China Boosts Surveillance

Authorities in China introduce new measures to crack down on dissent.
2010-09-02
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A Chinese paramilitary policeman watches Tiananmen Square in Beijing, March 4, 2010.
AFP

HONG KONG—Chinese netizens have reacted with shock and anger to online reports detailing a nationwide plan to step up surveillance of people the government considers a risk to social stability.

Meanwhile, authorities began this week to implement a new registration process requiring cell phone users to present identification when purchasing new phones.

Zhejiang-based blogger Guo Weidong, known online by his nickname "Daxa," said he recently caught a glimpse of an official screen displaying his name on a dissident watchlist after he swiped his second-generation national identity card at a railway station.

"I swiped my card that afternoon, and I discovered that there was a reference to the social stability system at the bottom," Guo said. "I asked what stability protection meant, and was told that it had to do with having a file at the local police station."

Next to the words "stability protection" on the screen was the name of a contact at his local police station together with a cell phone number, presumably belonging to an officer responsible for watching him, said Guo, who frequently posts material on social media that is critical of China's ruling Communist Party.

China is home to more than 400 million Web users and more than 50 million bloggers, all of whom are frequently subjected to censorship by their Internet service providers.

Guo wrote about his experience on the microblogging service Twitter, which is blocked in China to those unfamiliar with the technology needed to get around government filters, known collectively as the "Great Firewall."

Netizens responded by comparing the security measures to measures described in George Orwell's classic novel 1984 and to the blacklist kept by the Stasi secret police in the former East Germany.

Stability regime

On Monday, Chinese social media also circulated a document detailing a nationwide "stability protection" regime linked by computer, and ranking people considered threats to social order into grades A, B, or C.

According to the document, posted originally on the website of Chunxiao township in the eastern city of Ningbo, authorities have already used the system to block petitioners and rights activists attempting to travel to Shanghai to stage protests during the World Expo.

'A' grade security threats are put under 24-hour surveillance by local police stations supervised by a central management office, the document states, while 'B' grade threats are watched by informants in their hometowns.

'C' grade threats are asked to sign guarantee letters of good behavior and are required to register with police if they leave town.

An official who answered the phone at the Chunxiao township government denied the document exists.

"No, there's no such thing," the official said, before hanging up the phone.

Half an hour after the phone call, the document was no longer visible on the government website, with only a blank page at the same address.

Shanghai-based rights activist Feng Zhenghu said the document was probably posted online by accident by local officials unaware of the need for secrecy.

Cell phone registration

Meanwhile, new rules taking effect this week state that Chinese people must use their personal identification to register for new cell phone service, according to a statement issued by China's Ministry of Information Industry (MII).

Government officials say the new system will reduce the number of spam messages being sent to Chinese cell phone users. But Hubei-based online commentator Liu Yiming said he doubts this was the real reason for the move.

"It's really to stop text messages with sensitive content from being passed around from person to person," Liu said.

According to the MII statement, the real-name registration system for mobile phones will take effect from this Wednesday.

"Any customer wishing to buy a SIM card from a kiosk will have to take their national identity card with them to do this," the ministry said in a statement.

A second phase, requiring existing cell phone customers to re-register with their ID cards will take three years to implement across the country, the ministry said.

Beijing Technical University professor Hu Xingdou said that authorities should beware of infringing people's personal rights and freedoms.

"In China, this is being implemented for reasons of so-called national security and social stability," Hu said. "It's not because of junk messaging."

Hu said citizens' rights are more important than social stability or national security.

"We will only see true social stability when we start to respect [them], and I think China really needs to pay special attention to this issue," Hu said.

Blogs targeted

Chinese authorities are also pressuring Internet service providers into censoring the online postings of well-known activists, sources said.

Internet giants Sina, Sohu, and NetEase have already agreed to appoint censorship czars charged with weeding out pornography and violent and politically sensitive material, local media reported.

Censors will also be responsible for monitoring the content of news articles from online media.

Zhang Tieniu, a social media activist based in the southeastern province of Fujian, filed a lawsuit Aug. 27 against one of China's  biggest Internet service providers for deleting his blog.

"This is an action which violates the rights of citizens," said Zhang, whose online nickname is "Chemo.”

"They have also blocked off access to the hearts and minds of a lot of Chinese netizens."

Zhang said that the blogs of prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and activists Liu Xiaoyuan and Si Ning, among many others, have also been blocked.

The relative speed of the Sina.com microblogging servers had attracted a lot of users to the site, he said.

"But Sina is a second Xinhua," he said, referring to China's state-controlled news service.

"It is the second main Web portal of the Chinese Communist Party, so I am taking individual legal action against them," Zhang added.

Zhang said that before his blog was deleted, he had published more than 350 articles online and had provided more than 2,000 links to friends' sites and videos.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu and Ding Xiao and in Cantonese by Lin Jing. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie and Joshua Lipes.