbors, government office workers, unemployed young toughs and gang members are being used to monitor perceived troublemakers, according to rights groups and people under surveillance.

Yao has never faced criminal charges. His misdeed is decades of campaigning for democratic elections.

"They won't let me teach. They're afraid of course that I'll start talking about democracy to the students," said Yao, a 54-year-old former school administrator and science lab instructor with wavy black hair and possessed of a passionate, fiery manner.

While China has long been a police state, controls on these non-offenders mark a new expansion of police resources at a time the authoritarian leadership is consumed with keeping its hold over a fast-changing society.

"Social activists that no one has ever heard of have 10 people watching them," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "The task is to identify and nip in the bud any destabilizing factors for the regime."

Mostly unknown outside their communities, the activists are a growing portion of what's called the "targeted population" — a group that also includes criminal suspects and anyone deemed a threat. They are singled out for overwhelming surveillance and by one rights group's count amount to an estimated one in every 1,000 Chinese — or well over a million.

Targeted are growing numbers of people, from typical political dissidents to labor organizers and, increasingly, ordinary Chinese who want Beijing to correct local wrongdoing. In method, this new policing represents a break from recent decades.

In Mao Zedong's radical communist heyday, colleagues, neighbors and family members snitched on suspected enemies of the revolution. Free-market reforms broke the totalitarian grip and gave people incentive to leave farms and state jobs for work in booming cities and industrial zones. Private lives and private wealth blossomed, creating less reason for snooping.

Money now fuels the extensive surveillance system. Budgeted spending for police, courts, prosecutors and other law enforcement has soared for much of the past decade, surpassing official outlays for the military for the second year in a row this year, to nearly 702 billion yuan, or $110 billion.

Allocated by Beijing to the provinces and on down, the money sometimes is called "stability preservation funds" for the overriding priority the government now puts on control. As long as trouble is quelled, Beijing doesn't seem to mind how this money is spent. It's proving a growth opportunity for cash-strapped local governments and small-time enforcers.

Along with the police, Yao counts the city education bureau as benefiting from the funds available for his surveillance. His minders are mainly drawn from the bureau, his Qianjiang Experimental Primary School and the ranks of physical education teachers throughout the city school system.

Anywhere from 14 to 50 people a day are on the local government payroll for his round-the-clock surveillance — what he calls the "Yao Lifa special squad." They get 50 yuan, $8, for a day shift and twice that for night work. Often, he said, hotel rooms, transport, meals and cigarettes are thrown in.

The sums add up in Qianjiang, a city of struggling factories and one million people set in the center of the country. Basic pay runs about 1,000 yuan, or $160, a month for an entry-level teacher and goes to three times that amount for a veteran, Yao said.

"This isn't bad for teachers," said Yao. "An English teacher probably wouldn't take it. They can earn extra money giving private tutoring. But gym teachers can't do the tutoring. Besides, their superiors have told them to do this. They can't not do it."

In the deep south farming county of Yun'an, more than a quarter of its 6,700 officials are on the "stability" payroll, the magazine Caijing reported last year. Township "stability" offices spent money on vans, motorcycles and computers, and also allocated reward money — 20,000 yuan or $3,100 in 2010 — for stopping any disgruntled local from going to Beijing to complain about conditions, the report said.

For blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, the shock troops of his persecution were his neighbors. After the daring escape from his rural village outside Linyi city that eventually took him to New York, Chen detailed the two years of brutal house arrest in a video, saying over 100 police and other officials were involved. He, his wife and mother were beaten and his young daughter searched and harassed.

Family planning officials bore him a particular grudge for exposing forced abortions and sterilization under the government's one-child policy. But it was local farmers who guarded his house and the entrances to the village and plundered the family farm for food. They received 100 yuan, or $16, a day, and though they had to kick back a tenth to the head of the surveillance squad, Chen said it is still a good deal.

"Those people, if they work other jobs, they only make 50 to 60 yuan a day. But doing this, they don't have to do anything, and they have three free meals a day and they are safe. Of course they love to do it," Chen said in the video. He said he was told 30 million yuan, $4.3 million, was spent on his captivity in 2008 and by last year that amount had doubled.

The Public Security Ministry, the national police agency, did not respond to requests for comment about the outsourcing policy. Authorities in Linyi and Qianjiang either did not answer queries or declined comment on Chen and Yao.

Cases like Chen and Yao "are the tip of the iceberg," said John Kamm, a veteran human rights lobbyist. Research by Kamm's Dui Hua Foundation found that since the mid-1980s Beijing has tasked police throughout China with controlling the "targeted population." An initial quota for police to target 2 in every 1,000 people proved unattainable, Kamm said. He said 1 in 1,000 is a more accurate estimate, or 1.3 million people.

Included are recently released convicts, parolees, suspects on bail and anyone police see as a threat — from activist lawyers to evangelical Christians. Overtly political cases are a small, expanding subset. But once marked, the status is hard to shake.

"Joining the 'targeted population' is the last stop on the road to oblivion for political prisoners," said Kamm.

Yao's forays into politics started 25 years ago when he sought to use a new electoral law to get himself elected to Qianjiang's legislature as an independent. After more than a decade of trying, Yao succeeded in 1998. He made a name for himself as an activist trying to change the Communist Party-dominated system. He championed the rights of farmers rebelling against high taxes and fees.

The party fought back. Yao and 31 teachers and others inspired by him to run for legislatures in 2003 all lost in an election he complained was rigged. Afterward, Yao's short-term detentions began. But he also at times slipped away to meet like-minded activists around the country.

Soon after returning from a trip to Shanghai and Beijing early last year, the controls tightened. Yao said school Vice Principal Wang Qian, police and others kidnapped him and drove him 500 kilometers (300 miles) to a hotel. He got free by throwing a note out the window while his captors slept. During another hotel captivity in July, he jumped from a second story window at 3 a.m., injuring his back and an arm in a failed escape.

By September, the "Yao Lifa special squad" settled into the current pattern — picking him up in the morning and sending him home at night.

"Usually there are eight people with me at school, and those eight people have a duty: to speak and lecture me without interruption," said Yao. "One goal is to keep me from resting. A second is to see my reaction. One person is tasked with taking notes."

Some nights, Yao said shady-looking men sleep in a car by his building's entrance, in addition to the police in a hut. He said he heard the school and education bureau were arguing over $48,000 for his surveillance.

"I have many acquaintances. Some of them work in police stations," Yao said. "They tell me 'Really we could use a Yao Lifa. If we had one, we could make more money.'"