Chinese authorities use the latest technology to monitor dissent. Big Data is allowing WeChat and other social media to track every move of citizens.
As early as 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that a new, nationwide big data system called “Police Cloud” is being used to monitor and track so-called “key persons.”
In China, “key persons” are in effect blacklisted for monitoring, and often include dissidents, activists, members of The Church of Almighty God (CAG), and Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. As soon as a key person presents their ID card or does anything using a real-name system, they will be monitored, and could face an investigation at any time.
Zhang Jie is a member of the CAG. In 2012, she was arrested by the police for sharing the gospel and became a key person monitored by the government. She asked to speak anonymously in order to avoid retaliation by the authorities.
Ms. Zhang told Bitter Winter that, in mid-February, she boarded a train from out of town to return to the city where she lived. As the train started moving, a railway officer located the carriage she was in and questioned her.
The officer said, “I received an order from my superiors, saying that there is a CAG believer on the train. They told me to check on it.” Then the officer asked Ms. Zhang why she was traveling and whether she was out of town to share the gospel. Afterwards, the officer photographed her without permission.
The officer added, “The country has established a large database now. As soon as you present your ID card, all your personal information will be displayed. We can know your location regardless of where you are.”
Ms. Zhang wasn’t taken into custody this time. However, being interrogated by the police put her in an awkward situation and caused her to be humiliated in front of the other passengers.
Ms. Zhang said that everything requires using real-name systems and presenting one’s ID card – such as going online, staying at a hotel, buying a bus or train ticket or phone sim card. Now, no matter where she goes, she cannot evade the big data dragnet. It has become a tool to monitor Christians and attack dissidents.
Surveillance is not limited to the blacklisted “key persons.” Data from everyone’s online social media are tracked and monitored. Comments on “sensitive” topics are noticed by the government.
In China, the WeChat social network, developed by Tencent, is widely used and is an essential tool for people to socialize, communicate and make payment. On January 9, at the WeChat Open Class PRO 2019, the largest annual developers event for the social network, 2018 WeChat Annual Data Report was presented. The report offered a look at the big data gathered from WeChat users over the past year. The content included a series of records about the graphical “stickers” (similar to emoticons) used by different age groups of users, as well as their video-calling habits.
After seeing such detailed data, social media users began speculating that WeChat must have read the content of chats in order to determine user habits.
Tencent responded, saying that respecting and protecting user privacy is a principle to which WeChat has always adhered. According to Tencent, WeChat does not read or retain any user’s chat history. Chat content is only stored on users’ mobile phones, computers, and other terminal devices.
However, numerous reports document that WeChat conversations can become evidence against users in police investigations. In particular, close attention is paid to the speech of sensitive groups that the government believes may threaten the regime.
A retired veteran from eastern China’s Shandong Province revealed to Bitter Winter that he and his fellow veterans were interrogated by the police after posting remarks on WeChat in January this year. Li Guangming sent a message in a veterans’ WeChat group, saying that anyone who serves as a volunteer at an elderly home can receive a free sticker to put on their car.
Mr. Li and his fellow veterans had organized a charity event and were preparing to pay their respects to retired Red Army soldiers. The stickers were a symbol of this event. They were planning to affix the stickers to their cars when traveling to indicate that they are a service team.
Mr. Li received a phone call from the police immediately after sending the message. The officer demanded, “What organization are you with? Do you want to petition? Who is the [WeChat] group’s administrator?”
Afterward, the police questioned each of the veterans. The WeChat group administrator was also threatened and forced to dissolve the group.
“The police found me very quickly. They arrived at my home in two police cars, smashed my door, and blocked the alleyway. People in the village thought that I had broken the law,” said one veteran who received the sticker.
Another WeChat user, a Mr. Wang from Shandong’s Binzhou city, also suffered an encounter with the police after posting a message. Prior to the 18th meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Qingdao, in east China’s Shandong Province, he received a message in a WeChat group saying that “’Uncle Xi’ [Xi Jinping] had arrived in Shandong.” Mr. Wang replied, “Let those with grudges or who have been wronged take revenge.” That evening, officers from the municipal Public Security Bureau arrested him; he was held at a detention house for two weeks.
“I’ve deleted all the contact names in my cellphone now. I don’t dare to use WeChat anymore,” said Mr. Wang.
Wang has advice for his fellow citizens: “Don’t post things recklessly on social media. One sentence could get you arrested.” To this day, his family still fears for his safety.
(All the names in this article are pseudonyms.)
Reported by Li Mingxuan