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A digital manhunt: how Chinese police are following criticism on Twitter and Facebook

By UK Time News - December 31, 2021

When Jennifer Chen returned to her hometown in central China last winter for the Lunar New Year, she gave little thought to Twitter. She had around 100 subscribers on an account she believed to be anonymous.

While living in China, she retweeted news and videos, and occasionally made censored comments on Chinese platforms, such as expressing support for the Hong Kong protesters and solidarity with the minorities who have been interned.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough for the authorities to pursue her. Police knocked on his parents’ door during his visit. She said they summoned her to the station, questioned her and then ordered her to delete her posts and Twitter account. They continued to follow her when she went to study abroad, calling her and her mother to ask if Ms. Chen had visited any human rights websites recently.

The Chinese government, which has built a vast digital infrastructure and security apparatus to control dissent on its own platforms, is going even further to expand its Internet network to expose and silence those who criticize the country on Twitter, Facebook and others international social networks. media.

These new investigations, targeting blocked sites inside China, rely on sophisticated technological methods to expand Chinese authorities’ reach and target list, according to a New York Times review of government procurement documents and legal files, as well as interviews with a government contractor and six people under pressure from the police.

To track people down, security forces use advanced investigative software, public records, and databases to find all of their personal information and international social media presence. Operations sometimes target those living beyond Chinese borders. The police pursue dissidents and minor critics like Ms. Chen, as well as Chinese living abroad and even citizens of other nations.

The digital manhunt represents the punitive side of the government’s broad campaign to counter negative portrayals of China. In recent years, the Communist Party has raised armies of robots, deployed diplomats, and mobilized influencers to push its narratives and stifle criticism. The police went further, hunting down and silencing those who dared to fight back.

More and more frequently, the authorities harass critics both inside and outside China, and threaten their relatives, with the aim of getting them to remove content deemed criminal. A video recording, provided by a Chinese student living in Australia, showed how police in her hometown summoned her father, called her on his phone and pushed her to delete his Twitter account.

The new tactics raise questions about the spread of powerful survey software and bustling data markets that can make it easier to track even the most cautious social media users on international platforms. U.S. regulators have repeatedly blocked Chinese deals to acquire U.S. tech companies because of the access they provide to personal data. They have done much less to control the widespread availability of online services that offer location data, social media records, and personal information.

For Chinese security forces, the effort is a bold extension of a mandate that previously focused on Chinese platforms and better-known foreign dissidents. Now, violations as simple as posting a critical article on Twitter – or in the case of Ms. Chen, 23, citing, “I’m on Hong Kong’s side” – can have swift repercussions.

Actions against people speaking out on Twitter and Facebook have increased in China since 2019, according to an online database aggregating them. The database, compiled by an anonymous activist, records cases based on publicly available verdicts, police notices and reports, although information is limited in China.

“The network has definitely expanded overseas over the past year,” said Yaxue Cao, editor-in-chief of, a website that covers civil society and human rights. The aim is to encourage self-censorship already prevalent among Chinese on global social media, she said, likening the purge of criticism to an overactive lawnmower.

“They cut the things that look slender and tall – the most straightforward,” she said. “Then they look around, the higher blades of grass no longer cover the lower blades. They say, “Oh, they’re problematic too, let’s mow them again. “

Chinese security authorities are bringing new technical expertise and new funding to the process, according to publicly available procurement documents, police manuals and the government contractor, who works on overseas internet investigations.

In 2020, when police in Western Gansu Province asked companies to help them monitor international social media, they set up a scoring system. One of the criteria included a company’s ability to analyze Twitter accounts, including tweets and follower lists. Shanghai police offered a tech company $ 1,500 for each overseas account investigation, according to a May purchase document.

Such work often begins with a single tweet or Facebook post that garnered official attention, according to the contractor, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the work. A specialist in tracking people living in the United States, he said he used voter lists, driver’s license records and hacked dark web databases to identify the people behind the posts. Personal photos posted online can be used to infer addresses and friends.

A Chinese Police Handbook and Review for Online Security Professionals detailed and categorized the types of speech offenses investigators are looking for, tagging them with one, two, or three depending on the severity of the breach. One denotes criticism of senior leaders or plans to organize or protest politically; two include the promotion of liberal ideology and attacks on the government; and three, the least urgent, refers to content ranging from defamation to pornography. The manual specifically called for monitoring activity on foreign websites.

The contractor said he used the rankings to categorize infractions on files he submitted to his bosses in the Chinese security apparatus. In a sample document reviewed by The Times, he listed key details about each person he examined, including personal and professional information and professional and family ties to China, as well as a statistical analysis of the scope of the person’s account. His approach has been corroborated by procurement documents and guides for online security workers.

Over the past year, he said, he had been tasked with investigating a mix of Chinese undergraduate students studying in the United States, from a Chinese-American political analyst who is a United States citizen. and journalists who previously worked in China.

Those caught in the net are often bewildered by how authorities have linked them to anonymous social media accounts on international platforms.

The Chinese student in Australia, who provided the video recording of her police interrogation, recalled the terror she felt when she received a first call from her father in China in the spring of 2020. The police told her said to go to a local post for a parody. account she created to make fun of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. She declined to be named due to concerns about retaliation.

In an audio recording she also provided, police told her via her father’s phone that they knew her account was being used from Australia. His distraught father asked him to listen to the police.

Three weeks later, they summoned him again. This time, calling her via video chat, they told her to report to the train station when she returned to China and asked her how long her Australian visa was valid for. Fearfully, she denied owning the Twitter account, but videotaped the call and maintained the account. A few months later, Twitter suspended him.

After a Times investigation, Twitter restored the account without explaining why it had been deleted.

The consequences can be abrupt. When a Chinese student living in Taiwan criticized China this year, he said, both of his parents disappeared for 10 days. His social media accounts in China were also immediately shut down.

The student, who declined to be named for fear of further reprisals, said he still did not know what happened to his parents. He doesn’t dare ask because they told him that the local security forces are watching them.

“Those who live abroad are also very afraid,” said Eric Liu, censorship analyst at China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese Internet controls. He said Chinese users on Twitter were becoming increasingly cautious, and many had set their accounts private out of fear. Mr. Liu’s account is public, but it filters new followers, looking for Chinese security officials who could monitor him.

For Ms. Chen, the police harassment continued even after she moved to Europe this fall for her graduate studies. She struggled with feelings of shame and helplessness as she weighed the importance of expressing her political views against the risks it now entails. This caused a breakdown in her relationship with her mother, who was adamant that she change her ways.

Ms. Chen said that as long as she had a Chinese passport, she would worry about her safety.

As a youngster with little work experience and less influence, she said it was frustrating to have her voice taken away: “I feel weak, like there is no way for me. to show my strength, no way to do anything for others.

Despite this, she said she would continue to post, but with more caution.

“Even though it’s still dangerous, I have to take it step by step,” she said. “I cannot continue to censor myself. I have to stop curling up.

A Digital Manhunt: How Chinese Police Track Critics on Twitter and Facebook appeared first on the New York Times.


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