Passengers queuing up outside a Beijing subway station to go through a security check. Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images.
Passengers queuing up outside a Beijing subway station to go through a security check. Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images.

Two weeks ago the ordinarily sleepy security personnel at my Shanghai subway stop woke up as I walked past them. My backpack, they told me, had to be run through the X-ray machine that’s stood mostly idle in the four-plus years since it first appeared. I did as told, and as the bag emerged I was given another order: Please remove the bottle inside and drink whatever is in it. So I opened the bag, took out the bottle of water I bring to my gym and -- as the two guards watched -- drank deeply from it. “Ok,” one said, satisfied that I hadn’t died from imbibing some liquid explosives. “You can go.”

Since then, the X-raying has become a daily ritual, highlighting the Chinese government’s coordinated effort to tighten security in the wake of a series of recent domestic terror attacks, including one last week in Urumqi, capital of far western Xinjiang province, that claimed at least 31 lives. In Shanghai, the crackdown began a few days before Urumqi, as part of an effort to lock down the city in advance of a summit hosted by Xi Jinping and attended by several leaders, including Vladmir Putin. Urumqi, however, ensured that the armed police and suddenly active X-ray machines in my subway station won’t be going away anytime soon.

In fact, increased anti-terror measures have gone national in the last month, often to the considerable dismay of the people whom they’re supposed to protect. Take, for example, the already miserable commuters of Beijing who, starting this week, find themselves subjected to airport-like security at nine major subway stations, including scans by handheld magnetometers and patdowns. Widely reproduced photos of one of the newly secured stations show hundreds if not thousands of passengers corralled into the station through a gauntlet of six-and-a-half-foot, cage-like metal barriers. The Beijing News reports that the average patdown lasts only 30 seconds – which isn’t an insignificant amount of time if you’re last in a line of hundreds, especially during the hot, dusty summer months.

The measures are not optional, authorities insist. “Passengers should support upgraded security checks in the subway,” was the title of a Wednesday op-ed in the state-owned Beijing Times. “Passengers should undertake to fully understand the measures,” the author noted. “And actively support them.” Beijing’s commuters are fully aware of the need for heightened security; the threat of terror in China has become very real in 2014. But there’s a lot less agreement and a lot more skepticism about whether the government’s measures are correct or likely to be effective.

“Isn’t this just gathering people together for the purpose of being killed?” asked a Sina Weibo microblogger on Tuesday, in reference to cramped lines outside subway stations. “A bomb, a knife-attack, a shooting, or somebody merely pulling a prank could result in huge casualties. These stupid measures must be stopped.” That opinion is widely shared, and supported by a pervasive sense that Chinese officials desperately want to show their public that they’re doing something, even though their actions might be meaningless or even counterproductive. “They should seek anti-terror experts rather than becoming accomplices to terrorists,” offered another Sina microblogger, joining a discussion that has trended on Chinese social networks over the last 24 hours.

For Americans these critiques should sound familiar. “Maximum security-theater overreaction to episodes of anti-civilian terrorist violence is a path the United States pioneered with our policies through much of the 2000s,” noted James Fallows, writing in regard to the Beijing security measures, on Tuesday.

Those post-9/11 measures, though superficially reassuring, often accomplished little. Some were even counter-productive (at Los Angeles airport, more intensive passenger security checks created lines that -- security experts repeatedly warned -- were terror targets in their own right). In many cases, they just placed a nervous country further on edge with no obvious benefit. China may be experiencing something similar. “The terrorists have achieved their goals, in part,” tweeted a popular Sina commentator on Tuesday. “Increase the costs of law enforcement, reduce societal efficiency, and raise public tensions.” In this scenario, at least, nobody wins, least of all the Chinese public whom the measures were designed to protect.

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net