When Chen picked up his phone to vent his anger at getting a parking ticket, his message on WeChat was a drop in the ocean of daily posts on China’s biggest social network.
However, soon after his tirade against “simple-minded” traffic cops in June, he found himself in the tentacles of the communist country’s omniscient surveillance apparatus.
Chen quickly deleted the post, but officers tracked him down and detained him within hours, accusing him of “insulting the police.”
He was locked up for five days for “inappropriate speech.”
His case — one of the thousands logged by a dissident and reported by local media — laid bare the pervasive monitoring that characterizes life in China.
Since Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) took power in 2012, he has reined in the relatively freewheeling social currents of the turn of the century, using a combination of technology, law and ideology to squeeze dissent and preempt threats to his rule.
Ostensibly targeting criminals and aimed at protecting order, social controls have been turned against dissidents, activists and religious minorities, as well as ordinary people — such as Chen — judged to have crossed the line.
Research company Comparitech estimates the average Chinese city has more than 370 security cameras per 1,000 people — making them the most surveilled places in the world — compared with London’s 13 or Singapore’s 18 per 1,000 people. The nationwide “Skynet” urban surveillance project has ballooned, with cameras capable of recognizing faces, clothing and age.
“We are being watched the whole time,” an environmental activist who declined to be named told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The Chinese Communist Party’s grip is most stark in the far-western region of Xinjiang, where facial recognition and DNA collection have been deployed on Muslim minorities in the name of counterterrorism. The COVID-19 pandemic has turbocharged China’s monitoring, with citizens now tracked on their smartphones via an app that determines where they can go based on green, yellow or red codes.
Regulations rolled out since 2012 closed loopholes that allowed people to purchase SIM cards without giving their names, and mandated government identification for tickets on virtually all forms of transport.
Wang, a Chinese dissident speaking to AFP under a pseudonym due to safety concerns, recalled a time before Xi when censors were not all-knowing and “telling jokes about [former Chinese president] Jiang Zemin (江澤民) on the Internet was actually very popular.”
However, the Chinese Internet — behind the “Great Firewall” since the early 2000s — has become an increasingly policed space. Wang runs a Twitter account tracking thousands of cases of people detained, fined or punished for speech acts since 2013. Real-name verification systems and cooperation between police and social media platforms have seen people punished for a vast array of online offenses.
Platforms such as Sina Weibo employ thousands of content moderators to block politically sensitive keywords, such as tennis star Peng Shuai’s (彭帥) name after she accused a senior politician of sexual assault last year.
Many of the surveillance technologies in use have also been embraced in other countries.
“The real difference in China is the lack of independent media and civil society able to provide meaningful criticism of innovations, or to point out their many flaws,” Jeremy Daum, a fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, told AFP.
Xi has reshaped society, with the Chinese Communist Party stipulating what citizens “ought to know, to feel, to think, and say, and do,” professor emeritus of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Oxford Vivienne Shue told AFP.
Youngsters are kept away from foreign influences, with authorities banning international books and forbidding tutoring companies from hiring overseas teachers. Ideological policing has extended to fashion, with television stations censoring tattoos and earrings on men.
“What disturbs me more is not the censorship itself, but how it shaped the ideology of people,” Wang said, adding that “with dissenting information being eliminated, every Web site becomes a cult, where the government and leaders have to be worshiped.”
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