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‘It’s game over’: How China used its technotyranny to crush dissent

People gather on a street in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, where protests against China's zero-Covid policy took place the night before following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. - HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP
People gather on a street in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, where protests against China's zero-Covid policy took place the night before following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. - HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP

Many of the protesters were understandably oblique. Some held up blank sheets of paper. Others displayed an exclamation mark on a red background - the symbol of a message that can’t be delivered on WeChat, China’s main messaging platform. One woman brought a pair of alpacas, the physical manifestation of an online meme based on the Mandarin for “grass mud horse” – cào nǐ mā – sounding like an insult that urges the subject to perform an unspeakable act on their mother.

But a few brave protesters were more direct. When police told those gathered in Beijing not to complain about lockdown, the crowd deployed sarcasm to demand more frequent Covid tests. Some even dared to chant slogans specifically denouncing the Chinese Communist Party and calling for President Xi Jinping himself to go. They will have done so in the full and certain knowledge that they were being watched and recorded by the state’s hyper-sophisticated surveillance apparatus and in all likelihood had already been identified by the authorities.

The spark for the wave of protests that has swept across China in recent days was a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi in the far-western province of Xinjiang on November 24 that killed ten people. Many blamed the government’s strict zero Covid policies for hampering the response of fire services in tackling a blaze and adding to the death toll. By last weekend the protests had spread across the country, with thousands gathering in Beijing, Shanghai, Urumqi and other major cities.

Protests in China are not quite as rare as one might perhaps assume. Between May this year and November 22, before the latest wave of dissent, there were 822 protests around the country, according to China Dissent Monitor, a database run by the US think tank Freedom House. But most have been small-scale, isolated and focused on important but tangential issues such as frustrations around the country’s struggling property sector. The latest protests have been much larger, more widespread and taken aim directly at the heart of the government and its signature policies.

Sam Olsen, the head of the Evenstar Institute, a strategic intelligence and political risk firm focused on China, says that “every dynasty” in Chinese history has been plagued by unrest. The difference with the latest demonstrations is that they have been nationwide and, in common with the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the authorities haven’t been able to keep them under wraps.

They have also simultaneously occurred on the ground and in cyberspace. Reports suggest there have been so many posts about the protests on WeChat that censors have at times been overwhelmed.

The onset of Covid meant that the Chinese population, in common with those in other countries around the world, was initially prepared to tolerate even greater curtailment of their freedoms in order to combat the virus. Drivers still have to scan a code held up by a drone in order to enter cities; once inside everyone must produce their phones at the many checkpoints and display a green QR code.

A man shows his health check QR code as he and others line up to get their routine COVID-19 throat swabs at a coronavirus testing site in Beijing, Thursday, Nov. 24, - Andy Wong/AP
A man shows his health check QR code as he and others line up to get their routine COVID-19 throat swabs at a coronavirus testing site in Beijing, Thursday, Nov. 24, - Andy Wong/AP

However, acceptance of this way of life is waning as the pandemic drags into a fourth year. Residents in Chengdu, a city of 22m people, were barred from leaving their flats in September even when an earthquake hit. Many people are upset they have been unable to earn a living even as the price of food spirals. This was all tolerable while the virus was kept under control perhaps. But now Covid is spreading and the death toll is rising.

“Despite their relatively small size, it is notable that protests and expressions of dissent are happening both online and offline, and in very different parts of the country,” says Katja Drinhausen of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

"While protesters mainly raise livelihood issues, they also target a key policy adopted by the central government [zero Covid] and in some cases systemic issues, such as lack of respect for freedom of expression, rule of law and individual human rights.”

Back in 2011 the Arab Spring was spreading fast through the Middle East and North Africa and social media was thought to be fanning the flames of democracy. The still nascent technology helped demonstrators to organise and bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information to broadcast their messages to the world. The names of Twitter and Facebook were written on placards and daubed on walls by protesters.

At one point the Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak cut off internet and mobile phone service in the country in order to try and regain control. The move backfired, focusing global attention on what was happening.

But the great hope that the internet and new technology would help protesters shake off authoritarian shackles proved to be short lived. When Mubarak fell and a military council replaced him, it opened a Facebook page as the main outlet for its communiqués. When Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in 2019, the crowds chanted ‘Facebook! Facebook! WhatsApp! WhatsApp!’ at his inauguration, such was the perceived importance of social media in sweeping the right-wing populist to power.

As the Chinese government faces its toughest political test since 1989 there are fresh questions over whether technology can be a means for protesters to circumvent state control or the boot heel under which the government will crush dissent. The Chinese population has arguably never been so angry about being watched and living in an “invisible cage” but, equally, it has never been watched more closely.

Olsen says the comparison between the Arab Spring and the China protests is “chalk and cheese”. The former was conducted on Western social media platforms and encouraged by external powers. Neither is true in China. Drinhausen points out that the initial reaction by police forces in China has been relatively restrained. “But now that the police have dispersed protests, the party state will likely use everything at their disposal to contain and prevent further outbreak and spread of protest activities. After all, this is a scenario for which they have long been preparing.”

That could be considered something of an understatement.

The finger of suspicion

Surveillance is nothing new in China. Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet, likened the dossiers the Chinese Communist Party compiled on individuals in the Mao era to “an invisible monster stalking you”. At the turn of the century, the US academic Perry Link described the Party’s ability to keep people in line to “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier” – it didn’t necessarily have to do very much for one to be acutely aware of its presence, its gaze or its capacity to inflict harm.

A member of the People's Armed Police wearing a protective mask stands guard under surveillance cameras on the outer perimeter of Tienanmen Square in Beijing, China, on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. - Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
A member of the People's Armed Police wearing a protective mask stands guard under surveillance cameras on the outer perimeter of Tienanmen Square in Beijing, China, on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. - Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

The Chinese government first proposed a national information system as far back as 1990. This included the Golden Shield Programme, which grew into what is now referred to outside the country as the Great Firewall of China, blocking the population from visiting sites hosted outside the country. This initiative leaned heavily on technology made in the US and Canada. Part of the reason why the government put so much emphasis on developing a domestic tech industry was to develop its own surveillance capability.

As China’s economy grew at breakneck speed in the early part of the century it appeared as if the CCP was loosening its iron grip and society was becoming more open and westernised. However, since Xi Jinping took over the reins of power in 2012, the economic growth has slowed and the government has reasserted its control.

In 2014, Xi declared that there was “no national security without cybersecurity”. In October, the Chinese leader secured an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the CCP.

The government spent 1.24 trillion yuan on domestic security in 2017 – 6.1pc of total spending and more than it lavished on the military. That figure is widely believed to have spiralled in recent years and gone parabolic during the pandemic. The most visible evidence of this is the plethora of closed-circuit television cameras, clumped like strings of over-sized mussels shells at strategic points.

Eight out of ten of the most surveilled cities in the world are in China. There are no blind spots; a number of cities, including Beijing, are thought to be 100pc covered by CCTV cameras.

There were estimated to be around one billion surveillance cameras around the world at the end of last year, according to a report by IHS Markit. Of these, over half are in China. With a population of 1.46 billion, according to the most recent UN estimate, this means there are 372.8 cameras for every 1,000 people in China. In London, by comparison, the figure is 13.4 cameras for every 1,000 people.

Then there are the nearly two million highly-visible police officers bristling with high-tech surveillance gadgets, sometimes referred to as “black tech”. Earlier this year, the New York Times published the results of a year-long investigation into more than one hundred thousand Chinese government procurement documents. These showed that some police officers are equipped with glasses housing facial recognition cameras and armed with WiFi sniffers and IMSI catchers that glean information from nearby phones and track their owners.

Police will also stop people in the street and plug their phones into data-ripping devices that extract contact lists, photos, videos, emails and social media posts. The latest versions of phones are harder to crack. But policemen can simply demand citizens unlock them; it’s considered extremely unwise to refuse.

The authorities are particularly on the lookout for encrypted foreign apps like Signal. Even downloading such tools invites suspicion.

The hardware is, however, only the tip of the surveillance sword. The artist Ai Weiwei recently wrote: “The government now has a system that Mao Zedong could only have dreamed of, powered by data and algorithms, to monitor and control people.”

The Chinese police use facial recognition technology and have the ability to track everyone in a crowd. There is no safety in numbers. A number of companies claim they can identify people even when they are wearing a mask.

Many CCTV cameras are fitted devices that can record audio in a 300-ft radius and have the ability to analyse voice prints. The government is attempting to build “multi-modal” biometric portraits of individuals, including iris scans and DNA, and roping in private companies in the effort.

For example, iFlyTek, which produces around 80pc of all speech recognition software in China and has around 900m users, has a contract with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to collect voice pattern samples, according to Human Rights Watch. Megvii, one of the largest surveillance contractors in China, is looking to build software to collate information about gait, clothing, mobile devices and social connections.

Police in Tianjin recently bought software developed by Hikvision, the makers of the camera that caught Matt Hancock embracing an aide, which collects data on “petitioners”, those who have been foolish enough or desperate enough to file official complaints, and assess the likelihood they will travel to city centres or the capital. Some have in the past been stopped at the railway even before they have bought tickets to where they were planning to protest.

Then there is the sheer manpower. There were over two million online content monitors employed in China by private companies and the government in 2013, according to a report at the time by state media outlet Beijing News. That number is widely assumed to have grown sharply in recent years. Throughout the pandemic the state has been able to employ legions of people to man checkpoints armed with clipboards and thermometer guns.

There are also plenty of old-fashioned informants. Developing this network is said to be one of the reasons why the government is attempting to revive the Communist Party’s grassroots.

Smoke and mirrors

The combination of hardware, manpower and billions of online transactions a day means the Chinese state has a huge potential treasure trove of data at its fingertips. Chinese people must register their phone number and national ID in order to access online services, including social media, which reduces anonymity. Chinese companies are forced by law to ensure compliance. Tech giants like Tencent and Alibaba now have access to far more information than their western rivals and share it with the government.

The aim of the Chinese Communist Party is not exclusively malevolent, argue Josh Chin and Liza Lin, the Wall Street Journal reporters who wrote Surveillance State, a nuanced book about China’s attempt to engineer a new era of social control. Given the right data and analytical tools, the CCP believes it will be able to predict threats and problems before they arise. Geolocation data can, for example, be used to ease traffic jams.

The issue is that the state is the final arbiter over what is deemed problematic. All governments around the world monitor their citizens to a certain extent; modern states would simply be unable to function if they didn’t. But democracies at least attempt to strike a balance by weighing the public good against civil liberties such as the right to privacy. In China there is no such debate.

However, the widely-held belief in an infallible, all-seeing and unblinking panopticon is probably an exaggeration. Some of the feats of surveillance reported in the state media and likely embellished. Many of the various databases in the country don’t talk to each other. The surveillance expert Jathan Sadowski coined the term “Potemkin AI” to refer to technology that is portrayed as being far smarter than it is. From the CCP’s point of view, having people believe you can predict their every move is almost as useful as actually being able to.

That said, the authorities are working hard to make the perception a reality. Recent data management programmes include Sharp Eyes, named after a policy designed to encourage citizens to spy on each other during the Cultural Revolution; the nation-wide Police Cloud; and Xinjian’s Integrated Joint Operations Platform. The last of these is by far the most intrusive. Designed to suppress the Uyghur population in the region, it combines a government-issued ID card containing a wide range of physical and biometric attributes with geolocation of the cards, mobile devices and vehicles.

The system will flag even quite mundane behaviours such as “excessive” electricity usages, downloading encrypted communication tools like WhatsApp, or the use of Virtual Private Networks. The latter are privacy tools that allow users to browse the internet undetected and circumvent firewalls. The streets of cities and towns in Xinjiang are dotted with “doors” that look like airport metal detectors and require people to verify their ID cards and pass facial recognition cameras.

Olsen says there is an old joke in China that if you are caught jaywalking (traversing the road at any point other than a designated crossing), you will be issued with a ticket before you get to the other side. But this gag may soon be out of date. Some of the technology has reached the level of sophistication that developers boast they can actually predict crimes. One presentation by Megvii, seen by the NYT, claims its software can analyse data to “dig out ordinary people who seem innocent” and “stifle illegal acts in the cradle”.

Over before it began

It is hard, when writing about Chinese surveillance, to resist reference to dystopian novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and sci-fi movies. The idea of solving crimes that haven’t yet been committed was the central premise of Minority Report, the Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Cruise based on a Philip K Dick short story. However, the best fictional comparison might be We, written by the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1921.

The novel is set in a crime-free city of the future. All the protagonists are known by an alphanumeric code (the main character is an engineer called D-503 who falls in love with a woman named I-330), are housed in glass apartments so they can be constantly monitored, and have their lives ruled by a mathematical equations calculated by a ruler known as the Benefactor.

China’s version of this system is called the social credit system. In 2018, the then US vice president Mike Pence said: “China’s rulers aim to implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling every facet of human life.” This is a slight exaggeration but not much of one. The term “social credit” has quite a broad meaning in China. The system initially focused on financial creditworthiness, similar to credit scores in other countries. But it has since broadened out to encompass a broader notion of “trust”.

It has been described as the most ambitious experiment in digital social control ever attempted. The system is designed to gather a plethora of data from government agencies and private companies in order to monitor, rate and regulate financial, social and even moral behaviour through a system of punishments and rewards.

Those that, for example, engage in charity work, gain points and are given easier access to bank loans or school places for their children. Those that commit traffic offences or fail to visit their elderly parents can lose points and have their access to public services restricted or be denied the right to book flights and high-speed train tickets.

Repeat transgressions can even lead to public shaming with black-listed citizens named online and on TV. It has even been suggested that, for example, “dishonest debtors” might be issued with a specific dial tone when they make phone calls so as to be more readily identifiable. It goes without saying that such a system could also be used to regulate political behaviour and potentially punish protesters and agitators.

In this photo taken on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, policemen pin down and arrest a protester during a protest on a street in Shanghai, China - Anonymous
In this photo taken on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, policemen pin down and arrest a protester during a protest on a street in Shanghai, China - Anonymous

The security apparatus is already closing in. Technology may have helped coordinate and amplify the protests but it is also being used to suppress them.

“Social media platforms have been severely censored,” says Drinhausen of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

“Public and state security organs will be scouring audio and video recordings of the protests both from state surveillance and online platforms to identify individuals to detain or threaten, as has already happened in some cases. We should expect continued repression of citizen action in the coming months.”

Twenty-first century high tech is being combined with more medieval techniques. Evenstar’s Olsen says the police are circulating rumours of prisoners being beaten while they are immobilised in metal “tiger chairs”.

He adds: “We may see a few more brave people protesting on the streets in the coming days but we know the authorities are starting to crack down. It’s already game over.”