Government Partners With Private Corporations To Monitor China’s Internet

New investigations by ChinaFile and The New York Times reveal the complexities of the vast and diffuse organs tasked by the Chinese state with understanding (and manipulating) online public opinion. The Great Firewall, the “Fifty Cent Party,” and CDT’s “Directives From the Ministry of Truth” are well known examples of the Chinese government’s efforts to control the internet. The investigations by ChinaFile and The Times show that public-private partnerships built on sophisticated software programs are the new frontier of internet control in China.

Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg’s ChinaFile investigation used government procurement documents to show that the CCP has outsourced online content moderation and analysis to private companies that specialize in identifying “public opinion”:

The Party hopes to harness the commercial sector’s advances in big data and machine learning to understand what Chinese citizens think, respond adequately to key concerns, and siphon away overly critical sentiment—all without members of the public seeing their compatriots’ complaints. The goal is to deliver a minimum standard of responsive governance while simultaneously preempting the very feedback that could help officials govern more effectively. For-profit companies are actively assisting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as it works to eliminate one of the main threats to its survival: how people feel about, and talk about, the power of the regime itself.

[…] The emergence of the public opinion service sector offers a glimpse of what techno-authoritarianism (an oft-cited but under-explained phrase) might actually look like in practice in China: the Party-state’s use of, and reliance on, private technology companies to manage the volatile interaction between ideas, speech, and society. [Source]

The ChinaFile report alleges that surveillance now involves the algorithmic monitoring of influential accounts and the deployment of software systems that are able to drown negative news in a deluge of likes by boosting comments that promote government-friendly narratives. Yet the report makes clear that China’s public opinion management systems are not run by a centrally directed monolith but rather a hodgepodge collection of government agencies hungry for the information that private companies claim to provide. Batke and Ohlberg explain:

Which Party or state institutions find themselves needing for-profit help to track what people are saying online? Propaganda departments—and their close cousins, online news centers and information centers—show up the most often among awarded bid notices, followed by notices from various public security organs. But beyond these obvious buyers, a truly motley set of agencies look for outside help to strengthen their Internet monitoring. Local courts and prosecutors’ offices, hospitals, tax offices, universities, land and resources bureaus, and even the Export-Import Bank of China all purchased public opinion monitoring systems of some type between 2007 and August 2020. These buyers are most interested in their own parochial concerns, namely, the public’s opinions of them and of the latest news relating to their work. The Institute of Information on Traditional Chinese Medicine at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, for example, wanted to conduct round-the-clock monitoring of information related to the safety of traditional Chinese medicine. In Lanzhou city in Gansu province, the Traffic Police sought “seamless 24-hour monitoring of the entire Internet” for online chatter mentioning their office. The Shenzhen General Border Inspection Station solicited a system that would scour Hong Kong and Taiwanese media for “negative public opinion” related to the station.

[…] Officials know they cannot control every single errant Internet post. “The government is targeting people based on their influence and based on the social space they are inhabiting,” says The London School of Economics’ Miller. “It has to prioritize because it has limited resources. . . Instead of focusing on 50,000 retweets, you can focus on the 500 people that have been retweeted a lot, and that’s the way of controlling the message.” The Huaqiao University School of Journalism and Communication, in soliciting bidders for a new “Overseas Chinese New Media Public Opinion Monitoring Service,” outlined its collection requirements for Weibo, Facebook, and Twitter: “analyze the distribution chain of news, discover public opinion tipping points and opinion leaders, and provide data about posts that have been transmitted multiple times.” A number of procurement notices evinced authorities’ interest in tracking certain individuals’ posts, including those of “opinion leaders.” The Beijing Federation of Trade Unions wanted 24-hour monitoring of particular netizens to “grasp the trend of how their speech disseminates.” This kind of tracking can happen in bulk, as with the Tianjin Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which hoped to watch “5,000 sensitive Weibo accounts.” [Source]

A Wuhan ophthalmologist’s coronavirus death in early February was a highly prominent test of this elaborate system. On December 30, 2019 Dr. Li Wenliang warned his hospital colleagues about a then-unknown virus circulating in Wuhan. He, along with seven other people who shared information about coronavirus, was then punished by local officials as a “rumormonger” and forced to sign an “Admonishment Notice.” Approximately one month later, he died after contracting the virus. The Chinese internet exploded with posts of grief and rage while government censors directed websites to “control the temperature” of the conversations surrounding his death. At The New York Times, Raymond Zhong, Paul Mozur, Jeff Kao, and Aaron Krolik documented how the Chinese government used its new censorship controls to shape public opinion on Dr. Li’s death and the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic:

[…] “China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated and supported by the state’s resources,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times. “It’s not just for deleting something. They also have a powerful apparatus to construct a narrative and aim it at any target with huge scale.”

[…] At the start of February, a high-level meeting led by Mr. Xi called for tighter management of digital media, and the [Cyberspace Administration of China]’s offices across the country swung into action. A directive in Zhejiang Province, whose capital is Hangzhou, said the agency should not only control the message within China, but also seek to “actively influence international opinion.”

Agency workers began receiving links to virus-related articles that they were to promote on local news aggregators and social media. Directives specified which links should be featured on news sites’ home screens, how many hours they should remain online and even which headlines should appear in boldface.

[…] Officials in one district reported that workers in their employ had posted online comments that were read more than 40,000 times, “effectively eliminating city residents’ panic.” Workers in another county boasted of their “severe crackdown” on what they called rumors: 16 people had been investigated by the police, 14 given warnings and two detained. One district said it had 1,500 “cybersoldiers” monitoring closed chat groups on WeChat, the popular social app. [Source]

While the ChinaFile and New York Times’ reports detail the monitoring of public social media postings, it is also believed that Chinese authorities surveil the contents of private messages sent online, especially those on the immensely popular application WeChat. Earlier this year, the United States government tried, and failed, to ban WeChat on national security grounds. Now, at The Wall Street Journal, Jing Yang has revealed that the Chinese government has used the content of private WeChat messages to silence critics:

Wang Shengsheng, a labor and women’s rights lawyer, said authorities were monitoring her WeChat and text messages earlier this year so they could gather evidence to thwart her legal career.

[…]“People always say that all of your communications on WeChat are out in the open. I never fully grasped what that meant until the recent incident,” she said. “Now I’m terrified.”

[…] One Beijing-based user who didn’t want to be named said he was taken in for questioning several days after his WeChat account was blocked for criticizing China’s foreign policy. During the two-hour interrogation, police officers held printouts of his WeChat chat logs and read out parts that were critical of the Chinese leadership. He was released after signing a pledge that he wouldn’t criticize the government again.

[…] “Chatting over WeChat is like writing a letter to your contact [and] giving it to WeChat to transport in a securely locked opaque box, which they take back to their office,” [Fergus Ryan, an analyst at ASPI, said.] Then they “open up the box, read your letter and modify/redact as they see fit, then put it in another secure, opaque-colored locked box and transport to your contact.” [Source]

Efforts to form public opinion and silence dissent extend beyond the PRC’s borders. Earlier this year the video communication company Zoom temporarily closed the accounts of Chinese activists who held online events commemorating the June 4, 1989 crackdown in Beijing. Last week the United States charged a Chinese Zoom employee with disrupting Tiananmen memorials after being directed to do so by Chinese authorities. At The New York Times, Nicole Hong reported on the Chinese government’s interference in private online events organized outside China’s borders:

[Xinjiang Jin] is accused of working with others to log into the video meetings under aliases using profile pictures that related to terrorism or child pornography. Afterward, Mr. Jin would report the meetings for violating terms of service, prosecutors said.

[…] Mr. Jin asked co-workers for user data from American servers, which he did not have direct access to, prosecutors said. It was not clear how much access Chinese government officials have obtained to the account information of Zoom users in the United States.

The spokesman for Zoom said the company’s internal investigation revealed that Mr. Jin shared individual user data with Chinese authorities. He shared the data for “fewer than 10 individual users” who were based outside China, the company said. [Source]


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