This Article is From Jan 06, 2023

China Subjected Covid Protesters To Intense Surveillance, Interrogation

Some protesters from Beijing and Shanghai had mentioned that they had to face heightened digital surveillance.

China Subjected Covid Protesters To Intense Surveillance, Interrogation

Protests erupted in China after an apartment fire killed a number of people in lockdown. (File)


The Chinese protesters who demonstrated against the zero-Covid policy were subjected to intense surveillance measures and aggressive interrogations in police custody, reported Cate Cadell and Christian Shepherd in The Washington Post.

Even though China revoked its Zero Covid Policy following the protests, China unleashed its police equipped with the latest technology to go after people who had participated in the protests. Dozens of people who took part in the protests have paid heavily for the dissent.

Some protesters from Beijing and Shanghai had mentioned that they had to face heightened digital surveillance, strip searches, threats to their families and physical duress during these interrogations by the Chinese police for participating in the protests, said Cadell and Shepherd.

It is not exactly clear how the exact tracing of the protestors was possible for the protests but insights from lawyers, analysts, protesters and police purchasing documents offer some hints at the types of tools used. The Washington Post report mentions one theory although it is difficult to prove that the police used cell signal towers to pull all phone numbers from locations where crowds gathered and then deployed officers en masse to work through the list.

"[The police] seem to have used some modern technology, network technology, and they have collected a data pool of phone numbers of all the people involved in the incident," the Washing Post quoted a lawyer having direct knowledge of protestors' case.

In the same report Washington Post claims that a month before the protests began in Beijing, the city's Ministry of Public Security issued a procurement for a 580,000-yuan (USD 84,000) data surveillance project combining human analysts and automated scraping tools to undertake 24-hour screening of domestic and overseas news and social media accounts discussing issues that could snowball into dissent in China.

Doa, a 28-year-old tech worker from Beijing, detained after a protest against Zero covid said "The virus is no longer the enemy, the health officials and quarantine are not the enemy ... now only the people who protest are the enemy,". The Washington Post report further mentions that the people who had offered their statements about the police interactions used nicknames or spoke on the clause of anonymity because of the sensitive matter.

In the Washington Post report by Cadell and Shepherd, Doa said that she and a friend were at a protest held on November 28 at midnight near a Liangmahe bridge in Chaoyang district for just half an hour keeping a low profile and avoiding being filed and any interactions with the police. Two days later, her mother was contacted, telling her that Doa had participated in "illegal riots" and would soon be detained. Further, the police called Doa summoning them to a police station in Northern Beijing. She was further exposed to a nine-hour interrogation.

There is no official figure on the number of people detained following the protests, and the Chinese government has not directly acknowledged arrests even occurred, according to the Cadell and Shepherd report.

The report further mentions about a 2018 policy that was designed by the administration requiring internet companies to make regular detailed reports on trends that "mobilize" public sentiment or cause "major changes in public opinion." Under the rule, companies must provide detailed information on individual users, including their real names, location and chat logs.

Supporting such a technology-influenced system of tracing is a system of cities filled with hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras under an ambitious program called Sharp Eyes that set a goal of covering the entire population by 2020. It includes facial recognition cameras designed to automatically identify pedestrians and drivers and compare them against national ID registries and blacklists.

In a different incident related six people were similarly arrested and exposed to stressful and physically demanding interrogations. "We were only allowed to stand and could not talk to each other. They didn't let us sleep, and if I did, they would knock on the door to wake me up," said one Shanghai man, 25, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of further repercussions.

The man said he saw others detained who were handcuffed and forced into a squatting position for around an hour after failing to comply. He said officers punished them in the station by making them do squat exercises and copy hand pages of political documents from the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

"The purpose [of questioning] was to find out who planned it; they thought it was the separatists or foreign forces," he said. The officers taunted men in the group with long hair, calling them gay, he added. "They would also call us traitors and running dogs and tell us to get the hell out of China.".

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)