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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Using social media to track out critics, the Chinese police are conducting a digital manhunt

When Jennifer Chen returned to her hometown in central China for the Lunar New Year celebrations last winter, she had no idea what Twitter was all about. She had around 100 followers on a Twitter account she thought to be anonymous at the time.

While residing in China, she used Twitter to share news and videos, and she sometimes posted remarks that were restricted on Chinese social media sites, such as expressing her support for Hong Kong’s demonstrators and her sympathy with ethnic minorities who had been detained.

Despite the fact that it was little, it was sufficient for the authorities to pursue her. When she was visiting her parents, the cops came to their house and demanded to be let in. She said that she had been brought to the station, interrogated, and then ordered to erase all of her Twitter tweets and her Twitter account. They followed her even after she left the country to pursue her studies abroad, phoning her and her mother to inquire if Ms. Chen had lately visited any human rights websites.

To unmask and silence those who criticise the Chinese government on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and other international social media, the Chinese government, which has developed a sophisticated digital infrastructure and security apparatus to control dissent on its own platforms, is going to even greater lengths to expand its internet dragnet.

According to a New York Times investigation of government procurement documents and legal records, as well as interviews with one government contractor and six people who had been pressured by the police, these new investigations, which are targeting sites that have been blocked within China, are relying on sophisticated technological methods to expand the reach of Chinese authorities and the list of targets.

Security forces employ complex investigative technologies, public records, and databases to track down individuals’ personal information as well as their worldwide social media presence in order to apprehend them. Some of the activities are directed towards those who live outside of China’s borders. The Chinese government is chasing dissidents and small critics such as Ms. Chen, as well as Chinese nationals residing in other countries and even residents of other countries.

In the government’s massive drive to refute bad depictions of China, the digital manhunt reflects the punitive side of the campaign. In recent years, the Communist Party has recruited bot armies, sent diplomats, and gathered a network of influencers in order to promote its narratives and drown out opposition. People who dare to speak out are being pursued by the police and silenced as a result of the police actions.

It is unclear if the new approaches will have an impact on the proliferation of strong investigative tools and thriving data markets, which may make it simple to trace even the most circumspect social media user across foreign networks. Chinese acquisitions of American technology businesses have been routinely rejected by U.S. officials because of the access to personal data that these companies give. In comparison, they have done considerably less to limit the ubiquitous availability of internet services that provide location data, social media records, and personal information, among other things.

In addition to bringing new technical expertise and funding to the process, Chinese security authorities, according to publicly available procurement documents, police manuals, and a government contractor who is working on international internet investigations, are bringing new resources to the table.

When the authorities in the western province of Gansu sought corporations to assist them in monitoring worldwide social media in 2020, they devised a grading system for them to follow. One criteria was a company’s capacity to examine Twitter accounts, including tweets and lists of followers, as part of the evaluation process. According to a May procurement document, the Shanghai police offered $1,500 to a technology company for each probe into an offshore account conducted by the department.

He described his assignment as following a combination of Chinese students studying in the United States, a Chinese American policy analyst who is a U.S. citizen, and journalists with prior experience in China throughout the course of the preceding year.

Ms. Chen has said that the police harassment has persisted even after she relocated to Europe last autumn to pursue doctoral studies. The significance of expressing her political beliefs versus the dangers that come with doing so has caused her to experience emotions of humiliation and impotence, and she has tried to overcome these sentiments. It has caused a split in her relationship with her mother, who has been vehement about her needing to make a change.

Despite the fact that she had a Chinese passport, Ms. Chen said that she was concerned about her personal safety. As a young person with little job experience and even less power, she expressed frustration at having her voice silenced: “I feel weak, as if there’s no way for me to demonstrate my strength, as if there’s no way for me to do anything to help other people.”

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