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Jailed WeChat user says Chinese police monitor overseas accounts too

WeChat (Sinchen.Lin/Flickr)
August 22, 2020

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

Authorities in the eastern province of Shandong detained a user of the social media platform WeChat after he sent content to a friend in the United States, providing fresh evidence that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is monitoring communications with WeChat users.

Gao Zhigang was taken away on Sept. 26, 2019 and initially held under criminal detention by police in his home district of Yingze in Shandong’s Taiyuan city, on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”

Following his release, Gao told RFA that he was detained on the basis of a single video clip he forwarded to his U.S.-based friend.

“After I was detained, I was held under administrative detention for 10 days, and they interrogated me,” he said. “Then, on the eighth day, I was transferred to the criminal detention center.”

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“Then there was a 10-month wait before I was sentenced for ‘picking quarrels and stirring up trouble’,” he said.

Gao’s 10-month sentence for “slander” of the government and public order charges included time already served, and he was recently released after being sentenced last December.

But the twist came when Gao viewed the evidence against him, and realized that it hadn’t come from his phone.

“The screenshots they provided weren’t mine, because I had deleted everything after sending it,” he said. “The recipient was also being monitored — by a different police station.”

“They are able to get into WeChat through a back door and target you.”

Forwarded to activist overseas

The video, which referenced a pro-democracy campaign called “Act Together,” had been forwarded to Geng Guanjun, a pro-democracy, human rights activist now living in the U.S.

The campaign followed public calls by overseas activist Li Yiping for Chinese people to take to the streets on May 1 to campaign for social justice.

The evidence against him included documents from China’s Cyberspace Administration and central propaganda department indicating that these departments directly monitor WeChat conversations.

Geng told RFA that he had never even clicked on the video clip.

Later, he learned that Gao was incommunicado, but didn’t find out why until after Gao’s release.

“The content of the indictment confirms that the Cyberspace Administration and propaganda department in China are monitoring WeChat users,” he said.

Repeated calls to the Yingze district police department rang unanswered during office hours. Calls to the Yingze district state prosecutor’s office also rang unanswered.

Attempts to contact the WeChat customer service number and the media office at WeChat’s parent company Tencent were also unsuccessful.

Jin Chun, a former big data engineer at Huawei’s Nanjing Research Institute, meanwhile recently told reporters that all Chinese communications companies and internet service providers companies are required to monitor users on behalf of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Faced with an official request for data, no company will resist, because they would cease to operate, he said.

Growing concerns

Concerns are growing over overseas censorship and surveillance via Tencent’s WeChat social media app, with the U.S. banning business with its parent entity, and rights activists describing it as a “prison” that keeps users within reach of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s censors and law enforcement operations far beyond China’s borders.

Launched by Tencent in 2011, WeChat now has more than 1.1 billion users, second only to WhatsApp and Facebook, but the company keeps users behind China’s complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall, even when they are physically in another country.

The app is also used by China’s state security police to carry out surveillance and harassment of dissidents and activists in exile who speak out about human rights abuses in the country, or campaign for democratic reform.

In May 2020, researchers at CitizenLab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, warned that anyone using WeChat, even if they have lived their whole lives outside China, is “subject to pervasive content surveillance that was previously thought to be exclusively reserved for China-registered accounts.”

Documents and images transmitted entirely among non-China-registered accounts undergo content surveillance wherein these files are analyzed for content that is politically sensitive in China, the report, titled “We Chat, They Watch,” said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has already issued a ban on U.S. transactions with Tencent and ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of video-sharing app TikTok, citing a security threat posed by the transfer of data belonging to U.S. citizens to China.

The order also highlighted reports that the app censors content China deems politically sensitive, including protests over issues of autonomy in Hong Kong and Beijing’s abuses of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and said it could be used to spread disinformation to benefit the CCP.