A Digital Manhunt: How Chinese Police Track Critics on Twitter and Facebook

Security forces in China are taking a risk by broadening their mandate beyond their traditional emphasis on Chinese institutions and the most prominent international dissidents. Now, even quoting “I stand with Hong Kong” on Twitter can result in fast repercussions, as seen by the case of 23-year-old Ms. Chen.

According to an online database, the number of people being punished in China for speaking out on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook has risen since the beginning of 2019. However, information is limited in China and hence, the database was produced by an unnamed activist based on publicly available judgements, police notifications, and press stories.

According to Yaxue Cao, editor of ChinaChange.org, a website dedicated to civil society and human rights issues in China, “the net has undoubtedly been cast wider internationally over the last year or so.” They want to further entrench the already common practise of Chinese citizens on global social media of self-censorship, which she compared to a lawnmower that is too aggressively mowing down the grass of dissent.

According to her, “they take down the most vocal objects” – those that appear to be spindly and towering. After a few moments, they see that the higher grass is no longer covering the lower.” Their response is to mow them down once more because ‘Oh these are problematic too.'”

According to publicly available procurement records, police manuals, and a government contractor, Chinese security agencies are bringing fresh technical skills and funding to the process.

A grading system was implemented by the authorities in Gansu province in western China in 2020 when they were looking for companies to help monitor worldwide social media. Twitter accounts, including their tweets and following lists, were a factor in the evaluation of a corporation. Shanghai police offered a technology firm $1,500 for each probe into a foreign account, according to a procurement document from May.