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China steps up online ‘clean-up,’ monitoring of ordinary citizens

Twitter on a computer screen (Andy Melton/Flickr)
November 19, 2018

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Beijing’s powerful Cyberspace Administration on Friday announced a nationwide “clean-up” operation targeting social media accounts, official media reported.

The move follows a crackdown on social media information providers last month, which saw sanctions handed out to 9,800 subscription-based information accounts on WeChat, Weibo or news portals such as Toutiao.

The CAC has summoned 10 social media platforms, including those run by Baidu, Tencent and Sina, requiring them to shut down accounts that spread pornography, “lewd content” or rumors, or those posting illegal advertisements, state news agency Xinhua reported.

The social media platforms were warned never to allow previously sanctioned account operators to open new accounts, or to continue spreading “illegal information,” it said.

“The administration will coordinate with other departments for closer supervision over social media platforms and harshly punish those severely violating the regulations,” the report quoted an administration official as saying.

Beijing-based artist Ji Feng said the authorities are mostly on the lookout for comments critical of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

“They got them all together and blamed them for turning a blind eye to online content that was inaccurate, anti-Communist Party or critical of the government,” Ji said. He said the move was part of a wider pattern aiming at total control of people, using a nationwide network of monitoring and surveillance.

The agency has also issued a directive requiring all internet service providers “possessing public commenting or mobilization capabilities” to submit a security assessment, including user data, to the authorities starting Nov. 30.

‘The Chaoyang Masses’

Meanwhile, police in Beijing have set up a social media account to take clues and tipoffs from the general public using a phrase referencing ordinary citizen informers that has acquired meme-like status on the country’s closely monitored internet.

“The Chaoyang Masses are filled with a a sense of justice and responsibility, and their main concern is gathering clues about those who break the law,” according to the app’s launch statement posted to the social media platform WeChat this week.

“They dare to fight against anyone or anything that violates public or private personal rights or property, and they have to be good at it,” the account description reads.

“You can notify the police of clues via the Chaoyang Masses app or by tagging the Chaoyang Masses WeChat account,” it said. “We look forward to your participation in the building of a safe and secure society.”

Ji Feng said the Chaoyang Masses are seen as local neighborhood informers in a nationwide network reporting to the authorities.

“The Chaoyang Masses has been around for a while, but now they have raised its profile by giving it a WeChat account,” Ji said.

“They want to use it to stamp out social tensions of any kind, and turn it into a a special force that can be brought into the nationwide monitoring network.”

The “Chaoyang Masses” meme appeared in the state-run online newspaper The Paper in March 2015, which ran a humorous column about citizen volunteers, some of whom were elderly women practicing tai chi in public spaces, contributing to a celebrity drugs bust.

The meme also drew on the mass-recruitment of citizen security patrols in the Chinese government’s “war on terror” in the wake of a string of violent attacks in Kunming, Guangzhou, Urumqi, and on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

By the end of 2017, the ranks of such volunteers had swelled to some 140,000 mostly retired senior citizens with a brief to report anything “suspicious” in their neighborhoods.

They have been credited by state media with providing thousands of valuable tip-offs in crimes ranging from bicycle theft to drug use.

‘Everyone will be recruited’

Wang Longmeng, a political commentator currently living in France, said the government is now approaching an era of total surveillance of the population.

“[The Chaoyang Masses] are the most fundamental and direct form of the grassroots control of the population, through grassroots structures,” Wang said. “This kind of management is KGB-style.”

“The Chaoyang Masses phenomenon is an advanced melange of cutting-edge technology and evil intent,” he said.

“Once these networks are in place, then we’ll have a situation that is far worse than that depicted in The Lives of Others,” Wang said, referencing a 2006 movie about Stasi secret police eavesdropping on citizens’ lives in Soviet-controlled East Germany.

“In the future, everyone will be recruited to control and monitor everyone else,” he said.

Chinese citizens are already monitored by more than 20 million surveillance cameras as they go about their daily business in public places, according to a recent documentary by state broadcaster CCTV.

Now, artificial intelligence can identify and “tag” individual cars, cyclists, and pedestrians with distinguishing information that can be stored and searched for descriptions of wanted individuals.

The smart video tool correctly identifies the gender, age, and clothing descriptions of passersby, as well as distinguishing between motorized and non-motorized vehicles, recent media reports say.

The technology comes amid a growing trend towards using facial recognition as a secure form of ID, including to identify rail and airline passengers, physical and e-commerce customers, and missing persons cases.

Facial recognition technology is also being used in city subway systems, and in ride-sharing and robotic package delivery apps, airport and college dorm security, and social credit schemes, as well as to guard against jaywalkers.

Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Lee Wang-yam for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.