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A digital manhunt: how Chinese police track critics on Twitter and Facebook

While living in China, she retweeted news and videos, and
occasionally made comments censored on Chinese platforms, like voicing her
support for Hong Kong’s protesters and her solidarity with minorities who have
been interned.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough for the authorities to go
after her. The police knocked on her parents’ door when she was visiting. She
said they had summoned her to the station, questioned her and then commanded
her to delete her Twitter posts and account. They continued to track her when
she went overseas to study, calling her and her mother to ask if Chen had
recently visited any human rights websites.

The Chinese government, which has built an extensive digital
infrastructure and security apparatus to control dissent on its own platforms,
is going to even greater lengths to extend its internet dragnet to unmask and
silence those who criticise the country on Twitter, Facebook and other
international social media.

These new investigations, targeting sites blocked inside
China, are relying on sophisticated technological methods to expand the reach
of Chinese authorities and the list of targets, according to a New York Times
examination of government procurement documents and legal records, as well as
interviews with one government contractor and six people pressured by the
police.

To hunt people, security forces use advanced investigation
software, public records and databases to find all their personal information
and international social media presence. The operations sometimes target those
living beyond China’s borders. Police officers are pursuing dissidents and
minor critics like Chen, as well as Chinese people living overseas and even
citizens of other nations.

The digital manhunt represents the punitive side of the
government’s vast campaign to counter negative portrayals of China. In recent
years, the Communist Party has raised bot armies, deployed diplomats and
marshaled influencers to push its narratives and drown out criticism. The
police have taken it a step further, hounding and silencing those who dare to
talk back.

With growing frequency, the authorities are harassing
critics both inside and outside China, as well as threatening relatives, in an
effort to get them to delete content deemed criminal. One video recording,
provided by a Chinese student living in Australia, showed how the police in her
hometown had summoned her father, called her with his phone and pushed her to
remove her Twitter account.

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The new tactics raise questions about the spread of powerful
investigative software and bustling data markets that can make it easy to track
even the most cautious social media user on international platforms. US
regulators have repeatedly blocked Chinese deals to acquire American technology
companies over 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 daring
expansion of a remit that previously focused on Chinese platforms and the
best-known overseas dissidents. Now, violations as simple as a post of a
critical article on Twitter — or in the case of 23-year-old Chen, quoting, “I
stand with Hong Kong” — can bring swift repercussions.

Actions against people for 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 news reports,
although information is limited in China.

“The net has definitely been cast wider overseas during the
past year or so,” said Yaxue Cao, editor of ChinaChange.org, a website that
covers civil society and human rights. The goal is to encourage already
widespread self-censorship among Chinese people on global social media, she
said, likening the purging of critics to an overactive lawn mower.

“They cut down the things that look spindly and tall — the
most outspoken,” she said. “Then they look around, the taller pieces of grass
no longer cover the lower ones. They say, ‘Oh these are problematic too, let’s
mow them down again.’”

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

In 2020, when the police in the western province of Gansu
sought companies to help monitor international social media, they laid out a
grading system. One criterion included a company’s ability to analyse Twitter
accounts, including tweets and lists of followers. The police in Shanghai
offered $1,500 to a technology firm for each investigation into an overseas
account, according to a May procurement document.

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

A Chinese police manual and examination for online security
professionals detailed and ranked the types of speech crimes that investigators
seek out, labelling them with a one, two or three depending on the severity of
the violation. One denotes criticism of top leadership or plans to politically
organise or protest; two includes the promotion of liberal ideology and attacks
on the government; and three, the least urgent, refers to content ranging from
libel to pornography. The manual specifically called for monitoring activity on
foreign websites.

The contractor said he used the rankings to classify
infractions on dossiers he submitted to his bosses in China’s security
apparatus. In a sample document reviewed by The Times, he listed key details
about each person he looked into, including personal and career information and
professional and family connections to China, as well as a statistical analysis
of the reach of the person’s account. His approach was corroborated by
procurement documents and guides for online security workers.

Over the past year, he said, he had been assigned to
investigate a mix of Chinese undergraduates studying in the United States, a
Chinese American policy analyst who is a US citizen and journalists who previously
worked in China.

Those caught up in the dragnet are often baffled at how the
authorities linked them to anonymous social media accounts on international
platforms.

The Chinese student in Australia, who provided the video
recording from her police questioning, recalled the terror she had felt when
she first received a call from her father in China in spring 2020. The police
told him to go to a local station over a parody account she had created to mock
China’s leader, Xi Jinping. She declined to be named over concerns about
reprisals.

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

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Three weeks later, they summoned him again. This time,
calling her via video chat, they told her to report to the station when she
returned to China and asked how much longer her Australian visa was valid.
Fearful, she denied owning the Twitter account but filmed the call and kept the
account up. A few months later, Twitter suspended it.

After an inquiry from The Times, Twitter restored the
account without explaining why it had taken it down.

Consequences can be steep. When a Chinese student living in
Taiwan criticised China this year, he said, both of his parents disappeared for
10 days. His social media accounts within China were also shut down.

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

“Those who live abroad are also very scared,” said Eric Liu,
a censorship analyst at China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese
internet controls. He said that Chinese users on Twitter were becoming
increasingly careful.

For Chen, the police harassment has continued even after she
moved to Europe this fall for graduate school. She has struggled with feelings
of shame and powerlessness as she has weighed the importance of expressing her
political views against the risks that now entails. It has driven a rift in her
relationship with her mother, who was adamant that she change her ways.

Chen said that as long as she held a Chinese passport she
would worry about her safety. As a young person with little work experience and
less influence, she said it was frustrating to have her voice taken away: “I
feel weak, like there’s no way for me to show my strength, no way to do
something for others.”

Even so, she said she would continue to post, albeit with
more caution.

“Even though it is still dangerous, I have to move forward
step by step,” she said. “I can’t just keep censoring myself. I have to stop
cowering.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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